“Marguerite and Armand”/“The Dream”
The Australian Ballet
Sydney Opera House/Joan Sutherland Theatre
November 21, 2023 (livestream)
by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2023 by Ilona Landgraf
The last new program of the Australian Ballet’s 60th anniversary season was an all-in-one package. Its two Ashton ballets – “Marguerite and Armand” (1963) and “The Dream” (1964) – showcased the dancers’ prowess and satisfied the audience’s appetite for both the tragic and the comic while at the same time celebrating the company’s historic connection to the Royal Ballet. This connection has been of the most pleasant nature as became evident in the interview that the livestream’s presenter, Catherine Murphy, and the artistic director, David Hallberg, conducted with Berry Wordsworth. Wordsworth, the Royal Ballet’s former music director, joined the Opera Australia Orchestra to conduct the Ashton program. As he recalled Ashton’s creative passion and the friendship between Peggy van Praagh, the Australian Ballet’s founder, and her London counterpart, the Royal Ballet’s Dame Ninette de Valois, one could sense that the buoyant spirit of the good old days is still vibrant. Furthermore, warmth and good humor dominated the add-on program and included additional backstage interviews and videos.
The two most well-known ballet adaptions of Alexandre Dumas’s “Lady of the Camellias” are those by John Neumeier and Frederick Ashton. Neumeier’s adaption retells the story in full-evening fashion, whereas Ashton’s condenses it into a short, psychological chamber play. Cecil Beaton’s arena-like set (borrowed from the Sarasota Ballet) intensifies the formal character of its five scenes. It represents Marguerite and Armand’s safe refuge in the countryside as well as the narrow confines of mid-19th-century French social conventions. The artificial formality was gone the moment the lovers’ emotional rollercoaster ride from their happy love affair to a forced separation and tragic reunion gained momentum. Though Armand (Nathan Brook) seemed slightly insecure when he joined the party of admirers that were swarming around the courtesan Marguerite (Amy Harris), the rapture that fueled his movements quickly propelled her into his arms.
Her health was fragile, but his mere presence eased her suffering. In the middle of the couple’s whirl of bliss, the sudden arrival of Armand’s father (Steven Heathcote) cut like a cold knife through the romance. He demanded that Marguerite broke with Armand, and she had no choice but to comply. Deeply hurt, and unaware of his father’s interference, Armand searched for Marguerite, who in the meantime had resumed her life as a courtesan. Blinded by fury and disappointment, he humiliated her publicly. The decline of Marguerite’s health accelerated, and she was on her deathbed when Armand’s father changed course and reunited the lovers.
Harris, who said farewell to the stage later this week, was most haunting when her Marguerite was forced to abandon her genuine love. All strength seemed to leave her body; fondness, grief, the wish to stay, and despair mingled in her face, and yet she had to keep her composure. While during the clash with Armand, she reacted milliseconds too early, which made the confrontation look staged, her reunion with Armand in the very nick of time was heart-wrenching.
Whereas the company recently acquired “Marguerite and Armand”, “The Dream” was already in the its repertory. It’s a shortened version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a satire of romantic comedy dressed in fine Ashton style (i.e., intricate footwork, supple torsos, quicksilver pace, and a knack for slapstick). Let’s be clear right away, the company did fabulously. The flock of fairies bustling through the enchanted garden unified into fleeting patterns of beauty. Titania, their headstrong Queen (Ako Kondo), believed to call the shots, but was shown up by King Oberon (Chengwu Guo) with the help of his mischievous servant, Puck (Brett Chynoweth). A sprite in ebullient spirits, Puck cheekily pulled the strings while tirelessly bouncing across the stage.
Rina Nemoto’s Hermia, wearing a bright purple dress (David Walker’s scenery and costume design was borrowed from Ballet West), was so naive and chaste that watching her flirt with Lysander (Hugo Dumapit) filled me with sympathy. What struck me first about Helena (Valerie Tereshchenko) was her dress. When she turned some pirouettes, it looked like a tempting cream cake revolving around itself. Unfortunately, Demetrius (Mason Lovegrove) didn’t acquire a taste for her but instead rejected her like an annoying bug. Once Puck had sorted out the mess that his careless use of the love-in-idleness had caused, a well-placed dose of love potion finally ignited Demetrius’s love for Helena. The antics of Luke Marchant’s Bottom sent me into fits of laughter, but I also pitied him for being left without a match.
At the conductor’s desk of the Opera Australia Orchestra, Wordsworth ensured that Franz Liszt’s score and the choreography of “Marguerite and Armand” fit together in perfect unity. Andrew Dunlop, monitoring the stage on a video screen, tweaked his piano solos to best effect. “The Dream” was accompanied by an excellent rendition of John Lanchbery’s orchestration of Felix Mendelssohn’s score.
|Links:||Website of the Australian Ballet|
|“Marguerite and Armand”/”The Dream” – Trailer|
|David Hallberg on two of Frederick Ashton’s greatest works (video)|
|Farewell Principal Artist Amy Harris (video)|
|Christopher Carr unpacks Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream” (video)|
|Photos:||Photo 5 shows Timothy Coleman (instead of Steven Heathcote) in the role of the father.|
|1.||Nathan Brook (Armand), “Marguerite and Armand” by Frederick Ashton, The Australian Ballet 2023|
|2.||Amy Harris (Marguerite) and ensemble, “Marguerite and Armand” by Frederick Ashton, The Australian Ballet 2023|
|3.||Amy Harris (Marguerite) and Nathan Brook (Armand), “Marguerite and Armand” by Frederick Ashton, The Australian Ballet 2023|
|4.||Nathan Brook (Armand) and Amy Harris (Marguerite), “Marguerite and Armand” by Frederick Ashton, The Australian Ballet 2023|
|5.||Timothy Coleman (Father) and Amy Harris (Marguerite), “Marguerite and Armand” by Frederick Ashton, The Australian Ballet 2023|
|6.||Nathan Brook (Armand) and Amy Harris (Marguerite), “Marguerite and Armand” by Frederick Ashton, The Australian Ballet 2023|
|7.||Amy Harris (Marguerite), Nathan Brook (Armand), and ensemble, “Marguerite and Armand” by Frederick Ashton, The Australian Ballet 2023|
|8.||Ako Kondo (Titania), Chengwu Guo (Oberon), and ensemble, “The Dream” by Frederick Ashton, The Australian Ballet 2023|
|9.||Ako Kondo (Titania) and ensemble, “The Dream” by Frederick Ashton, The Australian Ballet 2023|
|10.||Brett Chynoweth (Puck), “The Dream” by Frederick Ashton, The Australian Ballet 2023|
|11.||Ensemble, “The Dream” by Frederick Ashton, The Australian Ballet 2023|
|12.||Luke Marchant (Bottom), “The Dream” by Frederick Ashton, The Australian Ballet 2023|
|13.||Ako Kondo (Titania) and Luke Marchant (Bottom), “The Dream” by Frederick Ashton, The Australian Ballet 2023
|14.||Ensemble, “The Dream” by Frederick Ashton, The Australian Ballet 2023|
|all photos © Daniel Boud|