Frederick Ashton's last three-act ballet, Ondine, takes its plot from a novel, play and earlier ballet from the first half of the nineteenth century: a fey romantic tragedy. Prince Palemon, is advances to a lady of the court, Berta, having been rejected, meets a water-nymph, Ondine. They fall in love, and over the objections of Tirrenio, the Lord of the Mediterranean Sea, they marry: Tirrenio warns that should Palemon be unfaithful he must die.

On board a ship, Berta's jealousy towards Ondine becomes apparent: the sailors, who are afraid of her, throw her overboard: Tirrenio creates a storm to protect her and the ship is wrecked. Palemon and Berta survive: he marries here, only for Tirrenio's servants to take revenge by drowning Berta and for Ondine to reappear: Palemon realises that he loves her, but it is too late and he dies: Ondine takes his body to the deep sea.

Ashton created his new version of the story in 1957, to music specially composed by Hans Werner Henze. It has never been a great success - critically mauled at the time, and infrequently performed (though even so yesterday was its 121st performance at the Royal Opera House). After a long gap it was revived in 1988: I saw it then with Almeida and Dowell,: yesterday's cast included Roberta Marquez as Ondine and Federico Bonelli as Palemon.

It's certainly not Ashton's best work. Despite some attractive choreography the thin plot gave him little to hang the work on. The best is in the first act, indluding a long pas de deux for the lovers; the second act, on board the ship, has little actual dancing as opposed to mime and is more about Victorian style spectacular theatre (complete with shipwreck) than ballet. A good chunk of the final act is taken up with a group of Comedia del Arte style dancers who entertain Palemon and Berta at court - all rather obvious eccentric dancing which goes on for too long.

The music is a cross between impressionism and modernism: in the first act there are numerous passages reminiscent of the quieter parts of The Rite of Spring (particularly the second section) and the music for the Comedia del Arte dancing owes something to Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements; but a deliberate decision not to include a forward pulse most of the time, letting the dancers make their own rhythm against the music, gives it all a rather vague air.

Despite the reservations there is much to enjoy, and after twenty years it was well worth seeing again.

Posted: Wed - June 3, 2009 at 08:31 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM