Ferdinand HÉROLD (1791-1833)
La fille mal gardée - ballet in two acts (1828/1960) [90:37]
Music arranged by John Lanchbery
Choreography by Sir Frederick Ashton
Lise - Nadia Nerina
Colas - David Blair
Widow Simone - Stanley Holden
Alain - Alexander Grant
Thomas - Leslie Edwards
A notary - Franklin White
The Royal Ballet
The Covent Garden Orchestra/John Lanchbery
Produced by Margaret Dale
rec. BBC studio, London, 7-9 September 1962
Picture format: 4:3
Region code: 0
DVD format: NTSC
Sound: enhanced mono
ICA CLASSICS DVD ICAD 5088 [90:37]
“…Nadia Nerina and David Blair [are] like gods from Olympus… as Lise and Colas, [they] have never been so good before, or had such wonderful steps to do… His amazing corkscrew turns, her joyous écarté, their pas de ruban in which they wind each other into a cat’s cradle, his lifting her at one arm’s length above him like a shining prize, her tripping runs, their tenderness and gaiety together - these are a few memories from a triumphant evening.
- From Richard Buckle’s 31 January 1960 review of the original Royal Ballet production, quoted in Buckle at the ballet: selected criticism by Richard Buckle [London, 1980], pp. 141-142.
Sir Frederick Ashton’s production of La fille mal gardée has been one of the Royal Ballet’s crown jewels ever since its premiere on 28 January 1960. Hugely popular whenever it is scheduled, it has also proved a worldwide success and has generally displaced rival versions of the story that use different choreography set to music by other composers.
The importance of this BBC film, recorded for broadcast at Christmas 1962, is that it preserves the performances of the original Covent Garden cast, all still at their prime.
At the same time it utilises the BBC’s own considerable resources to showcase the production to finest effect. The unnamed director and cameramen, in particular, are obviously skilled at working on full and busy sets to achieve the best and most inventive camera angles and to offer plenty of visual variety. Note, for example, how the action in the farmhouse courtyard at the very opening of the first Act is shot through an open barn door by a camera positioned inside Widow Simone’s outhouse, rather than merely filmed unimaginatively straight-on.
Admittedly, this film may not match the Nerina/Britton/Helpmann Coppélia (see here), when it comes to using cameras to whizz excitingly in and out of the action all around the set. That continual visual energy was the right fit for Delibes’s more consistently lively score, while the more sedate camerawork accorded to La fille mal gardée is certainly more appropriate to its gentler pastoral mood.
The dancing here is, as Richard Buckle observed, outstanding. Ashton choreographed the ballet specifically to play to his principals’ strengths and characters. Pocket spitfire Nadia Nerina is all flighty runs and cheeky grins, while David Blair proves equally adept at both romantic ardour and, especially, communicating a sense that he is having great fun. Needless to say, both of them display virtually flawless technique too. It was a sad twist of fate that Nureyev’s defection to the west in 1961 effectively derailed both their careers. Blair was expected to replace Michael Somes as Fonteyn’s regular partner but found himself overshadowed by the superstar Russian. Simultaneously, Ms Nerina’s anticipated succession to Fonteyn was stymied when Dame Margot’s own career was unexpectedly prolonged by her collaboration with Nureyev.
Two other points are worth making about the members of the cast. First, there is some surprisingly effective acting going on, as well as the dancing. Nadia Nerina, as was also evident in that Coppélia performance, is very adept at conveying convincing emotions. Her interpretation of Lise - less sugary-sweet and more of a rather naughty, spoiled brat who’s deservedly spanked on several occasions during the course of the story - is a very compelling one.
I also enjoyed Alexander Grant’s portrayal of Lise’s simpleton suitor Alain. He conveys even more pathos than Jonathan Howells in the 2005 Nuñez/Acosta Royal Ballet recording that I enjoyed some years ago (see here). Another unexpected treat was Royal Ballet stalwart Leslie Edwards’s contribution as Alain’s father, Thomas. Watch him closely, for example, as he sits down with Widow Simone to sign the marriage contract (73:14 - 73:59). His body movements, facial expressions and - especially - his eyes are used to superb effect to create, in less than a minute, a real character out of nothing very much at all.
At the time of the premiere, Richard Buckle took issue with Stanley Holden’s portrayal of Widow Simone, considering the interpretation too broad and pantomime dame-ish. He suggested that the older Russian performing tradition, where the Widow was a more sympathetic character, would work even better. Over the past fifty years, however, Holden’s caricature Donald McGill/Les Dawson mother-in-law template has won the day and, of that type, its originator’s performance has yet to be bettered.
The second point worth making about the cast members is their collective skill as a company, especially effectively demonstrated in the closing scene where all the main characters are on stage simultaneously.A very brief and quite delightful sequence occurs between 74:47 and 75:15. Widow Simone, Thomas, the notary and the notary’s clerk all dance briefly to a jaunty tune in celebration of what they imagine to be a forthcoming union between Lise and Alain. They line up together with linked arms but each character is expertly individually characterised by constantly changing facial expressions - keep an eye on the widow as she is accidentally jostled by the notary - and highly individual styles of movement. At the same time, however, they interact to telling effect with the others. If you watch this very brief sequence four times - concentrating each time on a different character - you will see an impressive demonstration of the company’s strength in depth in such character roles. Sadly, comparison with that 2005 Royal Ballet recording suggests that the tradition has not been maintained: the later performance of that brief episode is, by comparison, bland and under-characterised.
The corps de ballet have a great deal to do in La fille mal gardée and, in this film, they do it very well. Assorted peasants of both sexes harvest and deliver crops, go picnicking, dance around maypoles, run for shelter in a thunderstorm and join in wedding celebrations, all with appropriate gusto. John Lanchbery, who arranged the score for Ashton, directs the Covent Garden orchestra stylishly and his musicians sound as if they are having a great time - whether supporting Widow Simone in her famous, show-stopping clog dance or, just once or twice, veering close to Mantovani territory during some deliciously lush melodies for the two lovers.
The black and white film is clearly of its time - though, oddly enough, the most striking difference in fifty years is the quality of the opening and closing credits which were very poorly done in those days. It is, though, certainly never less than adequate and is frequently a great deal better than that. In any case, the content more than makes up for any occasional technical deficiency. The “enhanced mono” sound quality is absolutely fine.
One final query ... In the last minute or so of the ballet, as a long continuous stream of dancers exits the Widow’s house, the final few of them - the principal characters, in fact - burst into singing the melody vigorously (“la-la, la, la-la, la-LA!...) as they dance away through the doorway. That certainly does not happen in the 2005 Covent Garden recording. Was it, I wonder, a detail of the original Ashton production that has subsequently been dropped? Was it adopted just for the TV film? Perhaps there may be someone reading this who was in the theatre audience in 1960 and who can enlighten us? I’d guess, after all, that if you were privileged to have possessed a ticket all those years ago, you’d probably have retained your memories of such a wonderful and historic occasion right up to the present day.
Thankfully, with the release of this wonderful performance on disc, the rest of us can now sample the experience too.
A wonderful full characterised performance and an historic occasion.
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