Review: ‘The Red and the Black’ Is Sumptuous, but Safe
PARIS — “The Red and the Black,” Pierre Lacotte’s sumptuous new production for the Paris Opera Ballet, which opened on Saturday at the Palais …
PARIS — “The Red and the Black,” Pierre Lacotte’s sumptuous new production for the Paris Opera Ballet, which opened on Saturday at the Palais Garnier, contains many contradictions embodied by that dance company.
The troupe, currently directed by Aurélie Dupont, is the first home of professional ballet. Its dancers possess a finely honed classical technique and a stylistic unity achieved by rigorous training at the Paris Opera Ballet School, from where almost all its dancers are drawn.
But for the last 30 years — apart from a brief moment during Benjamin Millepied’s two-year tenure — the company has made most of its grand creative statements through commissions from contemporary dance choreographers, with its classical repertory drawn firmly from the 19th-century canon (“Swan Lake,” “La Bayadère”) or 20th-century story-ballets (“Romeo and Juliet,” “Eugene Onegin”).
“The Red and the Black,” the company’s first new full-length, narrative classical ballet in a decade, is an awkward testament to all this. Lacotte, who is 89, is known for his recreations of Romantic-era ballets, notably “La Sylphide”; less for his original choreography. He is hardly an obvious candidate for a big, expensive new production, but the choice points to the Paris Opera Ballet’s tendency to fall back on alumni, usually former male étoiles (Jean-Guillaume Bart, Kader Belarbi, Nicolas Le Riche), in what feels like a fundamental lack of interest in new ballet.
Set to an easy-on-the-ear compilation of music by Massenet, and based on the 1830 novel by Stendhal, “The Red and the Black” is an old-fashioned, three-act, 200-minute costume drama that borrows from both 19th-and 20th-century story ballets, with a dash of Roland Petit’s expressionist modernism for good measure. A few film sequences, thrown in, nod to contemporary means of storytelling.
The characters include a hero, two priests (one caring, one evil), two heroines (one saint, one vixen), a vengeful maid, and a massive corps de ballet incarnating peasants, aristocrats, seminarians and The Populace. It’s story ballet central and, if you don’t care that it is merely a sketchy rendition of Stendhal’s complex and psychologically astute portrayal of early 19th-century France, it’s not without some pleasures.
Principal among these is the décor, based on black-and-white 19th-century engravings, and the exquisitely made, ornate costumes, all designed by Lacotte. On Saturday, it looked like another pleasure might be the performance of Mathieu Ganio as Julien Sorel, the intelligent and ambitious son of a carpenter, who rises successfully through a rigid (and ultimately intractable) social hierarchy before his past undermines him.
But Ganio, who has the fine-featured sensitivity and exudes the introspective moodiness that Stendhal describes in his hero, was apparently injured early in the ballet; about half an hour in, the soloist Florian Magnenet suddenly appeared in the role.
All things considered, Magnenet did a sterling job. Originally scheduled to perform toward the end of the run, he probably hadn’t yet had a stage rehearsal, nor would he have worked with the ballet’s two principal women on the many difficult pas de deux. Bravo to him for just getting through it.
Could Ganio have brought more complexity to Julien, a stock romantic hero in the ballet? Lacotte keeps the focus on Julien’s sequential romances with Madame de Renal (Amandine Albisson), the gentle wife of the village mayor, and Mathilde de la Mole (Myriam Ould-Braham), a waspish aristocrat. This reduces a complex plot, full of ideas about politics and society, to a romantic tragedy with a rather unclear narrative.
Even if you have read the book and studied the (very long) synopsis carefully, many plot points remain murky. Mostly, the action feels either too rushed, with constantly changing scenes (and unsuccessful silent transitions between them), or too drawn out.
The narrative comes to a stop for endless variations in Acts 1 and 3, and for much of Act 2, when a rather hilariously grim bunch of black-clad trainee priests lift and carry one another dramatically before falling to the floor, while Julian’s protector, the Abbé Chélan (Audric Bezard), supports him in an oddly homoerotic pas de deux.
There are several steamy bedroom encounters (a nod to Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon”), visitations and memories (at one point, Albisson floats across the back of the stage like one of the Willis from “Giselle”), and society scenes filled with old-fashioned divertissements that have no dramatic reason to be.
Lacotte doesn’t find — or seem to aspire to — any choreographic equivalents for the complicated motives that impel Julian to pursue his ambitions, or for the feelings of the women who fall in love with him. The superficiality of the action isn’t helped by the Paris Opera dancers, who dance beautifully but emote rather than act. Albisson is nobly tragic; Ould-Braham is a minx; Valentine Colasante, in the thanklessly overblown role of the maid Elisa, is determinedly desperate.
“The Red and the Black” is visually opulent and choreographically unremarkable. Perhaps audiences might find it reassuringly familiar, unlike the two new full-length ballets that have just had premieres in London; Wayne McGregor’s “The Dante Project” for the Royal Ballet, and Akram Khan’s “Creature” for English National Ballet. The British pieces, also both based on literary works, are resolutely contemporary in spirit, with very different propositions about what a full-length classical ballet could be.
A company shouldn’t have to choose one approach or the other. But why is the Paris Opera Ballet so open to experimentation in contemporary dance, yet so boringly conservative about ballet? It remains a mystery.