San Francisco Ballet
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
17 February 2017
It was a dark and stormy night – San Francisco Ballet couldn’t have designed a more apt and ominous atmosphere for the opening of Liam Scarlett’s Frankenstein. A co-production with the Royal Ballet, which gave the work its world premiere in May 2016, Frankenstein received its North American premiere at the War Memorial Opera House on Thursday 17 February. All omens portend a box-office hit: the capacity audience was enthralled and entertained for three hours and three acts, proving that full-length narrative ballet lives on.
Scarlett based the work on Mary Shelley’s original 1818 novel Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, which is part gratuitous gore fiction and part allegory on man’s inability to use power responsibly. Scarlett liberally reorders pivotal events and alters, deletes and consolidates characters, floating a tragic romance between Victor Frankenstein (Joseph Walsh) and Elizabeth Lavenza (Frances Chung) in a suspension of mild gore.
In this telling, Victor becomes bereft after his mother dies giving birth to his brother, William. After much frolicsome dancing with the family and oddly numerous household staff, Victor leaves Geneva for medical school at Ingolstadt University. After frolicsome dancing among barroom slatterns and medical students, the first act culminates in the quickening of his long-envisioned Creature (Vitor Luiz), crafted from frolicsomely purloined cadaver parts.
The Creature escapes out a window and is little seen until late in Act II, when he befriends 7-year-old William during a game of blind man’s bluff (more frolic). Victor scorns the Creature’s supplications for forgiveness and compassion, spurring him to greater frenzy. Victor and Elizabeth are engaged, and the Creature vows to kill Elizabeth on their wedding day. At the reception (waltzy frolic) Victor gets the Creature in the sight of his pistol but can’t seem to pull the trigger; instead, Victor turns the gun on himself.
This Frankenstein has a tangential relationship to Shelley’s themes, plot and characters, but it can be enjoyed on its own merits. Scarlett’s choreography evokes John Cranko’s post-classical style, and the pas de deux are especially captivating in their lyrical and expressive smoothness. Scarlet stocked the pond with wonderful dancers: Walsh and Chung were at their best as Victor and Elizabeth, in understated partnering that capitalized on their fluid musicality and sensitive acting. Max Berenshteyn and Katie Choi danced well beyond their years as the couple’s childhood avatars. Angelo Greco’s Henry Clerval was a jovial and loving friend, and Luiz caromed between vulnerability and rage.
The score by Lowell Liebermann, new to narrative ballet, has a symphonic quality punctuated by fun, modern flourishes like clop-clop percussion, bells and driving rhythms that alternate with sweeping violins. Every eye-blink doesn’t need a musical motif, but overall the score is so well purposed that you see it onstage rather than hear it coming from the pit, where Martin West led the lively orchestra.
John Macfarlane’s sets steal many scenes. The Frankenstein villa’s neoclassical façades, a tavern’s candlelit wainscoting and mother Caroline’s (Jennifer Stahl) cenotaph evoke Genovese settings under David Finn’s lighting scheme. But the price of admission is fully recouped in the Ingolstadt anatomy theater, a Renaissance–Steampunk showroom for two fabulous reanimation machines that roar to life with flash-pot explosions and lightning-bolt projections by Finn Ross.
Macfarlane, who designed SF Opera’s 2007 Don Giovanni, also created the costumes, which remotely evoke 18th-century Switzerland, with a dose of French refinement. (Though any good Calvinist would frown on housekeeper Madame Moritz’s sinfully sparkly dress.) The Creature’s unitard is the color of exsanguinated white flesh, streaked with fresh sutures.
Scarlett’s realm is abstract contemporary ballet, and Frankenstein was a risky and ambitious choice for his second narrative work. Expanded from a short-format horror story set in the late 18th century, it warns of the hazards of advancing science, and of mankind arrogating powers rightly attributed to God, such as the giving and taking of life, without wisdom. The novel is complex yet diffuse, thought-provoking without divulging a specific intent, and can be interpreted in myriad ways. Shelley swirled together galvanism, Gothic literature and Romanticism, and out of that perfect storm lurched Frankenstein.
Her Creature is piercingly intelligent and articulate, and the bulk of the book is a rhetorical seesaw between him and Victor. Neither of them is sympathetic, a problematic puzzle for even an experienced dramatist. Not even the execution of Justine Moritz (Sasha De Sola), whom the Creature has framed for the murder of William, spurs the feckless, self-pitying Victor to come forward. The Creature himself is a vengeance machine, demanding compassion for himself as Victor’s victim, yet meting out cruelty on other innocents. It’s fabulous as a horror story, nihilistic as a treatise on the human condition.
In the program notes, Scarlett says that he chose to adapt Frankenstein because it’s “a story of betrayal, curiosity, life, death, and above all, love.” To make a coherent piece of theater, the author has to commit to a point of view and discard the other options, however compelling. Scarlett seems to want to retain them all, resulting in a drifting focus and shallow characters that yearn for motivation.
The Creature veers from scheming sentience to inchoate animalism, while Victor gets into snits and treats his fiancée with disdain; they seem driven by plot expedience rather than by necessity. Scarlett wastes time on dead ends, like a musical revue for medical students, repetitive childhood flashbacks and silly inventions like the Professor’s (Hansuke Yamamoto) overtures to female autopsy assistants. All could be trimmed or excised.
He also relies heavily on ballet tropes, as when Victor’s father, Alphonse (Ricardo Bustamante), takes the uptight Madame Moritz (Anita Paciotti) for a twirl on the dance floor, and she retorts with a pearl-clutching scowl. These stock gestures and interaction are easily legible, but they neither deepen the characters nor advance the story.
Scarlett was brave to attempt such an epic narrative on an international stage; one might even call him Promethean. His Frankenstein is a dazzlement, for sure, but it could have been a dazzlement with depth.