The Royal Ballet
La Fille mal gardée
Streamed archive recording of 2005 performance at London’s Royal Opera House. Relay 12 June 2020.
Interview with Marianela Núñez including thoughts on Fille
Available to stream until 26 June 2020
In the words of Marianela Núñez, who dances Lise in this streaming, “This is the perfect ballet.” We all need a big dose of Sir Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée (The Wayward Daughter), especially now. And for all the brilliant dancing on offer, and every box is ticked, I think that the brightest star of this extraordinary ballet is Ashton himself. This particular recording, directed by Ross MacGibbon, is from 2005. In the lead roles are Nuñez, with Carlos Acosta as Colas and William Tuckett as Widow Simone, and they all capture the essence of what Fille is about. Núñez revealed recently that this film was actually her debut in the role. It seems unimaginable – she is so accomplished. Wonderful to note too, that in the corps de ballet are the faces of future principals, Steven McRae (on pony duty), and Lise’s Friends who include Laura Morera, Sarah Lamb and Lauren Cuthbertson.
I first saw La Fille mal gardée in the early sixties with Nadia Nerina and David Blair in the lead roles. It was at the Golders Green Hippodrome, and my overriding memory is that Blair’s jumps were so high that he leapt up to the top of the amphitheatre, where we were seated. In the interim, the ballet has lost none of its appeal. I have seen many casts since, not only in the UK, with each and every one of the protagonists managing to prove that it is impossible not to succumb to the enchantment of this masterpiece.
The opening scene is delightful: a rural idyll, complete with cockerel and hens, rolling hills in the background and a farmhouse – Osbert Lancaster’s designs are still being admired, sixty years after the premiere. The success and longevity of the production lies within the romance of the story, the comedy, the feel-good factor and more than anything, the way Ashton has developed the choreographic language for each of the characters within the musical constraints. It may look straightforward, but it is fiendishly difficult. From the start, Núñez and Acosta don’t put a foot wrong. Lines, jumps, pirouettes and partnering are achieved with a confidence and brilliance that makes one understand why they became such excellent proponents of the roles. But paramount, of course, is their ability to tell the story and this they do beautifully. As Widow Simone, Tuckett is up there with the best interpreters. It is slapstick, there’s no getting away from it, but he doesn’t overdo it. The character becomes endearing rather than domineering, and while he comes across as clumsy and heavy-handed, he maintains a femininity which is far more amusing than just pure camp. David Drew as the wealthy landowner Thomas and Jonathan Howells as Alain, are the perfect foil for their counterparts. Howells is pretty vacant as Alain without losing any of the comedy and Drew just seems the epitome of a rather pompous, bumbling chap, blind to his son’s inadequacies. In the Fanny Elssler pas de deux – Núñez and Acosta are unfailingly exemplary – the tricky promenade Lise executes supported by ribbons/Friends along with her own innate sense of balance is solid and secure. Her solo preceding it is light and controlled. Acosta just sweeps the floor and us along with him. The music for this scene (John Lanchberry after Ferdinand Hérold) is just so joyous and memorable that by the time it gets to the famous clog dance, in which Tuckett excels, you know you will be dreaming/head-singing the score for many nights to come. However daft this sounds, I always look forward to Alain’s ‘flight’ (not quite a spoiler alert!) during the summer storm because the audience react audibly with infinite delight.
In Act II, by which time the viewer is firmly in the ‘Lise and Colas’ camp, another of my favourite scenes is when Lise imagines that she is getting married, having babies and bringing them up. Núñez is utterly beguiling in this, later visibly horrified that she has been caught out, but this is the moment when we all want a happy ending. If you want an antidote to any miserable lockdown mood, La Fille mal gardée cannot fail to lift your spirits and allow you to marvel at some really first-rate dancing.