S.F. Ballet’s Guests from Hamburg, February 13

20 Feb

For the second time, San Francisco Ballet has facilitated large-scale collaboration with John Neumeier’s Hamburg Ballet. This time, rather than a ballet mounted on San Francisco Ballet, it was the entire Hamburg Ballet with Neumeier’s 1977 version of Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. I saw the second of two performances with guest artist Alina Cojocaru as Tatiana/Hippolyta and Alexandre Riabokov as Oberon/Theseus. Jurgen Rose was responsible for costume and stage designs, and Michael Schmidtsdorff conducted San Francisco Ballet’s orchestra in Felix Mendelsohn and Gyorgy Ligeti music.

The staging was both grand and minimal, the opening consisting largely of an Empire chaise lounge mid-stage right, wonderful draperies with a slightly off-center entrance in back; Carlos Carvajal pointed out to me gives a greater depth and play for the choreographer’s invention.

Hippolyta observes as Helena and Hermia have dealings with Demetrius and Lysander; all manner of fussing is made over the length and design of the wedding train nearly the length of San Francisco’s Opera’s stage. Theseus makes his entrance, flirting a little with the court minions before gifting Hippoltya with a rose. The craftsmen, better known in Shakespeare as The Rustics, ask permission to perform at the wedding, which Hippolyta grants.

Neumeier’s Act II goes almost extra-terrestrial; the dancers, in silvered unitards, are head-ensnared capped – who the subordinate fairies were I do not hazard a guess. I was intrigued with the movable tree thickets, silvered and squiggly behind which characters could emerge or use as shelter. Tatiana and Oberon were given glimmering gold outfits to distinguish them, and the rustics happily remained their disheveled selves. As Tatiana awakes to be enchanted with Bottom, Neumeier gave her distinctly lusty movements. Arthur Mitchell spoiled me when it comes to Puck – the Hamburg role was trippingly on the tongue, effete.

Act III was appropriately grand. I’m sure the Hapsburgs or the ghosts of Imperial Russia would have agreed with the serried ranks of embellished tunics and delicate dancers en pointe. Cojocaru and Riabokov were both passionate in the beginning, regal in their entrance and elegant in the grand pas de deux, departing in grand style.

The rustics, in slightly changed costumes, did a suitably raucous, over-wrought tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, adding deliberately inept pointe work to the mix accompanied by organ grinder music with a phrase or two of Italian opera to the mix,eliciting lots of laughter.

Puck/Major domo did a more impressive job here, down to the final curtain, only to be upstaged by the return of Tatiana and Oberon in what must have required at least two costumers each to make the transition. Registering that feat almost simultaneously with the appearance indicates admiration for production skills but implies scarce enchantment with the proceedings.

You know, theater is contrived and technology makes for all sorts of effects. But does it warm or awe the heart? I want to be captured emotionally, but remained behind an invisible screen. Perhaps that works in Hamburg; despite the rapturous applause the San Francisco audience provided, I found myself with the usual workaday responses, recalling, along with Carlos Carvajal, cherished memories of Sir Frederick Ashton’s rendering of the same Shakespearean tale.

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