Volkoper plays an interesting role in the arts life of the Austrian capital. Viennese love both their operetta and their comic ballet and Volksoper must feed this sweet tooth.
Often the works are either historic pieces or imported. This year Volksoper ballet director Vesna Orlic and Staatsoper dancer and choreographer Andrey Kaydanovsky have collaborated on a new program called Marchenwelt or Fairy Tale World. The two parts are unified by dramatic Russian music, first Modest Mussorgski’s Pictures from an Exhibition and then Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scherezade.
Kaydanovsky has contemporised The Ugly Duckling for his fairy tale. His version includes high fives, industrial agriculture and sport hunting with rifles. And why not? Fairy tales should be timeless.
Ugly Duckling starts well with a turning stage which moves from one egg on stage to three. The hatching is neatly done with two students from the choreographic school peeking quickly out before ugly duckling Laszlo Benedek is revealed. Everyone is supposed to be horrified by Benedek’s appearance and they do their best, but really this duckling is never ugly enough. In the hands of a stronger character actor we would feel the rejection very strongly but Benedek is never more and never less than sympathetic.
All of Ugly Duckling is predicated on anthropomorphism: here’s how Kaydanovsky and his performers did in order of appearance.
- the two chicks Zuzana Kvassayova and Mila Schmidt were suitably brutal and bird-like.
- Rebecca Horner was a passable mother but didn’t exude much warmth. Her motherhen movement could use further elaboration.
- Patrik Hullman as the terrifying turkey was both outrageously funny and truly frigtening. Hullman stole the show in his huge black hoop skirt and red makeup. It’s a pity his tyrannic episode is so short: the short reprise at the end is an even greater delight.
- wild ducks Samuel Colombert and Keisuek Nejime were quite funny in their combat clothes but their movements were none too ducky.
- the reflected hunter with rifle was great. I’m not sure if it was video or shadow play but it was a highlight.
- Martin Winter as the old lady with his head wrapped up under a massive cape was fantastic. Making the old woman a huge man helped enormously with the difference between people and animals.
- Felipe Vieira appeared twice as a rooster but was not at his best. On the other hand, his partner in crime, the cat Suzanne Kertesz was lithe, saucy and thoroughly cat-like.
The constantly turning stage with it’s ambiguous reed or wood constructions did much to keep the pace. The ugly ducklings travels meandered a bit, losing the audience’s attention. Ravel’s orchestration was splendidly helped by a strong string section and an excellent oboe solo but thoroughly let down by an inconsistent French horn.
But the real hole in Ugly Duckling is the story. Kaydanovsky’s Ugly Duckling is a very dangerous work: it’s about birthright. If you are born a swan, you may have to suffer while you are small but eventually due to your born grace you will become a kind of celebrity. Hollywood might even work like this: on the whole sons and daughters do awfully well in comparison to the new arrivals. Never does Laszlo Benedek extend himself to succeed. He just meanders through life until the 24/7 swan party people find him and elevate him to their level.
I have no use for blue bloods or privilege. If you believe in the divine right of kings, perhaps you’ll have more patience for Kaydanovsky’s Ugly Duckling than I do. Still many children will enjoy the performance for its barnyard anthropomorphisation, even if it gives them exactly the wrong ideas about life. No doubt those many spoiled over-privileged children in Vienna will feel right at home with Ugly Duckling.
Orlic’s A Thousand and One Nights is just the opposite. Her story is of true love and freedom won through constancy and struggle. The show opens with the genie on stage speaking while a huge crystal swirls above the stage. The ball is created relatively inexpensive by video projection. As someone who has done online edits for TIFF films, I’m usually annoyed by the weak video and effects work done in theatres for stage performances. But Balazs Delbo’s effects were impeccable and did a great deal to make Orlic’s Thousand and One Nights epic, whether it was live thunderstorms against minareted skylines, magic genies, emotional flashbacks or prison bars.
Tonight we enjoyed the vast horizons of films and the immediacy of theatre along with the impact of live music. In the end, the aesthetic of Orlic’s Thousand and One Nights is like a live version of the classic Wizard of Oz film.
The opening dance scene is in an Eastern court with the entire Volksoper corps-de-ballet paired off. Orlic very cleverly choreographs them (she danced in the Volskoper herself for seventeen years) to make them all look like Staatsoper soloists, with beautiful high lifts. Staatsoper director Legris' policy of limoging flagging Staatsoper dancers to Volksoper instead of running separate auditions appears to be paying dividends with a very strong set of dancers determined to prove him wrong.
The beloved of the story is Rebeccas Horner, this time in white raiment as the Sultan’s daughter. She is flanked by handmaidens Ekaterina Fitzka and Una Zubovic. Long legged Horner danced superbly in the title role, but the charismatic Zubovic’s lithesome movements and gorgeous midriff threatened to steal the show whenever she was on stage.
Felipe Viera is a gorgeous Aladdin, both charming and valiant and beautiful as the pauper who dared to love a princess and fights adversity to justify the love offered him so easily at the start.
The show stealer in this case was not even a dancer but character actor Boris Eder who works as both the genie and the narrator, allowing Orlic to introduce the story to the children who are unlikely to read the whole program before watching the show. When he suddenly appears in the middle of the audience in a gigantic magic teapot, the audience almost fell out of their seats. The reverbation voice effects when Eder disappears from the stage and returns to his lantern create a real illusion that he is trapped in the silly little lantern.
Samuel Colombert also returns, this time as the evil vizier whose soldiers kidnap Aladdin’s love to join his harem of one hundred brides. Colombert’s sinous and cut body along with the makeup made him look like a young Ghenghis Khan. A superb performance as a cruel tyrant. His jealous and spoiled brides epitomised our vision of Oriental sensuality and luxury. The harem scenes were among the best in Thousand and One Nights.
On the other hand, the battle scenes while they nod to Spartacus should be redrawn from scratch. The second one in particular is long, drawn out, repetitive and a bit silly. A real letdown in an otherwise almost flawless production.
The ending comes straight from Firebird with the happy couple wandering out to Rimsky Korsakov’s ringing chords (perfect performance by the orchestra this time) to the applause of the court with the blessing of the Sultan.
The genie has the last words with gratitude for Aladdin’s hard won “happiness and at last freedom” for himself. Orlic’s Thousand and One Nights offers an inspiring vision: if you live true to your heart and strive for your dreams, you can make a better world.
Orlic’s glorious pastiche of film and ballet classics is not to be missed for either children or grown ups.