CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


MacMillan "Romeo and Juliet" returns to the Kennedy Center at last

Herman Cornejo in Romeo and Juliet, American Ballet Theater. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor

Some fine versions of Sergei Prokofiev's beloved ballet Romeo and Juliet have appeared in Washington over the years: the Mariinsky Ballet in 2007, with Leonid Lavrovsky's Soviet-era choreography (also on DVD), and Julie Kent's revival of John Cranko's choreography for Washington Ballet in 2018, among others. Until this week's visit by American Ballet Theater, however, that company's classic staging by Kenneth MacMillan had eluded me. Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev premiered it for the Royal Ballet, and then American Ballet Theater took it up for the first time in 1985, here at the Kennedy Center. This handsome production is back after a twenty-year absence, and the Kennedy Center Opera House, for a short time spared from the onslaught of Broadway musicals that have infested it, was filled to the brim to see it Friday night.

Kevin McKenzie and Susan Jaffe
Any time that American Ballet Theater comes to Washington, they are worth seeing, especially since Miss Ionarts and I missed their most recent production, last year's Don Quixote. Even more so since this is their first visit under the company's new artistic director, former prima ballerina Susan Jaffe. The much-missed critic Sarah Kaufman first advocated for ABT to appoint Misty Copeland to that position but then admitted that Jaffe could be the one to bring the company into the 21st century. It is a homecoming for Jaffe, who hails from Bethesda and has recalled that her first performance at the Kennedy Center was "when I was a child for the New York City Ballet as a big bug in A Midsummer Night’s Dream."

As it turns out, dancing Juliet at the second performance of ABT's Romeo and Juliet at the Kennedy Center in 1985 was one Susan Jaffe, paired with none other than Kevin McKenzie, her predecessor as ABT artistic director. Critic Alan M. Kriegsman noted of Jaffe's performance "a wonderful spectral quality in the duet she reluctantly dances with Paris in the last act," which seemed to resonate in that scene this time around as well.

ABT is fielding different principal dancers for each performance this week, a tribute to the depth of their bench. Last night's Romeo, the veteran Argentinian dancer Herman Cornejo, brought vast experience and emotion to the character. MacMillan demands remarkable strength from the dancer in this role, and Cornejo provided it through many lifts, sword fights, and athletic moves, seeming to flag just slightly only once during a long overhead lift in the first act. The evening's Juliet, Georgia-born Cassandra Trenary, has made noteworthy supporting appearances since joining the company in 2011. Her appointment to principal dancer came in 2020, and she made her debut in this ballet's title role last summer. She ravished the eyes, bursting with teenage energy and leggy awkwardness, floating en pointe as she backed away from unwelcome encounters with the tall, handsome Paris of Andrii Ishchuk. Her athletic strength allowed her to remain fixed in place in her many elegant lifts, as if we were seeing her as she saw herself flying in her dreams.

The muscular Mercutio of rising dancer Tyler Maloney led the supporting cast, abetted in his stylish combats with Joo Won Ahn's haughty Tybalt by the equally comic Benvolio of Luis Ribagorda. MacMillan went for the full Renaissance treatment in this ballet, with the dancers' bodies often weighed down with tapestry-like costumes and the action unfolding before candelabrae and lanterns on the dark-hued set (all designed by Nicholas Georgiadis). The crowd scenes filled the stage, both the heavy-handed court dances of the Capulet ball and the jealousy-laced street scenes, in which the sassy three harlots of Luciana Paris, Erica Lall, and Hannah Marshall sizzled.

Principal conductor Charles Barker, who often took the podium for Washington Ballet in the late, lamented Julie Kent era, presided over a fine rendition of Prokofiev's electric score. If there were a few intonation lapses in the string sections, fine solo work came from the dueling mandolin players, Neil Gladd and David Evans, and tenor saxophonist Dana Booher, guest spots that add remarkable color to the orchestration. The violent slashes of the Dance of the Knights and the biting fortissimo crush of the loudest moments, like the death of Tybalt at the end of Act II, were thrilling.

Romeo and Juliet runs through February 19.


Briefly Noted: Lars Vogt swan song (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
Schubert, Piano Trios Nos. 1 and 2, Christian Tetzlaff, Tanja Tetzlaff, Lars Vogt

(released on February 3, 2023)
Ondine ODE1394-2D | 136'45"
I was lucky to have heard the late German pianist Lars Vogt at his one local appearance in recent years, an extraordinary Beethoven first piano concerto with Markus Stenz and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2016. We have noted a number of his fine recordings over the life of this site, most recently an odd but satisfying one of rarely heard Romantic melodramas, made with his daughter Isabelle. As recounted in a beautiful article by David Allen for the New York Times, Vogt delayed checking into a hospital in 2021 for further analysis of the cancer that would eventually take his life last September, in order to travel to Bremen to make the first part of this double-album of Schubert's chamber music with Christian Tetzlaff and his sister Tanja Tetzlaff.

The resulting set is a remarkable testament to Vogt's sensitivity as a chamber musician. At their sessions (the second was after Vogt had started chemotherapy) the group recorded all of Schubert's piano trios, except for the Sonatensatz, D. 28, a work of juvenilia, as he composed it when he was just 15 years old. This performance of Piano Trio No. 2 is distinguished by its restoration of a section later cut from the Finale by Schubert, among many musical qualities, especially in the dark-hued slow movement. (There is an odd sound I can't identify at the 10:52 mark in the finale of Piano Trio No. 2.)

In addition to the two numbered trios is the Notturno, a single slow movement possibly composed for and then removed from the first piano trio, with which it has a related home key. It is this piece that stands out on the first disc, especially the graceful, unhurried performance of the hushed main theme. The more heroic contrasting sections sound defiant and determined, but it is that hovering, bliss-filled lead subject that haunts the ears. Schubert composed all three of these works for piano trio in 1827 and 1828, not long before his death, adding an element of wistfulness. What I heard first in the performance was confirmed in the emotional recollections of the Tetzlaffs, included in the booklet:
(Tanja) When Lars listened to this recording, he wrote in our trio chat: “Now I immerse myself in the miracle, too. Feels a little bit like everything, at least in my life, has developed toward this Trio in E flat major.” What again and again was heard from him was this ‘Now we’ve done it, recorded these trios; now I could go too.’ And I find that in the recording one notices that deep inside he already knew that in all likelihood he wasn’t going to be able to live very much longer.

(Christian) The recording was made shortly before the diagnosis. But after every session he lay on the sofa and had horrible stomach pains. And he knew that something catastrophic had happened. When he mentioned this piece, then what went along with it was that it very clearly deals with departure and death, very differently than the B flat major trio.
Vogt also recorded Schubert pieces with each Tetzlaff individually: the Rondo brillant in B minor with violinist Christian and the "Arpeggione" sonata in A minor with cellist Tanja, from 1826 and 1824, respectively. The Tetzlaffs had intended to make a concert tour with Vogt this year, which included one of the Schubert trios. The tour will go ahead, with Kiveli Dörken, a beloved students of Vogt's, taking his place. The tour's local stop will be at Shriver Hall in Baltimore on March 26.


Briefly Noted: Andsnes champions Dvořák

available at Amazon
Dvořák, Poetic Tone Pictures, Leif Ove Andsnes

(released on October 28, 2022)
Sony 886449916887 | 56'10"
The last local appearance by Leif Ove Andsnes had been in 2017, a striking duet recital with Marc-André Hamelin. Happily for those like me starved for his stylish playing, Washington Performing Arts brought him back to the Kennedy Center for a stupendous solo concert last month. (Although unreviewed in Washington, the program was the same as his Chicago recital, reviewed by my colleague Lawrence Johnson.) Here in Washington, Andsnes ran the first half all together with no applause: he did not need to ask the audience not to applaud, but the unfamiliarity of the music and his command of attention kept the house quiet. For me the highlight of the evening was an astounding reading of Beethoven's Op. 110, full of technical wizardry and a witty approach to the quotation of silly folk songs and the self-mocking of the concluding fugue, a gesture recalled by Verdi in the finale to his opera Falstaff.

Andsnes's touring program closed with this forgotten set of character pieces by Dvořák, which the Norwegian pianist recorded in 2021. Op. 85, which runs to almost an hour, was a bit much to hear in a single sitting, but as usual Andsnes made a strong case for its revival. Dvořák wrote this collection over the course of several weeks on summer vacation in 1889, three years before he came to the United States. Andsnes came to know the pieces when he studied with a Czech teacher, as well as through a recording by Radoslav Kvapil. The pause in his concertizing during the Covid-19 lockdowns gave Andsnes the chance to study the set in detail, leading to this recording and the live performances on tour. Andsnes hits an ideal balance between the maudlin sentimentality of the simpler, slower pieces ("Twilight Way" and "In the Old Castle," among others) and the fierce virtuosity also required. Highlights include the fun starts and stops of "Toying" and especially the tipsy, spinning runs of "Bacchanalia," which Andsnes has likened to "a Scarlatti sonata gone mad." Folk touches come into play delightfully in "Peasant Ballad" and "Furiant."


United Ukrainian Ballet visits the Kennedy Center with new "Giselle"

Christine Shevchenko and Oleksei Tiutiunnyk in the United Ukrainian Ballet's Giselle. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine almost one year ago, on February 24, 2022. In the wake of these barbaric attacks on cities and infrastructure, ballet dancers and ballet students fled Ukraine, along with many of their fellow citizens. Many of those dancers ended up in The Hague in the Netherlands, where they formed the United Ukrainian Ballet under the leadership of the Dutch dancer Igone de Jongh. (The male dancers joined later, since they were at first not allowed to leave Ukraine and avoid military service.) This ersatz company has toured the Netherlands and taken longer trips to London and Asia. They arrived at the Kennedy Center Opera House Wednesday night for a week-long run of the striking new version of Giselle choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, their first and so far only planned appearance in the United States.

This Giselle is the product of Ratmansky's historical research, the latest ballet to be given the choreographer's archival scouring treatment, and it emerges like a ceiling fresco with centuries of soot and grime removed. Ratmansky first premiered the new version at the Bolshoi in 2019, and now it has put him on the edges of the subsequent Russian conflict with Ukraine. (Ratmansky grew up partially in Ukraine and had already moved his family to New York: the Russian attack last year propelled him to cut all ties with Russian companies. In a related story, one of the stars of his Giselle at the Bolshoi, celebrated étoile Olga Smirnova, resigned from that company and went to the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam, making prominent public statements against the war.)

As detailed in the authoritative program notes for the Kennedy Center, by dance critic Alastair Macaulay, Ratmansky has gone back to as many historical sources as he could find to restore many details from the original 1841 production, although he also preserves some of the Petipa additions found in Russian productions. Some of the patches are sections of music and action that were excised over the years: the original opening of Act II, where a group of men are drinking in the forest, only to be scared away by the Wilis; and in the middle of Act II, he has restored a fugue, depicting the confusion of the Wilis when their target, Albert, hides by the cross over Giselle's grave.

By looking closely at early sources, Ratmansky's version makes important changes to many of the pantomimed scenes, shifting the nature of most of the characters. The Giselle of Odessa-born Christine Shevchenko, who comes from American Ballet Theater to join the Ukrainian company for this run at the Kennedy Center, seems less fragile and more girlish. The extraordinary Albert of Oleksei Tiutiunnyk, a tall dancer of immense strength and leaping height, seems more genuinely in love with Giselle. Significantly, in a more hopeful ending, he heeds Giselle's last command, as she sinks back into the earth, to wed the noblewoman to whom he was betrothed. Even his fiancée, Bathilde (Marta Zabirynnyk), and the hapless woodsman who also wants to marry Giselle, Hilarion (Sergii Kliachin), become more sympathetic.
Alexei Ratmansky (center) with United Ukrainian Ballet at Kennedy Center. Photo: Mena Brunette, XMB Photography

Ratmansky's research into the details of dance movement and even the tempos of the music also yield many surprises, especially in the movements of the corps de ballet in the more rustic Act I peasant dance, where Maria Shupilova and Vladislav Bondar made a favorable impression in the pas de deux. (The corps seemed a little rough and nervous on opening night, including one dancer who slipped and fell, but the personal situation these dancers face after fleeing their home country surely explains some of the agitation.) The addition of a "flying Wili," who floated by on wires at the back of the stage a couple times, was another surprise.

Sets and costumes, designed by Hayden Griffin and Peter Farmer (on loan to the Ukrainians from Birmingham Royal Ballet), were handsome, especially the purple-infused scene of the eerie night forest in Act II (lighting by Andrew Ellis). Elizaveta Gogidze, one of the Ukrainian stars (she will take the title role at the remaining evening performances), was a frigid fright as Myrtha, queen of the Wilis, assisted by fine performances from Veronika Hordina and Daria Manoilo. Viktor Oliynyk conducted the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra in the transformed score, with some misalignments that will likely be ironed out in the remaining performances.

Given the personal tragedy of these Ukrainian dancers and the public criticism of the Russian invasion made by Ratmansky, the curtain call was a stirring moment. The two lead dancers appeared with a Ukrainian flag. Ratmansky himself and other dancers brought on other flags. The Dutch company's artistic director, Igone de Jongh, took a bow but then left the stage before a rousing rendition from the orchestra of the Ukrainian national anthem. With the news that Russia is reportedly planning a new offensive in Ukraine, possibly coinciding with the February 24 anniversary, the message of support for Ukraine is all the more urgent.

Giselle runs through February 5.