Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
The Lady and the Fool (arr. Charles Mackerras) (1954)Svetlana Beriosova, Ray Powell, Ronald Hynd,
Royal Opera House Orchestra/Charles Mackerras
Choreographed by John Cranko (1927-1973)
Studio recording, transmitted 3 May 1959Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900)
Pineapple Poll (arr. Charles Mackerras) (1951)Merle Park, David Blair, Stanley Holden, Brenda Taylor, Gerd Larsen, cast of the Royal Ballet
London Symphony Orchestra/Charles Mackerras
ICA CLASSICS ICAD5040
I do not believe that it is the role of the critic to ‘spoil the plot’ of a ballet or an opera whilst writing a review. Even with a work like Madame Butterfly or Sleeping Beauty it would be presumptuous of a writer to assume that all their readers knew the libretto or the ‘book’. However, a few brief observations are probably in order. For example is it a comedy or a tragedy? Does it tell a story or present a series of tableaux? These are questions worth answering. But to give a complete synopsis in the manner of Kobbé’s Opera or Balanchine’s Festival of Ballet is both redundant and unfair. I will confine my remarks to generalisations and concentrate more on the presentation of the story and music rather than the story itself.
The two ballets presented here are contrasting tales. One, Pineapple Poll, is a gay, light-hearted romp whilst the other, The Lady and the Fool is bittersweet: both are technically comedies.
It is useful to give a brief thumbnail sketch of the life and career of John Cranko. He was born in Rustenburg in the Transvaal in 1927. From an early age he was interested in dance and movement, developing puppet shows for his friends. His first stage appearance as a dancer was in 1943 in a performance given by the Cape Town University Ballet. After some early ballet training under Dulcie Howes, he produced his first ballet, The Soldier’s Tale. In 1946 he moved to London and worked as a dancer and then as a choreographer with the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet, which was the forerunner of The Royal Ballet.
Cranko is best known for his collaboration with Charles Mackerras in Pineapple Poll although other triumphs included The Prince of the Pagodas to music by Britten and Harlequin in April with a score by Richard Arnell. Other ballets that he choreographed included Onegin based on music from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons and Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet. However, his activities were not confined to the ballet. He devised a West End revue called Cranks which opened in 1955 and ran for over 200 performances. He died in 1973 after a reaction to a sleeping pill taken during a transatlantic flight.
The title The Lady and the Fool along with the intelligence that this is a ‘comedy’ probably gives the game away as to the story line. This work was premiered by the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet at the New Theatre in Oxford on 25 February 1954. However, the original choreography did not satisfy Cranko: the ballet was reworked for Covent Garden and was first given there on 9 June 1955. This is the version presented on this DVD.
The score that Charles Mackerras devised is based on music from a number of lesser-known operatic works by Giuseppe Verdi. These include Alzira, Jerusalem, I Lombardi and Attila. I confess to never having heard of these operas!
There is a tremendous danger that this ballet can sink into sheer sentimentality and any interpretation must try to avoid this. Certainly, there is a degree of melodrama in the present realisation, however it does not become overpowering. The tension between the sympathy the audience will feel towards the poverty-stricken clowns Moondog and Bootface who are asleep on a street bench and the antipathy towards the dashing, narcissistic Capitano Adoncino is the basis of any appreciation of this ballet. Any tendency for the ballet to become morbid is offset by the magnificent ballroom scenes where the heroine La Capricciosa dances with her suitors who represent wealth, gallantry and rank. The ‘pas de deux’ between Moondog and La Capricciosa is the highlight of the ballet and is both moving and beautiful.
The three principals are superb: Svetlana Beriosova as La Capricciosa, Ronald Hynd as Moondog and Ray Powell as Bootface. All the dancers execute their routines with grace, expressiveness, ease and fluency. However the viewer will be moved by Ray Powell’s presentation of Bootface, the clown who does not win the lady’s love.
Pineapple Poll is a ballet in three scenes or tableaux - all set in Portsmouth. The story derives from ‘The Bumboat Woman’s Story’ which is from one of W.S. Gilbert’s lesser-known works the Bab Ballads. A ‘bumboat’ by the way is a small vessel that is used to ferry stores between the dock and ships at anchor. The score is a glorious collation of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music devised once again by Mackerras. The tunes are taken from virtually the entire catalogue of G&S comic operas but also include Cox and Box and the Overture di Ballo. As a score, this work quite simply sparkles like freshly popped champagne. Moreover, Mackerras has presented Sullivan’s great music in a form rarely heard - for full orchestra rather than a theatre ensemble.
Unlike The Lady and the Fool the title Pineapple Poll gives nothing away about the story. However, it does seem to imply comedy. In fact, this is a comic masterpiece. Any viewer will be impressed with the vivacious dancing and the ‘built in’ humour which pervades the work. The three principal characters are Pineapple Poll, a flower seller, Jasper, a ‘pot boy’ from the local inn and Captain Belaye of the H.M.S. Hot Cross Bun. Other dancers include the captain’s fiancée Blanche and Mrs Dimple, her aunt.
Merle Park is quite simply stunning as Pineapple. However David Blair makes an excellent captain, a role which he created. Stanley Holden playing Jasper raises the audience’s sympathy.
Two highlights of Pineapple Poll are the captain’s solo dance based on the hornpipe and the general riot on the deck of the Hot Cross Bun when the scratch crew of women are discovered. Pineapple Poll was first seen at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre on 13 March 1951.
What criticisms of this DVD can I make? Virtually none. However, a silly bit of wishful thinking: would that it had been in colour! The costumes look as if they would have been absolutely magnificent. Secondly, the studio-based performance means that there is a distinct lack of the atmosphere that an audience would have provided. Thirdly, these performances were created for television over half a century ago with all the limitations that this implies. However, it would be totally wrong to use present day canons of set design and lighting to judge their success or failure. For their time and technical limitations they are definitive.
It is wonderful to have these two masterpieces of balletomania easily available. At present this is the only version of either work on DVD. It may be for a ballet company in the future to revive one or both of these ballets but at present this is a splendid addition to the catalogues. It is not to be missed by ballet enthusiasts, G&S cognoscenti and lovers of obscure but delightful Verdi!
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.