Concert performances of ballets are a rare event at the BBC Proms and Wednesday night gave us the Proms première of what is a very popular ballet score on the stage. Prokofiev’s ballet, Cinderella, follows the traditional story of the downtrodden heroine, unlike the two operas which take this tale as their basis, and the music overflows with the magic of this beloved children’s story. Prokofiev started work on the ballet in 1940, but work on it had to be postponed because of Hitler’s declaration of war on the Soviet Union in June 1941. After a large musical digression into the composition of his opera War and Peace and the severe setbacks that were inevitable at such a time of war, the ballet was finally completed in 1944 and premièred in Moscow in 1945.
In spite of the hard times the Soviet Union underwent at the time of the ballet’s composition, there is an intrinsic sense of hope and high spirits to the music, though it is often faintly tempered with melancholy. There’s perhaps even a parallel to be drawn with Prokofiev’s home in Leningrad, which rose from the siege which the Germans inflicted upon it, to what many thought an impossible victory, like Cinderella overcoming her captive state in her father’s household. The opening is tense and stormy and the waltzes which mark the happy moments at the prince’s ball aren’t pure joy, but often seem fully aware of the past struggles required to achieve this new found happiness.
Under Gergiev the London Symphony Orchestra brought this score beautifully to life. Cinderella’s life as skivvy in her father’s house was an outpouring of raw pain, while the ugly sisters, Skinny and Dumpy, brought out all Prokofiev’s comic ability, with satires of old style dances. The woodwind really shone, with Michael Collins’ clarinet playing an array of fireworks leading to a restless argument of strings portraying the quarrelling sisters. Unusually for the LSO, the violins were at times a little scrappy, not always quite in sync during the rapid rhythmic passages which give Prokofiev's music its energy and verve.
The waltzes were all wonderfully lyric and swooping, and importantly, thoroughly Russian. So often these can become too Viennese and have all the aristocratic pomp but none of the earthy soul that is at the heart of Prokofiev's music. The entrance of the prince was announced by crisp off-stage brass, excellently played with perfect regal precision, though sadly out of sync at times with the orchestra on stage, probably not helped by the enormous acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall. The dances of Act two were all a rush of colorful woodwind and rich strings, and swept you off into the fantasy of the fairy tale. Prokofiev's orchestration is beautifully detailed, with the whole and the parts coming together with an electrifying effect. The evocative use of percussion when the clock strikes midnight is as wonderful in concert as it would be on stage, and the orchestra really give moments like these dramatic, as well as musical meaning.
After the interval came the ballet's third act, the hunt for Cinderella. You can hear the galloping of the horses and the glittering of the glass slipper through Prokofiev's wonderful sense for musical imagery, and the LSO really brought this out, leading into a wonderfully elegant ending.
While the LSO gave a formidable performance of this work, I was still left doubting whether the Proms première of this 105 minute work should have ever been. In spite of Prokofiev's vivid musical imagination and the eminently hummable waltz tunes, this is music that was born for the stage and is brought to life by dance. Without the dance the wonderful ideas hang only loosely together, and this timeless love story becomes somewhat impersonal. Prokofiev wrote this music to be danced to, and it is on the stage that it really sparkles.
Royal Albert HallKensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP