The Royal Ballet's revival of The Prince of the Pagodas is an extraordinary achievement in many ways, not least because the ballet has an undistinguished history. The original, set to a Britten score by John Cranko in 1957, was barely revived even by its choreographer, and Kenneth MacMillan's 1989 adaptation has not been staged since 1996, despite its historic status as the last of the great choreographer's full-length ballets, Benjamin Britten's only ballet score, and the first public showcase for Darcey Bussell's precocious talent (MacMillan created the role of Princess Rose for Bussell, and her bravura first-night performance, aged only 19, led to her appointment as the Royal Ballet's youngest ever principal). To stage Pagodas in 2012, therefore, required both chutzpah and commitment from the Royal Ballet: with only two dancers left in the company who danced it in 1996, this revival required serious hard work of the kind more normally associated with brand new productions – a whole company of dancers had to learn it from scratch, and old costumes, sets and lighting designs needed repairing, replacing or re-conceiving.
For all this effort and investment, the Royal Ballet must be hoping not merely to produce a historical artefact which will interest Britten and MacMillan devotees, but a full-length narrative ballet with the popular appeal to fill the ROH in regular revivals. Judging by the number of children present on the opening night, the ballet-going public was certainly seduced by the marketing of this twentieth-century fairytale for the new millennium, but did it deliver the magic?
Well, yes, it did, but perhaps not quite in the way audiences unfamiliar with the work might have been expecting. Both scenario and music have been revised for this revival in order to cut the running time and tighten the storytelling, but the plot, with its multi-fairytale pedigree (part Beauty and the Beast, part Cinderella, part King Lear), is still bizarre. An aged Emperor divides his realm unequally between his two daughters and the disadvantaged elder, Epine, gets her revenge by snatching his crown and cursing his court, in the process transforming the prince betrothed to the favoured younger sister, Rose, into a loathsome salamander. Rose retreats into a dream land where she is troubled by four kings vying for her hand, and manages to dance with her prince unseeing, only for him to become a salamander again when she removes the blindfold. Hesitantly, she learns to pity and love him, and when she awakes in the now-corrupt court her love is able to restore the salamander prince, who defeats Epine and her protectors, restoring order and allowing love to triumph.
Although laboured, this plot allows MacMillan to plumb depths of psychological complexity that are unknown to nineteenth century fairytale ballets. Princess Rose is on the cusp of adolescence, and unlike Aurora in the Sleeping Beauty she actively confronts the challenges of desire, rejecting the four importunate kings, and learning to love her prince in both his ugliness and his beauty. The role is technically and dramatically demanding: a ballerina must convey extraordinary sweetness coupled with inner strength, while executing MacMillan's fiendish choreography, keeping time to Britten's irregular rhythms, and making it all look effortless. Fortunately Marianela Nunez has never been better. Her technical assurance is breathtaking, and if her relationship with handsome, athletic Nehemiah Kish as the prince does not have quite the breathless tenderness of Bussell and Jonathan Cope's legendary pairing in the same roles, it nevertheless has a wonderful depth and maturity, conveying the richness of MacMillan's vision, in which a princess confronts the ugly side of human existence with her eyes open and still manages to believe in love.
This is a ballet particularly rich in male parts: the soloists dancing the four kings, caricatures of male repulsiveness in different ways, were excellent, particularly in Act II where their joint courting of Princess Rose pulsed with threatening energy. Alexander Campbell was a real joy as the Fool: his dancing was superb – fresh, energetic and precise – and he acted the part with a dignity and sureness of touch which recalled the best of Shakespeare's wise, ageless fools. The fantastical turrets and tattered flags of the set were pitch-perfect, but the Elizabethan costumes looked rather too heavy and constricting, particularly for those unfortunate dancers who had to wear baboon masks with them (an irredeemably odd sight).
Britten's score is original, lush and melodic and should be better known in its own right, while MacMillan's mature choreography is much more intricate and interesting than that of his early blockbusters Manon and Romeo and Juliet, though it still retains the 'wow' factor, particularly in the pas-de-deux, which made those two ballets such crowd-pleasers. Pagodas is a unique and essential ballet: let's hope this revival finally brings it the recognition it deserves.
Royal Opera House, Covent GardenBow Street Covent Garden
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2E 9DD
Duration: 2 hours 40 minutes
Marianella Nunez and Nehemiah Kish in The Prince of the Pagodas © ROH / Johan Persson