La Fille mal gardée

Choreography Frederick Ashton
The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House

Vadim Muntagirov in La Fille mal gardée Credit: Tristram Kenton
Vadim Muntagirov and Laura Morera in La Fille mal gardée Credit: Tristram Kenton
Vadim Muntagirov and Laura Morera in La Fille mal gardée Credit: Tristram Kenton
Vadim Muntagirov, Laura Morera and Paul Kay in La Fille mal gardée Credit: Tristram Kenton
Laura Morera and Vadim Muntagirov in La Fille mal gardée Credit: Tristram Kenton

A breath of fresh air blows through Frederick Ashton's final full-length ballet La Fille mal gardée (The Wayward Daughter) in large part because of the inspired pairing of the experienced vivacious Laura Morera (Lise) with diffident Vadim Muntagirov debuting in the role of her lover Colas in the first cast.

A quintessentially English ballet born of Ashton’s beloved Suffolk Constable countryside, ironically it was created in 1960 from an 1828 French ballet, itself taken from Jean Dauberval’s 1789 original version, hence the French names.

Petipa and Ivanov staged their own production in St Petersburg in 1885, and Tamara Karsavina formerly of the Mariinsky Theatre suggested Ashton make his own version. Thus is ballet history made.

The music, freely adapted with additions of his own by John Lanchbery for the most part from Ferdinand Hérold’s score for the 1828 Paris Opéra production, guides the guileless storyline through Lancashire clog dance that sets feet tapping, Morris stick and maypole country dances and delectable mime scenes, not least Lise imaging herself married to Colas, having his babies until she is caught red-handed by her lover hidden in a stack of hay.

Osbert Lancaster’s picture-book bucolic designs set the happy sunny barnyard tone: cockerel (Michael Stojko also doubling as Notary’s Clerk) and his four chorus girl hens a delightful comic turn, a well-behaved real white Shetland pony and trap, boys and girls bringing in the harvest, merrymaking, butter churning, wool spinning, and a few pranks and pratfalls—simplicity itself.

A simple tale of simple folk and simpleton: Lise loves Colas, Colas loves Lise, but her mother Widow Simone wants her to marry rich farmer Thomas’s boy Alain, who will always blissfully remain a child, preferring his red hobby horse umbrella, gleefully enjoying the wind lifting him in a storm.

Mother is won over, or rather resigns herself to the young lovers’ cause. Finding them locked in Lise’s bedroom through a fault of her own, she gives in to the inevitable. A shotgun wedding will not be necessary.

A family friendly show, a marvellous introduction to ballet for young and old, for the fresh and the jaded, the downhearted and tired, Fille is a tonic for the spirits.

Arriving tired, I leave with a spring in my step, enchanted by the superlative execution of charming virtuosic choreography, light speedy pirouettes, bourrées courus and fouettés. And to hear children’s spontaneous laughter is reward in itself.

Ashton’s wit comes from old time music hall caricature, but his fiendishly difficult fast ballet steps from mentor Bronislava Nijinska, stagecraft from Anna Pavlova and Isadora Duncan, whom he adored. He keeps you on your toes.

Colas and Lise’s pas de deux are inspiring and light as air. Lovely épaulements from her and astonishing box splits and one-hand lift in the air from him. Every happy nuance and knowing glance captured perfectly. Their first ribbon pas de deux predicts a happy ending, but he will be under her thumb, no doubt about that.

Will Tuckett has made Widow Simone his own, oozing charisma his stagecraft is peerless: his curtain call brings the house down. Whether in paper curlers or fancy wig, during admonishments and cuddles, Simone's ‘wisdom’ is no match for youthful ingenuity, nor should it be. Young love will always find a way.

Gary Avis is unrecognisable as farmer Thomas, Paul Kay is a definitive uncoordinated Alain, teased remorselessly by the village boys and girls during the flute dance, Alastair Marriott as Village Notary brings a touch of Robert Helpmann to his small role. And the cast of friends, villagers, grooms and harvesters help the two and a quarter hours slip down like milk and honey.

But it’s the unforced ease and rapport between the two leads which gives that extra kick to the evening. Muntagirov looks blissfully happy on the Royal Opera House stage, his natural habitat. Not since partnering Daria Klimentová have I seen him so relaxed.

And spirited surefooted Morera is not a wayward daughter at all, just knows her own mind. Her mother is not too good at keeping her under lock and key, under guard as the French title implies. All ends for the best in the best of possible worlds.

Reviewer: Vera Liber