Metamorphosis Titian 2012

The Royal Ballet and the National Gallery
Royal Opera House

Edward Watson in Machina Credit: Johan Persson, courtesy of ROH
Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Nehemiah Kish in Trespass Credit: Johan Persson, courtesy of ROH
Marianela Nunez and The Royal Ballet in Diana and Actaeon Credit: Johan Persson courtesy of ROH

Metamorphosis is a unique collaboration between the Royal Opera House and the National Gallery and is part of the London 2012 Festival.

Choreographers, composers dancers, painters, designers and poets respond to three paintings by Titian: Diana and Callisto, Diana and Actaeon and The Death of Actaeon.

The paintings, commissioned by King Philip II of Spain specifically for his bedroom, were inspired by Ovid’s epic poem Metamorphosis.

Two of the paintings were recently bought for the nation. Diana and Callisto cost £45m. Diana and Actaeon cost £50m. (I am told this is half to a third they would be worth on the open market.) They can be seen together for the first time since the 18th century at the National Gallery. Lucien Freud said they were simply the most beautiful pictures in the world.

Actaeon, you will remember, was turned into a stag by the goddess Diana because he had seen her in the nude when she was bathing. He was then torn to bits by his own hounds. Callisto was seduced by Zeus. The painting captures the moment when Diana finds out she is pregnant and banishes her.

The performance at the Royal Opera House has to be seen within the context of the Titian exhibition at the National Gallery where the inspirations by Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger are on show.

There are also poems by Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Seamus Heaney, Wendy Cope and Frances Leviston and you can hear them reading them in filmed extracts.

Having been to the National Gallery earlier in the week, I arrived at the Royal Opera House looking forward to an erotic evening.

The triple bill is also a farewell production to its artistic director, Monica Mason (who hadn’t wanted a gala or anything retrospective) which showcases her seven choreographers.

Machina is choreographed by Kim Branstrup and Wayne McGregor and totally abstract. The music is by Nico Muhly and conducted by Tom Seligman. The designer is sculptor Conrad Shawcross.

Diana is represented by a huge robot with a light at the end of a tentacle. The robot looks like something out of H G Wells’s The War of the Worlds and from where I was sitting it never becomes integral with the performance. What kept me riveted was Edward Watson’s performance. He dominates the stage.

Trespass is choreographed by Alastair Marriott and Christopher Wheeldon in a series of episodes. The music is by Mark-Anthony Turnage and conducted by Barry Wordsworth. Mark Wallinger is the designer.

At the National Gallery Wallinger puts a real-live naked Diana in a bathroom and allows visitors to see her only through the cracks in a venetian blind, thus turning viewers into peeping toms. At ROH he provides a large curvaceous mirror to conjure up a grotto for bathing. The jolly dancers are (sadly) fully clothed in bathing suits. The nymphs’ costumes are decorated with crescent moons.

Diana and Actaeon is the only one in the triple bill to actually have a narrative. There are three choreographers: Liam Scarlett, Will Tuckett and Jonathan Watkins. The music is by Jonathan Dove and conducted by Domini Greer. Chris Ofili provides a gigantic (60ft x 30ft) colourful Trinidadian tropical forest.

Marianela Nunez is a fiery-red Diana. Federico Bonelli is a dull Actaeon; he keeps exiting for no reason and then coming back unchanged. There are no antlers. Actaeon without antlers is like Castor without Pollux. There is no drama, no excitement and no suspense. The hounds are not nearly frightening enough when they turn on their master and tear him to pieces. The high spot is the singing off-stage by Kim Sheehan and Andrew Rees. Dove doesn’t want the audience to be concerned with what is being said so they sing in Greek and Latin.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch

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