The Sleeping Beauty

Music by Tchaikovsky, choreography Marius Petipa
Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House

Marianela Nuñez as Princess Aurora and Thiago Soares as Prince Florimund in The Royal Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty Credit: ROH / Johan Persson

Charles Perrault’s La Belle au bois dormant, one of the best-loved fairy tales, was first dramatised in England in 1806 and has been a great standby in British theatre ever since Grimaldi appeared in a pantomime version in 1822.

JR Planche’s extravaganza, produced at Covent Garden in 1840, was much admired for its singing, dancing and spectacle. Beauty (Princess Is-A-Belle) was played by Madam Vestris, famous for her voice and legs. The first night was pretty disastrous: the machinery broke down, the fairies didn't fly and the Prince slipped as he picked Beauty off the bed and they both fell to the floor.

Fifty years later, Tchaikovsky was thrilled when the Director of the Russian Imperial Theatre invited him to compose a ballet. The score was written to the exacting and detailed demands of Marius Petipa. The discipline, far from inhibiting him, produced one of ballet’s greatest scores. The original production in 1890, an evocation of Louis X1V and Versailles in all its pomp, luxury and opulent grandeur, was the crowning glory of the Royal Imperial Ballet.

The ballet was first seen in London in 1921, produced by Serge Diaghilev with lavish designs by Leon Bakst. It ran for 115 performances and lost a fortune. The public then didn’t want to see pure classical dance. A desperate attempt to attract audiences by introducing live animals was quickly dropped.

The Sleeping Beauty re-opened the Royal Opera House in 1946 after World War II. Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpmann starred in a production, designed by Oliver Messel, which would go on to conquer America and continue to be performed for the next 25 years. The present production, which recreates Messel’s fabulous designs, pays homage to Ninette de Valois.

I saw Fonteyn dance Aurora and I have never forgotten her in the notoriously difficult Rose Adage—one of classical ballet’s great moments. Courted by four suitors, she was able to hold her balance far longer than any Aurora I have seen since. She took all the time in the world, lifting her hand high each time before bringing it slowly down into each suitor's palm.

The one thing everybody knows about the story is that the Prince wakes Beauty with a kiss, though there is, surprise, surprise, no kiss in Perrault’s version. In a much earlier, medieval account the Prince actually rapes Beauty while she sleeps.

The Sleeping Beauty is a showcase for spectacle and dance. There is no drama. There is no emotional involvement. The awakening is amazingly perfunctory. Beauty (Lauren Cuthbertson) and her Prince (Matthew Golding) have little opportunity to be lovers. The final act and its divertissements need the kiss of life. So did the matinée audience.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch