Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Balanchine’s Donizetti Fares Better than Verdi

The final offering of choreography by George Balanchine in the “Digital Spring Season” of the New York City Ballet was devoted entirely to “Donizetti Variations,” produced as part of a Salute to Italy program first performed on November 16, 1960. Gaetano Donizetti was one of four Italian composers, whose music was set to choreography. The other three were Gioachino Rossini (the comic “Con Amore”), Carlo Gesualdo (arranged by Igor Stravinsky for “Monumentum pro Gesualdo”), and Vincenzo Bellini (the dark “La Sonnambula,” inspired by the opera of the same name). The music for “Donizetti Variations” was drawn from the opera Dom Sébastien, the last opera that the composer completed.

According to a review for The New York Times by Donal Henahan of a concert performance of this opera in Carnegie Hall in March of 1984, “some forgotten critic” described this opera as “a funeral in five acts.” Needless to say, there is nothing funereal about Balanchine’s choreography. Rather, it is yet another model of the choreographer’s imaginative approaches to pure abstraction, as engaging as last week’s broadcast of “Diamonds” was. Indeed, like “Diamonds,” “Donizetti Variations” has been structured around a grand pas de deux, with the variations and coda interleaved with the other sections involving the ensemble of six female dancers and three males.

Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette near the beginning of their pas de deux adagio (screen shot from the video being discussed)

The primary soloists were Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette. While they were true to the steps, they did not always endow any sense of personality in their respective executions. The original female soloist was Melissa Hayden, and she still owned that part when I saw her in the New York State Theater over half a decade later. Indeed, she shined all the brighter next to the almost bloodless accounts of solo passages taken by the other dancers. To some extent I worry that the current round of reconstructions of Balanchine choreography pay too much attention to the letter to acknowledge the spirit. Still, seeing “Donizetti Variations” after all these years was like meeting an almost-forgotten old friend; and, if the execution itself tended to short-change expressiveness, the meeting was still a welcome one.

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