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Paris Opera Ballet

'Clavigo'

by Cassandra

October 27-28, 2003 -- Palais Garnier, Paris

Last week I travelled to Paris to see Roland Petit’s two-act ballet “Clavigo”. Of course I had gone with the intention of seeing Nikolai Tsiskaridze in the title role but his injury meant that sadly I was to miss seeing him dance with the Paris Opera Ballet yet again, as when he danced" La Bayadere" with them two years ago I was in Australia. The two performances I saw on the 27th and 28th October were both danced by Nicholas Le Riche, the creator of the role of Clavigo and very good he was too, dancing opposite Clairemarie Osta (his wife in real life) in the female lead.

"Clavigo" is based on an early play by Goethe which in turn is based on an actual incident in the life of the writer Beaumarchais whose sister fell for a charming Spaniard who promised to marry her but then deserted her, causing the lady to die of grief shortly after. The ballet is in two acts and eighteen scenes and although the action takes place in the eighteenth century, the sets are very minimal and don’t relate to any specific era. The costumes are rather plain with no references to the opulence of the period, and only the unadorned empire style dresses of the women and knee breeches of the men indicate that this is an historical drama.

The ballet begins at a ball as Marie (Osta) enters with her brother (Karl Paquette) who isn’t identified as Beaumarchais in the programme. The pair look slightly more formal than the other guests and appear less at ease in the degenerate company they find themselves in. Clavigo (La Riche) appears with his friend Carlos (Yann Saïz) and is almost immediate drawn to the beautiful Marie. The attraction is mutual to the irritation of both Marie’s brother and Carlos. They dance an intense pas de deux of escalating ardour. After Marie’s departure from the ball, Carlos loses no time in identifying what the programme describes as “other pleasures” and Clavigo allows himself to be distracted by a pair of courtesans in a debauched interlude observed with approval by the enigmatic Carlos.

We move from the ballroom to Marie’s bedroom, which opens on to a garden resembling a surrealist landscape. She is dreaming of Clavigo and tosses with repressed passion upon her bed. Suddenly one becomes aware that a strange dark mass is descending towards her body from above, and as arms and legs unfold in spider fashion you recognize Clavigo as her erotic fantasy made flesh. This is a scene no one in the audience is ever likely to forget! Waking from this encounter Marie becomes hysterical and is discovered by her brother in a catatonic state. Clavigo arrives too late on the scene and is curtly dismissed.

In the second act a woman who is surely a descendent of the Siren who corrupted Balanchine’s Prodigal Son and who is identified here only as “The Stranger” (Marie-Agnès Gillot), sets about seducing Clavigo to the obvious satisfaction of Carlos. In the next scene Marie appears to Clavigo in the form of a vision as he begins to experience remorse together with the understanding that lust is no substitute for genuine love.

Marie is dead and her body is carried high above the heads of the black-cloaked mourners forming the funeral procession. Clavigo is distraught with grief and dances with her dead body. Marie’s brother appears with drawn sword and Carlos passes a sword to Clavigo, who only feebly tries to defend himself while still holding Marie in his arms and is stabbed through the heart. The ballet concludes with the dying Clavigo performing a protracted virtuosic solo as Clavigo’s death throes combine with guilt and despair.

This powerful ballet owes a lot to the outstanding score of Gabriel Yared, whose music is constructed in such a way that it seems to underpin the entire ballet. Yared understands the need for recognisable rhythms for the dancers to perform to and provides them so well that passages are still in my head as I write this. Although his style appears to be his own, I was reminded of Philip Glass’s "Low Symphony" in the second act, and there were hints of period pastiche in the first. Has Yared’s music been recorded I wonder? It deserves to be.

Petit’s choreography is as inventive as I expect of him, with powerful images, such as Clavigo’s descent on a wire and a wonderful kiss between the lovers where they began standing together, sank to the floor, rolled, regained their feet and remained all the time with lips locked together to the audible murmurs of appreciation from the audience. Petit uses the corps de ballet boldly, almost like a Greek chorus at times, as they crowd in close to the action, something that’s become almost a trademark with this choreographer over the years. They also perform in a variety of styles ranging from eighteenth century formality to jerky marionette type movements. The Paris Opera Ballet corps is now called upon to perform a very wide range of styles and seems to excel in all of them, I can’t praise them highly enough. Oh yes, one other thing must be mentioned. They are so good looking (one could swoon over the men!) that I couldn’t help wondering if they are chosen for their looks as much as their dancing ability.

In the role of Marie, Clairemarie Osta looked just about ideal; small and pretty with delicate features and an air of fragile vulnerability, she stood out from the corrupt crowd by virtue of her freshness and innocence. Osta is the newest of the Paris etoiles and this was the first time I had seen her in a major role. I was impressed. As her lover, Clavigo, Nicholas Le Riche threw himself into the role of the dissolute Spaniard with abandon, falling in love and then allowing himself to revel in the debaucheries offered him by the ambiguous Carlos with equal relish. His lengthy death scene was heart wrenching as he suffered the extreme consequences of his actions.

Of the other roles Yann Saïz led Clavigo into the arms of several predatory women for his voyeuristic satisfaction, chief among them being Marie-Agnes Gillot as an Amazonian dominatrix, rapacious and ready for anything. As The Brother, Karl Paquette brought an air of sobriety to the action, polite but disapproving of the orgy that develops at the ball, observing cynically the flawed aristos he would so cleverly depict when he wrote his librettos for Mozart.

Although both I and my companions from London enjoyed the evening very much, I have to note that a Paris based friend was very unhappy with the explicit (simulated) sexual acts in a couple of scenes in the ballet. Being London based and accustomed to the work of Kenneth MacMillan, I had witnessed nothing I hadn’t seen the Royal Ballet do at Covent Garden. However it’s worth noting that many people find these depictions offensive and the ballet is definitely not one to take the kids to.

Did I regret not seeing Tsiskaridze? Yes. He would have been perfect in the role, as he possesses an uninhibited quality that would have added an extra dimension. However I was full of admiration for the dancers I saw and they thoroughly deserved their ovations after a performance that was emotionally draining both for them and the audience.

For a review of this Paris Opera Ballet production of "Clavigo" by Audrey Delsanti, click here.

Edited by Jeff.

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