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Artists of the Ballet in The Winter’s Tale. Photo by Karolina Kuras, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.
Artists of the Ballet in The Winter’s Tale. Photo by Karolina Kuras, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.
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Festive Celebrations At Lincoln Center

Picture of Patricia Contino
Updated: 9 February 2017
During July 25-30, Lincoln Center’s two festivals celebrated anniversaries in exceptional ways. There was nothing surprising about the concert opening the Mostly Mozart Festival’s 50th season, except for its energetic approach to its namesake. Then, The Lincoln Center Festival and The National Ballet of Canada marked 400 years since Shakespeare’s death with Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale; a full-length ballet. We put these celebrations under the microscope to get the full details on how these events spectacularly unraveled.

For The Illuminated Heart, Mostly Mozart’s Opening Night Gala on July 25 (repeated the following evening) director Netia Jones removed the first several rows of seats in the David Geffen Hall to accommodate the orchestra and music director Louis Langrée. In their regular spot was a stage-wide white box for video and translation projections. Each opera had specific projected backgrounds: a reception room for The Marriage of Figaro, a blue sky for Così fan tutte (Women are Like That), and ancient Roman gardens for La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus).

"The Illuminated Heart: Selections from Mozart’s Operas" | Courtesy of © 2016 Richard Termine Richard Termine

“The Illuminated Heart: Selections from Mozart’s Operas” | Courtesy of © 2016 Richard Termine Richard Termine

The idea worked because the singers thoroughly enjoyed being multi-cast for 90 intermission-free minutes. Mozart never completed Zaide, whose surviving music mentions slavery, which is why Nadine Sierra sang Zaide’s aria Ruhe sanft, Mein holdes Leben (Rest in peace, My dear life) with her hands bound. Sierra provided a fully dimensional impassioned performance. Another was baritone Peter Mattei for the duet Crudel! perchè finora (Cruel girl, why did you make me wait so long?”) from The Marriage of Figaro. Susanna the maid and her employer Count Alamveva put the moves on each other for very different reasons. Mattei, who worked with Ingmar Bergman in his native Sweden, is known for his portrayal of the duplicitous Count and sang his aria Hai già vinta la causa!…Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro (You’ve already won the case! Shall I, while sighing, see), believing that he’s outwitted his faster-thinking servants. He also joined soprano Ana Maria Martinez and mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack for the trio Soave sia il vento (May the wind be gentle), one of Così fan tutte’s few quiet and non-misogynistic moments.

"The Illuminated Heart: Selections from Mozart’s Operas" | Courtesy of © 2016 Richard Termine Richard Termine

“The Illuminated Heart: Selections from Mozart’s Operas” | Courtesy of © 2016 Richard Termine Richard Termine

The Illuminated Heart closed with the finale from The Marriage of Figaro, which is as perfect a way to end a concert as it is an opera. But the last word was the penultimate offering from Idomeneo, Oh smania! oh furie!…D’Oreste e d’Aiace (Oh frenzy! Oh Furies!…The torments of Orestes and Ajax) sung by soprano Christine Goerke. The character is Elettra — the Electra who had her brother murder their mother. It is a Mad Scene in the truest sense because Elettra is being her usual, angry self only this time in post-Trojan War Crete. Each condemnation brought higher notes to sing. Goerke made such a strong impression that seeing the entire opera might be a letdown. And chances are she may not get to wear long feathers in her hair in another production either.

Christopher Wheeldon also includes a mad scene in The Winter’s Tale. King Leontes’ (Piotr Stanczyk) hand starts twitching when he watches his wife Hermione (Jurgita Dronina) dance a little too closely and slowly with his best friend King Polixenes (Brendan Saye). His growing suspicions cause his entire body to convulse. The duet of friendship with Polixenes is repeated with the same steps, now signifying hate. When the King returns for the final act, he walks bent in half.

Hannah Fischer and Piotr Stanczyk with Artists of the Ballet in The Winter’s Tale. Photo by Daniel Neuhaus, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.

Hannah Fischer and Piotr Stanczyk with Artists of the Ballet in The Winter’s Tale. Photo by Daniel Neuhaus, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.

Leontes’ characterization is one of several un-balletic things Wheeldon does: Hermione dances with a baby bump, Leontes physically abuses her, their daughter Perdita (Elena Lobsanova) and Polixenes’ son Florizel (Francesco Gabriele Frola) flee his angry father by boat in front of a curtain projecting a sea storm, and the servant Antigonus (Peter Ottmann) famously exits the stage pursued by a bear. The bear wasn’t a dancer in costume but a large drawing of one pulled across the stage as Joby Talbot’s score growled courtesy of master puppeteer and MacArthur Genius Basil Twist, a frequent Wheeldon collaborator.

With these rather unusual elements, Wheeldon humanizes a play described by W.H. Auden as “complicated, more like life, and aesthetically more satisfying”. Winter’s Tale is a daring choice for an evening-long ballet, but Wheeldon makes it work because of the play’s oddities. The multiple tragedies of the first act give way to the May Day Festival of the second that Perdita (adopted by shepherds following her abandonment as a newborn), Prince Florizel (in disguise), and the locals participate in; the choreography and music is lighter.

Wheeldon brings the conflicting emotions together beautifully in the third and final act. Following the reunion with his daughter Perdita, Leontes is led to the new statue of Hermione by the faithful servant Paulina (Svetlana Lunkina). After touching it, her hand moves and she is brought “back” to life after being hidden from him. The scene is built around their extended reunion pas de deux (if you’re the lead ballerina a Wheeldon ballet, chances are you are going to be lifted in every possible, graceful way), but the first embrace between mother and daughter is heartbreaking because it didn’t have to be like this. The final moments are Paulina’s. Her impossible task of reuniting this family is complete.

"The Illuminated Heart: Selections from Mozart’s Operas" | Courtesy of © 2016 Richard Termine Richard Termine

“The Illuminated Heart: Selections from Mozart’s Operas” | Courtesy of © 2016 Richard Termine Richard Termine

The National Ballet of Canada’s diverse repertory provides their company with plenty of opportunities to become convincing dancers and actors. Piotr Stanczyk resembles Benedict Cumberbatch, but could Sherlock dance Shakespeare with such anger and sorrow? Jurgita Dronina gave Wheeldon the blameless Hermione a lot to dance in one and a half acts, but Jurgita Dronina gave her a soul. The corps de ballet was outstanding portraying the multiple roles of the Chorus in the prologue, Leontes’ horrified courtiers, and Bohemian May Day revelers.