Benjamin Britten’s one and only ballet score

Benjamin Britten’s one and only ballet score

Robert Tanitch reviews Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Prince of the Pagodas at London Coliseum, WC2

The Prince of the Pagodas, with specially commissioned music by Benjamin Britten, should work well as a ballet. A great many choreographers have tried, since John Cranko’s premiere by the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden in 1957, to get it right. The most notable is Kenneth Macmillan’s version in 1989.

It has never really worked. The complexity of the music, the inordinate length of the score and the poor narrative get in the way.

In 1979 Dame Ninette de Valois had suggested to a 21-year-old David Bintley that he might like to consider Britten’s score but, as he admits now, he could not make head or tail of it then. 30 years later his version had its premiere in 2011 in Tokyo where he is also the artistic director of the National Ballet of Japan.

Bintley has transplanted the action to Japan and changed the story so that it is about the love a girl has for her long-lost brother whom she believes is dead.

Princess Belle Sakura (Miki Mizutani) is being courted by an African native, a Mohawk, a Cossack and a Yankee (an Uncle Sam lookalike). She rejects all four to the fury of her wicked stepmother, the Empress Epine, who slaps her face hard.

Sakura is rescued by a Salamander who is in fact her brother (Mathias Dignam). He has been transformed into a salamander by the Empress (Celine Gittens) and takes her to his kingdom. Their journey through Earth, Air, Fire and Water brings her into contact with Okai (comic goblin monsters), sea-horses, two deep-sea creatures (deeply camp) and flames.

The Empress and the Salamander (so much more interesting and sexy than the brother) have the best roles and make the most impact. But The Prince of the Pagodas is primarily spectacle and it is as undemanding spectacle that it will give pleasure to many.

David Bintley’s production is chiefly notable for Rae Smith’s oriental sets and pastel coloured costumes so beautifully lit by Peter Teigen. Particularly effective is the red flame sequence with the whole ensemble

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