Opera ballet

The Paris Opera Ballet performs Le Rouge et le Noir by Stendhal

Expensive and risky: three-act ballets are a major investment for dance companies. The Paris Opera Ballet spared no effort to ensure that its first novelty in 13 years, that of Pierre Lacotte The Red and the Black, based on the novel of the same name by Stendhal, would at least be spectacular. Some 400 costumes are displayed on 16 tables; nearly 100 dancers, out of a total of 154, are involved.

As a result, The Red and the Black has the look and feel of a classic – but it’s unlikely to become one, blame it on its outdated storytelling. At 89, Lacotte is a giant of French ballet, best known for his reimaginings of 19th-century ballets, including The sylph and paquita. His stagecraft is evident in the effortless models for the waltzing and heel-snapping corps de ballet, but Stendhal’s novel was gutted of what would make it a worthy drama.

On paper, the characters add up to a complex survey of 1820s French society under the Bourbon Restoration. In Lacotte’s adaptation, however, all social dynamics have been flattened, leaving ballet archetypes. The very ambitious Julien Sorel, whose great love in the novel is undoubtedly Napoleon, is here a ready-made romantic hero.

Sorel’s entanglements with the three leading women pay homage to various ballets without ever acquiring an inner urgency. The nun Madame de Rênal (Amandine Albisson), who prays even halfway through the pas de deux, appears to Julien as a Gisele-like a vision when exiled in a seminary. Mathilde de la Mole, while having snobbish fun in Myriam Ould-Braham’s interpretation, faints when Julien pulls a dagger at her in the bedroom, a scene reminiscent of John Cranko’s. Onegin and the work of Kenneth MacMillan.

The sets were designed by Pierre Lacotte © Svetlana Loboff

The improbable heroine turns out to be Elisa, Madame de Rênal’s jealous maid, brilliantly played by Valentine Colasante. Yet even his solo work has little to say about the character, since most of the ballet’s variations consist of class steps and demanding footwork.

Lacotte’s insistence on literally following the plot also creates many awkward, silent transitions in Massenet’s patchwork score, while new scenery is deployed behind the curtain. The third act, in particular, has no less than nine different scenes, with aimless body numbers influenced by Roland Petit. While the many sets (designed by Lacotte himself), inspired by vintage engravings or hand-drawn in black and white, are prodigious, any playwright worth his salt would have killed off some of Lacotte’s darlings.

The most striking drama of the evening came from an injury to Mathieu Ganio, the first Julien of the evening, who was replaced halfway through the first act by Florian Magnenet. He acquitted himself with confidence, down to the trickiest partnership sequences.

Three hours later, Magnenet and Albisson helped the visibly emotional Lacotte out backstage for a post-show ovation. Why did the Paris Opera Ballet wait 20 years to bring him back after paquita? And why was The Red and the Black selected? The ballet command really works in mysterious ways.

★★★☆☆

As of November 4, operadeparis.fr