Warhorse Diaries 2016, part one: Aida and Nutcracker

Latonia Moore as Aida, photo by Cory Weaver
It's Nutcracker season again! Actually to be more precise it's warhorse season in NYC. Thanksgiving-Christmas is not the month for artistic institutions to take risks. It's tourist season, and so this means lots of Messiah's, Revelations, Rockettes, and Snowflakes. This is cash-cow time.

With that being said the quality that companies maintain these warhorses can be a good measure of the overall health of that company.  I hope to catch Alvin Ailey's Revelations and a Messiah before the season is done. And maybe another Nutcracker. Thanksgiving week I kicked off my tour of the warhoses at the Met for their reliable warhorse Aida and at NYCB for their money-tree, Nutcracker.

The energy of these two performances could not have been more different. On November 22, everything about Sonja Frisell's 1988 production of Aida looked and sounded tired. The production still has its old-fashioned picturesque charm but it's clear that the singers are left to their own devices without direction or guidance. Marco Armiliato led a sluggish and painfully out of tune Met orchestra. Dmitry Belosselskiy and Solomon Howard at least had sonorous bass voices. Marco Berti is a reliable belter and that's how he sang Radames: he walked to center stage, planted himself by the prompter and yelled the role from the very first notes of "Celeste Aida" to the end of the Tomb Scene. Mark Delavan (Amonasaro) sounds like the epitome of a provincial, rote baritone. Ekaterina Gubanova who was a wonderful Brangane a few months back has neither the voice or temperament for Amneris. Her smooth, medium-sized mezzo ran out of gas well before the Judgment Scene. She didn't bother acting this part which can be so much scenery-chewing fun. Just watch Fiorenza Cossotto eat the stage alive in this video and you'll get a sense of all that was missing from Gubanova's portrayal.

Latonia Moore was the reason I dragged myself to this performance. A year ago she was absolutely lovely in NYCO's otherwise middling Tosca. Moore, who is visibly pregnant, has one of the most beautiful soprano voices on the scene today. You can get drunk from the sound of her glowing, warm, soft-grained voice. And the evening started off strong with lovely floated notes at the end of "Ritorna vincitor" and a voice that soared rather than shrieked in the Triumphal Scene. Unfortunately she came to grief in the Nile Scene -- that ascent to the famously exposed high C did't really happen. The long ensuing duets with her father and Radames revealed that this role requires more stamina and body that Moore's delicate, lyrical voice can provide. I can't help but feel that she's being unfairly typecast for a role that's not really suited for her voice. I can only speculate about the reasons she's not being given Mimi or Desdemona. Shes an amazing singer. It was a depressing evening.

George Balanchine's Nutcracker was the huge blockbuster hit the New York City Ballet needed in 1954  and over 60 years later it's still an automatic sell-out. The quality of Nutcracker performances has ebbed and flowed along with the health of the company in the years following Balanchine's death. I remember a particularly dire performance over 10 years ago where the unfortunate Sugar Plum Fairy looked to be on the verge of tears the entire time.

This afternoon I went to a performance that was fresh as a daisy. The cast was well-stocked with a mix of adorable SAB kids, brand-new apprentice members and veteran principals who were all eager to show their best to the packed audience. Robert La Fosse reprised Drosselmeyer with the right amount of cape-waving eccentricity. The snowflakes and flowers were all together. The mice were as skittish and funny as ever, and touching: when their Mouse King (Alec Knight) died, they gathered around him with real heartbreak. Devin Alberda nailed the double-jump through the hoops in the Candy Cane variation. The eight Polichinelles who ran out of Mother Ginger were absolutely the best I've ever seen. They articulated the joyful pas de chats with the speed and precision of a true Balanchine dancer. They're little kids but dancing like pros. These details are so important in a successful Nutcracker performance.

Sterling Hyltin, eternally beautiful as SPF, photo @ Andrea Mohin
There's really not more superlatives I can add to the Sugarplum Fairy/Dewdrop team of Sterling Hyltin and Ashley Bouder (pictured above). Both are veterans at their roles and their experience shows -- Hyltin knows exactly how to wave that wand and bourrée downstage as the beautiful Sugarplum Fairy. If you closed your eyes and imagined a Kingdom of the Sweets Sterling Hyltin is exactly the enchantress of your dreams. And, in a more technical way, her balances were rock-solid and her pique and chaine turns were lightning fast. In the celesta solo she had a way of bouncing her pointes in passé/relevé so that her feet twinkled with the music. Andrew Veyette as the Cavalier was an expert partner, knowing exactly when to let go to give Hyltin the illusion of total weightlessness or invincibility. Their pas de deux ended with a picture-perfect fish dive. Of course.

As for Bouder, she powered through the Dewdrop role with a fearsome determination. In that long diagonal where she "sprinkles" all the flowers all her jumps lingered in the air for a second before she charged forward. She prolonged every one of Dewdrop's exits with an extra-long-held balance in arabesque. Of course she chugged out a few fouettés along the way. It was as if she was showing the kids how it's done.

I actually love warhorse season. There's something comforting about the Rockettes kicking their legs for the umpteenth time or having an entire auditorium rock along to Revelations . But old horses need love and nourishment. One company (the Met) seems content to let its warhorses starve, while another company across the plaza treats its old faithful with the enthusiasm of a brand-new puppy. The results of this treatment are all too easy for the audience to see.


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