Hamburg Opera House
July 1, 2007
Reviewed by Horst Koegler
Opening the 33rd Hamburg Ballet Days, John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid scored a roaring success. It is based on the story of the water sprite who desires to become human and falls in love with a mortal, but has to relinquish him to his bride, sadly returning to the sea. However Neumeier, responsible for choreography, production, set, costumes, and lights, gives it a new twist by emphasizing the role of the Poet (Hans Christian Andersen) who daydreams the story on a ship to finally identify with the Mermaid’s unfulfilled love. They both undergo a spiritual metamorphosis—similar to the apotheosis in the ballet classics, only they are not united in eternal bliss, but progress towards literary immortality.
Neumeier commutes between realistic scenes on the ship and the surrealist submarine world, where the Mermaid is introduced as a creature without feet, her body extending into a long cylindrical tail, while three Magic Shadows keep her afloat like in the Japanese Kabuki theatre. Her transformation by the Sea Witch into a human is a stunning theatrical tour de force, causing her the most agonizing tortures. Her new legs refuse to lend her support, so that she constantly struggles and falls down, finally giving up and watching the merry-making passengers on the ship from a wheelchair.
Russian-American composer Lera Auerbach has contributed a wonderfully rich score, magically evoked by Klaus Peter Seibel and the Hamburg Philharmonic. Neumeier’s production plays in front of a skyblue horizon, with just some spare decor for the ship, while the submarine scene is suggested by white ribbons moving gently like the play of the waves. Here the dances have a soft, light liquidity, while the passengers on the ship have a more earthen quality—for example the sailors doing their exercises. Later on in the wedding scene some ballroom arrangements build up in swirling patterns. It is the richest choreography Neumeier has ever created. Like a master painter he presents it in subtly shaded translucent colors—not without some humorous touches like the occasional swat on the nose.
In the title role Silvia Azzoni creates a highly complex character, very much her own. Rather small-scale, she looks very fragile but seems to possess a body of liquid steel. Her suffering on earth requires the agility of an acrobat, while her features express a forlorn sadness. As the Poet, Lloyd Riggins pours a melancholy love into his role. As Edvard (The Prince), Carsten Jung is an easy-going charmer and elegant dancer. He and Hélène Bouchet as his bride contrast in their happiness strongly with the frustrated longings of the Poet and the Mermaid. Otto Bubenícek is the somewhat clichéd Sea Witch—one wishes that Neumeier had spiced the choreography for him with some Bournonvillean accent à la Golfo. The Hamburg corps dance with splendid dash and are totally involved, establishing The Little Mermaid among the masterworks of Neumeier’s imposing Hamburg repertoire.