Valentine’s Day weekend 2015 will be remembered as my ‘Napoli weekend’. I wish I could say I spent a romantic weekend in Italy. Sadly, that is not the case. It is, however, the weekend I saw August Bournonville’s ballet Napoli, or The Fisherman and his Bride for the first time. Actually it is the weekend I saw it for the first, second, third and fourth times. I had tickets for Friday evening’s performance. Then I received an “SOS” message from the Symphony Hall volunteer coordinator saying they were in desperate need of ushers for the Saturday and Sunday performances. Luckily, I enjoyed it on Friday so seeing it again (and again and again) is not as burdensome as it might otherwise have been.
My BFF, Wikipedia, tells me August Bournonville (1805 – 1879) was a Danish choreographer who initiated a unique style in ballet known as the “Bournonville School” which was inspired by 19th century French dance techniques. From 1830 to 1848 he was choreographer for the Royal Danish Ballet, for which he created more than 50 ballets known for their exuberance, lightness and beauty. Only a limited number of these works have survived. His best-known ballets are La Sylphide, Napoli, Le Conservatoire, The Kermesse in Bruges, and A Folk Tale.
First performed in 1842, Napoli is a popular ballet in Denmark but had never been performed in the United States before Ballet Arizona’s current production. Ib Anderson, the Danish-born Artistic Director of BalletAZ had done the ballet with the Royal Danish Ballet, first as a student and later as a principal dancer in the company.
Set in three acts, the story is a simple one, The beautiful Teresina falls in love with a poor fisherman, Gennaro. While out in his boat, they encounter a storm. He is brought back to Naples unconscious but she is lost at sea. Everyone assumes she has drowned. Happily, though unbeknownst to anyone in Naples, she did not drown but, instead, washed ashore in a mysterious blue grotto. The grotto is an enchanted place ruled by Golfo, his minions, and a harem of Naiads (Sea Fairies). Golfo turns Teresina into a Naiad and she forgets all about poor Gennaro.
Back in Naples, Gennaro grieves the loss of his beloved until a priest gives him a pendant adorned by a picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM). At the priest’s suggestion, Gennaro sets back out to sea armed with the magical jewelry in search of his lost love.
* * * Spoiler Alert * * *
Gennaro finds his way to the blue grotto. At first, Teresina does not recognize him, being all Naiad-ish now, but he jogs her memory with the help of the BVM pendant. Golfo and his minions rough up Gennaro in an effort to stop him from leaving with Teresina but Gennaro scares them off with his BVM icon. They send them both on their way, back to Naples, with some really cool undersea jewelry as a souvenir. Gennaro and Teresina return home to Naples where they marry and everyone (and I do mean EVERYONE!) dances at the reception.
The score, with music by Edvard Helsted, Holger Simon Paulli, and Niels W. Gade is delightful, if not particularly dramatic. BFF Wikipedia notes the Latin hymn “O Santissima” is used in Act II to underscore the power of Christianity over Golfo’s demonry. O Santissima is an old Sicilian hymn but the melody was familiar to me as the German Christmas carol “O du fröhliche”.
On the whole, I enjoyed Napoli. The sets and costumes are lavish. The dancing in Naples, especially in Act III, is very much in the style of folk dancing. It is high energy, fast-paced, and athletically executed. The blue grotto (Act II) is beautiful, more in the style I think of as “ballet” and includes some nifty effects when Teresina turns into a Naiad and back again before our eyes.
There were a couple of elements that disturbed me. Performed in three acts with two intermissions, it has a running time of about 2.5 hours. This is long for ballet. Much of the time in Act I, and, to a lesser degree, in Act II is spent with exposition with a resulting reduction in the time they actually dance. The exposition is certainly needed given the surreal nature of the story. Act III has a lot of wonderful dance but, and I admit this is a pet peeve of mine in any form of the performing arts, Act III is the longest. I would have enjoyed the ballet more had they danced a little more in Act I and cut about 10 minutes from Act III. Of course, Napoli has been performed as it was presented for more than 150 years so others must like it as written.