Boston Ballet’s spectacular “The Sleeping Beauty” walks a tightrope between the real and the visionary — in its themes, its history, and the very steps and notes that shape it.
On the surface, the ballet — one of the most famous in the classical repertoire — is a coming-of-age tale about good against evil and how love conquers all: The fairy Carabosse, slighted at not being invited to the christening of Princess Aurora, casts a spell that condemns the princess, at age 16, to prick her finger on a spindle and die. The Lilac Fairy defangs that “gift”: Aurora will not die but rather sleep for 100 years, and be awakened by a Prince’s kiss. We know this story, based on Charles Perrault’s 17th century “La Belle au Bois Dormant,” from The Tales of Mother Goose.
But in this production, the magic extends further. It uses Ninette de Valois’s staging from 1977 of Marius Petipa’s original choreography — which premiered in Russia in 1890 — with additional choreography by Frederick Ashton, and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s glorious, melodic score. In so doing, Boston Ballet’s “Beauty” embodies the transformative power of art itself: the ballet awakens us to how music truly matched with dancing — from pristine solos to group manipulations that etch architectural wonders in the air — can create illusions that imprint in our minds and make our hearts soar.
Boston Ballet first performed this version, with its sumptious, 17th- and 18th-century costumes and sets by David Walker, in 2005 and again in 2009. But Friday night was the first time it appeared on the smaller, Opera House stage. The shift in venue highlighted the nuances the Boston Ballet Orchestra, led by Jonathan McPhee, carefully extract from the score — ranging from the sonority of the cellos in the “vision” scene, when Prince Desire first lays eyes on Aurora, to the brightness of the horns heralding Act II’s royal hunt.
Misa Kuranaga, as Princess Aurora on opening night, commingles a poignant lyricism with steely, stretched-to-the-max technique that makes her at once grounded and ethereal: She is a flesh-and-blood young woman and yet a burst of light. In the devilishly difficult “Rose Adagio,” in which four suitors present her, one-by-one, with a rose, she stands on point in attitude, the hand of each suitor, in turn, her only anchor against collapse. At times you hold your breath as Kuranaga balances — the effort is apparent; but she emerges triumphant. In Act III, in her more mature duet with Prince Desire (the bouyant, muscular Jeffrey Cirio), she spins so fast into a dive onto Cirio’s thigh that you gasp — and then she does it again.
Lia Cirio is a strong, bold Lilac Fairy — the character pulling the strings. In the Prologue, the points of her toe shoes stab the ground as she springs, skyward, from fifth position, the arch of her foot reverberating. She mimes the plot points with an astonishing clarity, whether she’s dramatizing the spindle pinprick and the slumbering kingdom for the king and queen or instructing the prince on Aurora’s plight and his role in awakening her.
The other five “good” fairies delight with solos that capture each one’s essence. Whitney Jensen as the Enchanted Garden Fairy is a spitfire, her turns in passe churning the air. A simple brush of the foot by Ashley Ellis, the Woodland Glade Fairy, alters the relationship of positive and negative space. The flittering hands of Sylvia Deaton (Songbird Fairy) make you laugh out loud, and the opposition of pointing fingers and quick-stepping feet of Dalay Parrondo as the Golden Vine Fairy reinterpret what it means to stop on a dime. Erica Cornejo as Carabosse, in wavy red wig and flanked by four giant-eared “Creatures,” fairly reeks with wickedness. You swear you can hear her cackle as she exults over her cleverness in delivering the spindle to Aurora on her 16th birthday.
The only place the action lags in this nearly three-hour “Beauty” is at the end of Act II, when the Lilac Fairy and the Prince, on a slippery boat, traverse the stage and then run hither and yon in approaching the overgrown castle. It’s as if they’re not quite sure where to go. But that’s a minor quibble. This production excels at both the grand sweep and in the details: In the final, wedding scene, the world of fairy tales comes home to roost with a hilarious, hip-wagging Puss ’N Boots and White Cat, Wolf and jittery Red Riding Hood, and an elegant Princess Florine (Kathleen Breen Combes).
This version of “The Sleeping Beauty” — which gives form and meaning to musicality — invigorates both your imagination and your senses.