Northern Ballet: Casanova
Sadler’s Wells, 9th May 2017
Debauchery, political intrigue, illicit liaisons… but enough about Islington on a Tuesday evening and on to Sadler’s Wells for Casanova, Kenneth Tindall’s first full length ballet on the final week of its national tour by commissioning company, Northern Ballet. A smoking censer puffing clouds of incense, accompanied by tolling church bells and slinky clarinets, sets the scene. Spinning pews, monks in sleeveless habits and nuns in white robes slashed to the hip offer a sense of a decadent, suffocating Venetian society where corruption goes right to the top.
To his credit, although there is a liberal dose of sex and religion, Tindall has tried to make Giacomo Casanova more than just the 18th-century’s most infamous libertine. His busy libretto is drawn on a scenario created with Ian Kelly, author of a book about Casanova’s life. The trainee priest is thrown out of the church – defrocked for “defrocking” his pupils, the Savorgnan sisters – and enters a world of masquerades and orgies, where he becomes a target for the Inquisition, lurking in the shadows. Casanova is also an Enlightenment Man: a violinist; a protégé of Madame de Pompadour; a mathematician presenting his Theory of Cubic Geometry to a smug Voltaire who humiliates him. Priests, prostitutes, sexual encounters (both genders) and a mysterious Forbidden Book… there’s a lot of plot to pack into this whirlwind biography.
And there’s the problem. Tindall crams so much incident into just two hours of dance that his ballet has an episodic nature which hampers emotional engagement. You’re so busy trying to keep tabs on who is who and what is happening – and that’s after digesting the two-page synopsis – that Casanova himself doesn’t emerge as much of a character. Tindall’s muscular choreography looks impressive, especially when the title character – danced with flair by Giuliano Contadini – has so many powerful lifts. There are lots of traditional classical ballet steps for Casanova’s musicians, using their bows as fencing foils, and Tindall directs clear mime sequences. The strongest choreography comes in Act 2, with a passionate pas de deux between Casanova and Henriette (Hannah Bateman) – the woman escaping an abusive husband who is the closest Casanova comes to finding true love – full of entwined limbs and dramatic lifts.
Among Tuesday’s cast, Ailen Ramos Betancourt’s sexy nun “M.M.” impressed in her sensuous duet trapping Contardini’s Casanova, while Dreda Blow shone as Bellino, a woman masquerading as a castrato. There is a moving finale, as Casanova battles with his demons and contemplates suicide. One by one, leaves of paper flutter down as characters from his past appear and Casanova edges away from the abyss and begins to chronicle his adventures.
This finale also marks the strongest part of Kerry Muzzey’s otherwise vapid score, timpani pounding their motifs as Casanova reaches crisis point. Much of the music, although pleasantly tonal, is politely atmospheric with a touch of Baroque pastiche that doesn’t really reflect Casanova’s voracious sexual appetite.
The aura of lust and lustre is much more successfully conveyed by Christopher Oram’s tremendous set designs, which are minimalistic yet versatile, giving a canny impression of the gilded opulence of 18th-century Venice and Versailles. Black and gold panels, often sensationally lit by Alastair West, swing into place and a gilt ceiling lowers to snare our protagonist. Oram’s costumes are wonderfully extravagant with plenty of powdered wigs and ivory wimples. If only it was less episodic, allowing deeper emotional engagement, this new ballet would be a winner.