Sleeping Beauty itself is about what happens when reality intrudes on fantasy. You could call it the first ironic ballet. The dramatic opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s score sound almost heroic; what you don’t realize till later is that this is the music for Bad Fairy Carabosse. The theme that follows, for Aurora, sounds treacly by comparison. Carabosse is the ugly/malevolent fairy who by (deliberate?) oversight has not been invited to baby Aurora’s christening; she takes her revenge by prophesying that on her coming-of-age birthday Aurora will prick her finger on a spindle and die. There are multiple metaphors at play here. The choreographic centerpiece of the first act is Aurora’s Rose Adagio; she’s the rose and Carabosse’s spindle is her thorn. The spindle also stands for women’s work, something that Aurora will never know if the Lilac Fairy has anything to say about it. At the beginning of the first act, three women are caught knitting (knitting needles have been proscribed throughout the land, in an attempt to avert Aurora’s fate) and sentenced to death; only the Queen’s intervention saves them. Working in fairy-tale-land is a capital offense.
The current Boston Ballet production makes less of this conflict than the company used to. Carabosse can be cast as a drag role or not; Melanie Atkins had the part Thursday night, and though she was a match for both Ponomarenko’s Aurora and Erica Cornejo’s Lilac Fairy in beauty (with a Joan Collins affect), she wasn’t allowed to stand up to the Lilac Fairy, and in the second act she didn’t get to confront the Prince when he arrives to awaken Aurora. Cornejo’s endearing, well-danced Lilac Fairy was a little short on presence and tilted the proceedings farther toward Disney. Some of the comic moments — notably Puss in Boots and the White Cat — seem muted, and textures have been thinned out, the children disappearing from the Garland Dance. In the prologue, the Fairies used to bourrée around the stage with baby Aurora. And at the end, the Lilac Fairy used to be lifted on high; now she merely sprawls on the floor.
What you still get are David Walker’s sumptuous French Baroque sets and costumes (Walker passed away in December; this production has been dedicated to his memory) — I wonder whether that 20-foot-high baldacchino will fit on the Opera House stage. (Actually, given all the quick changes it requires, the production itself isn’t likely to work in the Opera House.) Better still, the kind of group dances that foster fairy-tale optimism: the Lilac Fairy attendants in the prologue, like a field of lavender; the Garland Dance in act one; the nobles’ Minuet and the peasants’ Farandole and then the Nymphs in act two; the Polonaise and the Mazurka in the finale.
Opening night, there were some pretty good solo turns, too. Kathleen Breen Combes was pointed as both the Golden Vine Fairy and a teasing Princess Florine. She didn’t look altogether comfortable with her Bluebird, James Whiteside (certainly not as comfortable as she did with Yury Yanowsky in last month’s Diamonds), but they made an appealing pair, and though he was oddly rubbery in his brisés volés, they were real and not just suggested. Altankhuyag Dugaraa and Megan Gray were the tamped-down Puss in Boots and White Cat — still pretty funny. Best of the other fairies were Melissa Hough’s Woodland Glade, strong and with pinpoint control, and Misa Kuranaga’s fluttering, wriggling Songbird. The Boston Ballet Orchestra under Jonathan McPhee sounded urgent but not rushed, which is the McPhee Tchaikovsky way, and a good one.