Frankenstein ballet. New libretto and choreography by Liam Scarlett. Original music by Lowell Liebermann. Filmed in 2016 at the Royal Ballet. Stars Federico Bonelli (Victor Frankenstein), Laura Morera (Elizabeth Lavenza), Steven McRae (The Creature), Alexander Campbell (Henry Clerval), Elizabeth McGorian (Madame Moritz), Meaghan Grace Hinkis (Justine Moritz), Bennet Gartside (Victor's Father), Christina Arestis (Victor's Mother), Thomas Whitehead (The Professor), Guillem Cabrera Espinach (William Frankenstein), Sacha Barber (Young Victor), Skya Powney (Young Elizabeth), and Lauren Molyneux (Young Justine). Koen Kessels conducts the Orchestra of The Royal Opera House (Sergey Levitin co-concert master). Set and costume design by John Macfarlane; lighting design by David Finn; projection design by Finn Ross; ballet mistress Samantha Raine; assistant ballet master Ricardo Cervera; principal coaching by Lesley Collier and Recardo Cervara; Benesh notator Gregory Mislin. Directed for TV by Ross McGibbon. Released 2017, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A-
At last my favorite dancer, Laura Morera, gets star billing in a three-act ballet HDVD! And McRae gets ahead of Ed Watson for the monster role in this all new show. At this writing, Frankenstein played for a season in London and it's playing right now in San Francisco, which co-sponsored the production. The print critics have been almost savagely critical of Scarlett's libretto and choreography. Let's look at some screen shots first. Then I will give my explanation of the themes that Scarlett brings forward from Shelley's novel. Finally, I'll defend Scarlett's work from charges made by print critics.
The title Frankenstein refers to a young scientist and medical student, Victor Frankenstein. The story is about Victor and his family and what happens to them as the result of some bad decisions Victor makes. The Creature (not monster) that Victor engenders is among the most famous images in all literature, and Mary Shelly wrote with compassion about his feelings. But we must realize that the Creature is just a literary device and symbol of the characters in Victor's household, or, in other words, of all of us.
Below is Victor (Federico Bonelli) with his sweetheart Elizabeth Lavenza (Laura Morera). Elizabeth, a young, wandering orphan, was taken into the Frankenstein family when Victor was also a child. They grew up almost as brother and sister. But early in Act 1, they plight throth with the consent of Victor's parents. Alas, Elizabeth will get little joy from her engagement:
Next below we meet Victor's father, Alphonse Frankenstein (Bennet Gartside) and Victor's mother Caroline (Christina Arestis). The young girl in the background is Justine (Meaghan Grace Hinkis ) the daughter of the the family housekeeper. Justine has no father but she enjoy a status in the household between that of a servant and a child. Caroline is pregnant with her second child. Soon she will die in childbirth; but her second son, William, will survive. This will leave widower Alphonse in a household where everyone is bereft of spouse and/or one or both parents. This kind of incomplete family was common in the 19th century when many people died young and the survivors had to cope:
Now Victor has gone away to medical school. He makes a fast friend of Henry Clerval (Alexander Campbell). This is a strange relationship as Henry proves himself to be as stupid as Victor is brilliant. Henry will stick with Victor to the end. But despite plenty of clues, he never figures out what is wrong with Victor and is unable to help him or his family:
Now we are in the Professor's (Thomas Whitehead) Anatomy Class in a spectacular set that has been admired by all. There is an anatomically correct cadaver on the cutting board, and the scene is full of raunchy humor that would be inappropriate for young children to see:
H'm. A pas de pancreas:
The Professor and Victor were interested in galvanism, the ability to use the mysterious phenomenon of electricity to make dead tissue move. (This reminds me of Bellini's Sonnambula opera about sleepwalking, which came out about the same time as Frankenstein). Despite warnings from the Professor, Victor spends every waking moment pursuing the objective of creating life. Today we know Victor's type well: the youngster smarter than his teachers who comes up with revolutionary technology. Think of Bill Gates, who invented the lightweight computer operation system and for a while threaten to become a part owner in every business on earth. [Gates eventually settled for being the richest man or earth and gave up the ambition of being the only rich man.] Consider also the current direct descendant of Victor, Mark Zuckerberg and his Facebook, which threatens now to expand until it occupies every moment of time for all people.)
And when Victor couldn't find another book, he would take up a different form of anatomy lesson at the village tavern. Print critics complained about the scene below for knocking off MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet and Mayerling ballets. I love it. For years Laura Morera had absolute lock on the Head Harlot role in Romeo and Juliet; and in Mayerling she was the unforgettable Miszi Caspar, the prostitute and mistress of the Crown Prince who informed on the Prince to his father's secret police:
Of course, Frankenstein has to have some neat science-fiction effects:
The Creature (Steven McRae) comes to life. Victor is suddenly horrified at how successful he has been:
I think the costume seen below for the Creature was completely successful in live performance. But it's not good enough for HDVD close-ups. The head and legs look fine. But we see that the torso is just a body stocking (torn at that). For better video, I would suggest doing the creation scene with a G-string or in the nude (with only the most fleeting exposure). After that I would suggest ragged short trousers and shoes together with body paint and the head mask. (The Creature might go briefly go nude again in his final attempt to win acceptance from Victor.)
There is a moving true-love duet for Victor and Elizabeth in Act 1. Next below is the Act 2 lovers duet, which is full of anguish. Victor has retreated into a shell. Poor Elizabeth desperately tries to discover what has gone wrong:
The Creature has now discovered Victor's scientific notebook and understands what has happened. He realizes he is not fatherless, and he resolves to seek acceptance:
Quite a few years have passed, and William (Victor's much younger brother) has a birthday party. There are a lot of adults at the party and only 4 children as guests:
During a break in the festivities, William plays "blind-man's bluff" with the Creature, who gets a hug. This will be the Creature's only moment of pleasure we will learn of:
But the Creature soon kills William by accident while trying to keep him from screaming:
Justine (the housekeeper's daughter) finds William's body and is unjustly accused of killing him:
The creature makes one last request for acceptance and is rejected again:
Justine dies on the gallows as William's convicted murderess:
Victor has kept the secret of the Creature to himself rather than come to Justine's defense. Now the roles are flipped: Victor has become the monster and the Creature is the one to be pitied. Everyone will be sucked into a paroxysm of Gothic doom. It's the wedding night of Victor and Elizabeth. Suddenly the designs shift from spare, cool realism to luxurious, jewel-hued abstraction:
I wonder if this was intended or just a fluke shot---now even Elizabeth, totally innocent, looks like a zombie in the midst of the convulsions of Gothic horror:
May I have this dance?
I hope these screenshots help. I've missed, of course, innumerable fine touches in the libretto that Scarlett has provided with immaculate craftsmanship.
Here are the themes Scarlett treats in his libretto and choreography:
- The longing for a missing parent and the pain of unrequited love:
- Mary Shelly herself had no mom and was partly or fully estranged from her father for long periods
- Elizabeth Lavensa is an orphan
- Justine has no father and is abandoned in her moment of need by the two men she loves the most: Alphonse and Victor
- Victor loses his mother just before Victor goes off the university
- William never knew his mother
- The Creature has no parents and is rejected by his creator
- The retelling of the Lucifer Bible story about a lower being who usurps a prerogative of God
- A cautionary tale of the danger of out-of-control science
- A cautionary tale about overweening ambition with its ending (out of Shakespeare or a Gothic novel) of death for every protagonist
- A warning against assuming the status quo in a world where reversal of fortune can quickly occur
- A warning to wary of what you seek --- the finding may result in revulsion rather than joy
Wow! This video will probably be too disturbing for small children, but it could be absorbing for older and mature kids.
I mentioned scathing reviews of print critics. Here are some of their charges:
- Too much backstory with too many minor characters and not enough emphasis on the viewpoint of the Creature. Well, I've pointed out already that the Creature is just a symbol for everyone. In a ballet, one can most easily convey emotions in the context of actions that are self-explanatory. So the backstory is needed to provide context for the feelings of the Creature. In essence this is a story about Victor, his family, and his sweetheart---all of which he forfeits to excessive ambition. The "backstory" is the story.
- Elizabeth's character is under-developed. Wrong. The video shows clearly the difference between Elizabeth the dreamy lover in Act 1 and the woman in anguish over her man in Acts 2 and 3. I guess the typical print critic sees the show once or twice. With the video I've seen it 5 times, and in one of those viewings I stepped through and examined with some care each of 966 separate clips. The psychology for Elizabeth is there. All the other characters are also developed with copious detail that Scarlett provides.
- The tavern scene is gratuitous. Well, this is entertainment! And the girls in the corps have worked hard all their lives --- they deserve any chance they can get to show how to dance a whore floor.
- Henry has no character. His bumbling but cheery character is well-developed and his dancing in Act 3 is impressive. But see my suggestions below.
- The choreography is too derivative. Everybody quotes from everybody else in dance making. Nobody is going to confuse Frankenstein with any other show and it has lots of unusual aspects. The audience also benefits from some scenes of the sort they are familiar with.
- The Creature is too short. Really, where will you find a 10' tall ballet dancer --- or one 7' tall?
This Frankenstein has only run twice. I predict it will be repertory in London and San Francisco and also taken up other places. So would some tweaking help? I suggested above a different costume for the Creature. (I have no trouble suspending disbelief in the Creature because at the time the novel was written, people actually thought that galvanism might allow return from the dead. I watch this through their eyes.) I do find it hard to believe that friend William could be so dense as to not figure out what Victor was up to or to at least start asking questions. Maybe it would help if Henry were not shown arriving at the anatomy lab 3 seconds after the Creature flees. Also the "framing" of Justine by the Creature and her trial/execution are way too contrived and melodramatic for me. I would also eliminate the unbelievable accusations against Justine and let her live on to be at the Act 3 wedding. After everybody else in dead, the Creature will hear Justine sobbing in the shadows. He will start to break her neck, but will suddenly feel pity. He would then briefly comfort her before stalking off into the flaming night.
I dissected this Frankenstein and recorded each piece of tissue on a Ballet Wonk Worksheet. 966 video clips results in a too-fast 7.2 seconds per video clip. And only 58% of the shots show full bodies of the dancers. See the footnotes to our special article on the best ballets for more discussion ballet video content.
Time now for a grade. I start with an A+. I make deductions for weak video content, the unhappy Creature costume, and the logical distractions discussed to arrive at a B+. But I'm so impressed with the acting/dancing of the stars and Scarlett's craftsmanship that I'll make a bump up to A-.
The official Opus Arte trailer on Frankenstein is worthless, but here are several interesting background videos.
Next Liebermann on the music:
And Macfarlane on his designs: