August Bournonville

Love and death in Naples: OBT’s Mediterranean adventure

The ballet season opens Saturday with Bournonville's 19th century "Napoli" and the premiere of James Kudelka's Naples-set "Sub Rosa"

Oregon Ballet Theatre opens its twenty-sixth season on Saturday with a Manichean program of narrative ballets titled Amore Italiano. The Manichean idea of dualism, you might recall, views the world as conveniently divided between good and evil, light and dark, or love and hate.

And that’s the great divide of Amore Italiano. Both ballets on the program at Keller Auditorium, as it happens, take place in Naples – James Kudelka’s Sub Rosa in the 16th century palace ballroom of composer Carlo Gesualdo, who was also Prince of Venosa (part of the Neapolitan kingdom); August Bournonville’s Napoli, Act III,  in the city’s sunny harbor.

(From left) Paige Wilkey, Emily Parker, and Sarah Griffin in rehearsal for August Bournonville's "Napoli." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

(From left) Paige Wilkey, Emily Parker, and Sarah Griffin in rehearsal for August Bournonville’s “Napoli.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Sub Rosa, set to Gesualdo’s complex, innovative madrigals, is, in today’s pop-culture parlance, a bio-ballet. It tells the tale of the composer’s brutal murder of his wife and her lover, that dramatically expressive action taking place on a platform, while the members of the court move obliviously through Kudelka’s contemporary take on the patterns of the social dances of the time.

The third act of Napoli, on the other hand, is a celebration of life itself, as well as the triumph of good over evil, and love over avarice.  Here’s the back story: Bournonville, the great 19th century Danish choreographer, served as director of the Royal Danish Ballet at the king’s pleasure. In 1842, Bournonville displeased his boss and was exiled for a year. Urged by his friend Hans Christian Andersen, he traveled in Italy, where observation of street life in Naples fed his creative soul. The result was a masterpiece called Napoli, which is not, repeat not, about peasants, happy or otherwise, but rather about fishermen, merchants, religious faith and dancing itself: light as air, intricate, fiendishly difficult, glorious dancing.

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