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Ashton’s La Fille mal Gardée is an entirely new version of a ground-breaking story ballet, premiered in Bordeaux a fortnight before the 1789 French Revolution. Jean Dauberval’s original La Fille mal Gardée ditched the fashion for formal displays of technical tricks, in favor of a warm comedy of manners, with a clear narrative and fully-realized characters, in a real farm setting of harvesting peasants, pretentious landowners and thwarted lovers – a far cry from Queen Marie Antoinette’s stylized shepherdesses, elegantly disporting in a pastoral idyll. In this respect, La Fille mal Gardée was a contemporary cousin of The Marriage of Figaro.
John Lanchbery discovered Hérold’s 1828 score in the Royal Opera House archive, and persuaded Ashton to set a new version of this French narrative comedy of manners to the enchanting music.
Ashton’s gift for comedy, realizing character through dance and mime that arises directly from each situation, happily embraces elements of court and folk dance, pantomime and romantic ballet, in Lise and Colas’s sunny love story. With a charismatic original cast (Nadia Nerina’s Lise, David Blair’s Colas, Stanley Holden’s Widow Simone and Alexander Grant’s Alain), Ashton’s La Fille mal Gardée was an instant hit and has delighted audiences ever since.
La Fille mal Gardée opens in the courtyard of a prosperous farmer Widow Simone, who intends her pretty daughter Lise to marry Alain, the buffoonish son of Thomas, a wealthy vineyard owner. This marriage of convenience is threatened by Lise’s clear preference for the dashing Colas, a local farmer, and Widow Simone is determined to prevail. Dawn sees the cockerel and hens’ chorus; as the farmhands leave for the fields, and we see Widow Simone send Colas packing, bring her errant daughter Lise to task, to greet Thomas and his doltish son Alain.
Scene Two takes us to the cornfield, where Colas leads the harvesters in a dance of celebration, before the arrival of Simone, Thomas, Lise and Alain. The farmhands tease Alain, while Colas and Lise express their love in a pas de deux, and the Widow is distracted from further interference with a hilarious clog dance. The merrymakers are scattered by a sudden thunder-storm.
Act Two takes place in the farmhouse, to which Simone and Lise return, drenched, and settle to household chores, but the weary Widow nods off, while Lise snatches exchanges with Colas through the locked door. The farmhands bring in the sheaves of corn, from which Colas emerges. The Widow departs to sign the marriage contract, suspiciously locking Lise into her bedroom, where Colas is hidden. On her return with Thomas and Alain, the Widow discovers Colas and Lise, Thomas stalks out in disgust with his son, and Simone accepts the inevitable, giving Lise and Colas her blessing. Happy ending, general rejoicing and curtain.