Francesca Hayward (Tita), Marcelino Sambé (Pedro) Photo by Tristram Kenton/ROH

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Like Water for Chocolate”

The much anticipated world premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s new full-length ballet, Like Water for Chocolate, swept on to the Royal Opera House stage in a magical flurry of theatricality. Based on Laura Esquivel’s 1989 novel of the same name, it was difficult to imagine how he would manage the intricacies of the plot, the many characters and the fact that much of the earlier action relates to food and cooking. Not something one usually associates with classical ballet. However, much as has happened with Wheeldon’s first two full-length ballets for The Royal Ballet, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter’s Tale, I think this will become a modern day classic. Wheeldon chose to work again with some of the collaborators from his previous successes: an original score by Joby Talbot (orchestrated by Ben Foskett), designs by Bob Crowley and lighting by Natasha Katz. In addition, video designs are by Luke Halls and music consultant Alondra de la Parra, who also conducted, was able to offer insights into Mexican folk music. Esquivel was on hand to advise as the creation progressed.

Photos by Tristram Kenton

Anna Rose OSullivan and Cesar Corrales
Laura Morera and Marcelino Sambe

Set in Mexico, beginning in 1910, it is essentially a love story, one with many frustrations and sub-plots, but an overwhelming, all-encompassing, tale of passion. The curtain rises on a line of brides in white. As they turn, there is a sense of foreboding – their reverse is black, presumably representing those women who have been forced to remain spinsters. Forbidden to marry, Tita (Francesca Hayward), the youngest of three sisters must stay at home to look after her mother until she dies. Tita and Pedro (Marcelino Sambé), friends since childhood, are in love with each other but Mama Elena (Laura Morera), Tita’s mother, offers Rosaura (Mayara Magri), her eldest daughter to Pedro. He accepts because he believes it’s a way to remain close to Tita. As the wedding cake is being prepared with Nacha (Christina Arestis), the household cook, Tita is inconsolable and weeps copious tears into the mix. Nacha tastes the mixture and is overcome with grief for her long-dead fiancé whom she sees in a vision. She lies on the kitchen table and dies. There is a mystical moment when the ghost of her fiancé appears to reach into her chest and lift her heart and soul from her, offering it to the heavens. As the wedding party devour the cake, they become violently sick. Tita’s next culinary adventure is quail in rose petal sauce, made from the petals of a rose that Pedro gave her at his wedding. The aroma acts as a profoundly effective aphrodisiac that provokes Tita’s other sister, Gertrudis (Anna Rose O’Sullivan, as you’ve never seen her before), into a libidinous frenzy. So much so that she elopes with a revolutionary soldier, Juan Alejandrez (César Corrales). When Mama Elena catches Tita and Pedro meeting secretly, she sends Pedro, Rosaura and their son, Roberto away. Kindly Dr John Brown (Matthew Ball) administers to the broken hearted Tita and he takes her away to convalesce.  The first act is long but filled with details worthy of note. Acts II and III are much shorter, but no less dramatic. There’s the death of Mama Elena, the appearance of her ghost to terrorise Tita and Pedro, the death of Rosaura, the engagement and then the breaking of it between Tita and Dr John and the final moments of requited love between Tita and Pedro. Given the complicated storyline, Wheeldon has done a splendid job of portraying the vital elements. The duets are sensual, the tension is palpable between all the characters. There is an extraordinary scene when Mama Elena beats Tita. The two of them deliver such angry ripostes, it’s chilling. Then there are the fluttering of hearts, visibly quivering as Tita and Pedro secretly address each other’s love. There is an image where the three sisters and their mother are momentarily inseparable, the relationships tenuous, troubled.

Anna Rose OSullivan
Francesca Hayward Matthew Ball and Marcelino Sambe

Visually, it’s a feast. Crowley has created scene upon scene where the Mexican heat rolls off the stage. Scenery is minimal when necessary – backdrops, magnificent. His Act II, with a long view from a mountain top and the Texas ranch in the distance, is simply beautiful. The use of lace and Mexican tradition abounds. However, it is the final moments when Tita and Pedro are free to give themselves to each other, their passion is literally ignited in flames and they rise up towards the heavens, that remains firmly imprinted – this was a real coup de théâtre.

Marcelino Sambe and Francesca Hayward

Talbot’s score is serviceable at the start of the first act but with the heightened drama of the following two acts, adjusts accordingly into something much more memorable. He manages to build in crescendos and climaxes entirely appropriate to the narrative. The song in the final moments (sung by Sîan Griffiths) is haunting. Combined with superlative, atmospheric lighting, one exits the theatre feeling lightheaded, elated.

Of course, it could not be done without a cast that were able to act as well as they could dance. Morera is positively terrifying as Mama Elena, grotesque in her controlling, bad tempered authority. If her ghost looked a bit too much like Cruella de Vil’s cousin, in a vision scene where she is returned to her youth, she looks elegant and poised. Magri and O’Sullivan are superb as the older sisters and Corrales, who doesn’t have all that much to do as Juan Alejandrez, nevertheless almost steals the show with his bold tricks and stage presence. Ball’s Dr John brings subtle discretion to the role, dutiful but believably in love with Tita. However, the evening really belongs to Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambé in the lead roles. Sublime in their dancing as well as supreme interpreters, they are convincing lovers and there wasn’t a moment on stage that didn’t compel you to watch their every move or look. Achingly heart-rending, they carried me through their trials and tribulations, culminating in the final, sensational pas de deux.  A truly transporting evening of excellence – one of the stand out conclusions is that all the many characters to whom we are introduced, offer a roster of opportunities open to interpretation. As with every narrative ballet that stands the test of time, audiences go to watch particular dancers tackle the roles whether as debuts or repeat performances. Like Water for Chocolate will surely inspire dancers and audiences alike to see multiple changes of cast in future performances.

Deborah Weiss