There were a few mysteries in the War Memorial Opera House Thursday night: How and why did Mendelssohn's 1843 Symphony No. 3 (“Scottish”) become George Balanchine's 1952 "Scotch Symphony"? – changing a nationality into what today means whiskey – and why did San Francisco Ballet wait almost a half a century to revive the work?
While those questions remain unanswered, and ballet program annotator Cheryl Ossola agrees – “It's unusual for Mr. B since he so often titled his ballets after the music" – there is one undeniable fact: The piece is the high point of the troupe’s Program No. 7, featuring all Balanchine works.
As the curtain rose on authentically dressed dancers (Karinska's original design), set against a looming Highlands castle and ruins, radiant Courtney Elizabeth dispelled the music’s lurking gloom and smiles on faces spread through the auditorium, remaining until the heartfelt ovation at the end.
After the picturesque introduction, well supported by Martin West's enthusiastic orchestra, the rest of "Scotch Symphony" is a "Giselle"-like story of a would-be couple – Yuan Yuan Tan and Davit Karapetyan – kept apart.
But unlike the doomed-spirit Willis in "Giselle," the obstacle in “Scotch Symphony” is a line of kilt-wearing soldiers, their tartan indicating they are from a different clan than the hero. Still, to repeat the spoiler – love wins, and there is a happy ending.
“Scotch Symphony” is one of Balanchine's fortuitous blends of abstract and story ballets, more the latter than former.
By contrast, the wonderful 1946 "The Four Temperaments" -– set to Paul Hindemith's craggy, powerful music – is a program ballet (sections depict moods such as "melancholic" and "phlegmatic") that is abstract and geometric. Its strange movements are often imitated and never equaled.
On opening night, Taras Domitro, Sarah van Patten, Tiit Helimet, Vito Mazzeo and Sofiane Sylve shone in featured roles, while the backing corps – especially Sasha DeSola and Wan Ting Zhao – held statue-like, difficult poses at length with strength and grace. The orchestra sizzled.
That wasn’t the case in the opening work, "Divertimento No. 15," set to Mozart's music. The listless, occasionally downright sloppy, orchestra didn't help the “pretty” choreography – not one of the master's best.
Lacking expression and zest, the company's usually outstanding corps wasn't at its best, either. Yet against those handicaps, soloists Elizabeth, DeSola, Vanessa Zahorian and Gennadi Nedvigin soldiered on, and stood out.
San Francisco Ballet Program No. 7
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. today and Tuesday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Tickets: $20 to $285
Contact: (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org