Presented in the month of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra playing Beethoven’s famous ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. In this version, each symphonic movement is punctuated by Stephen Fry explaining the part of the story about to be told, aided by animation by Hillary Leben and a script by Gerard McBurney.
Beethoven wrote his hugely popular ballet score in 1801, in just 11 days and, as Fry tells us, the version of the ancient Greek creation story he used is not the most widely established one about Prometheus giving man fire. In this version Prometheus creates man with fire from Mount Olympus and then calls on Apollo, god of music and dance, the Muses, and a host of other deities to teach his Creatures what it is to exist. This they do through dance and music, which is probably an easier demonstration than if they had instead to portray Prometheus giving Man a light and then having his insides eaten daily for the rest of eternity.
Not that we see much dancing. This being Covid times, the ballet is entirely performed by the orchestra, socially distanced, and filmed at the very impressive Battersea Arts Centre. Visually they, Fry, and the expressively crude and entertaining animation of the story, are the show. This is part (in fact the final part) of a series of Covid-compliant shows the Philharmonia has put on to keep going, as the request for donations reminds us.
Fry perfectly manages to capture the right erudite storytelling tone, which is very much his thing nowadays, and the entertaining animation brings its own life (or should I say fire?) to the story. I would imagine one goes to the ballet partly for the physical performance, but one can hardly say that every effort had not been made here to replace it. As for Beethoven’s skill as a composer, in 11 days or not, and the orchestra’s talent, neither depend on this show for their reputation, and both are here doing what they do best.
If you are a fan of this ballet, then this made-for-YouTube version is both probably the closest you will get to a while and a well-made and inventive version in its own right. If you are looking for an introduction to the piece, then you probably could not do better than getting it with animation and some helpful words by Stephen Fry.
Reviewer: Oliver Giggins
Reviewed: 4th December 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★