Over its first 50 years, Boston Ballet staged various versions of “Cinderella.” House choreographer Ron Cunningham was the candidate in 1976 and 1981; he was followed by Ben Stevenson in 1993, Michael Corder in 1997, and James Kudelka in 2005 and 2008. For the most recent production, in 2014, artistic director Mikko Nissinen went back to the first Western version set to the Sergei Prokofiev score, Frederick Ashton’s, from 1948, and that proved to be the one that fit the company’s glass slipper. The dancers had done well by the more contemporary versions — the Corder, with its full moon, and the Kudelka, with its pumpkin heads — but in 2014 they looked just as comfortable in the simplicity and purity of the Ashton, and that was the case again at Friday’s fine opening-night performance, led by Seo Hye Han as Cinderella and Patric Palkens as her Prince.
Ashton’s version is almost too stripped down. There’s no Stepmother here, just Cinderella, her two Stepsisters, and her beleaguered Father. Cinderella seems happy tending the hearth, making soup and baking bread, sweeping up; she’s downcast only when she brings out a portrait of her dead mother and puts it on the mantel. The Stepsisters don’t mistreat her so much as ignore her; they’re too busy squabbling over the Tailor’s hats and dresses and vying for the attentions of the Dancing Master as they prepare for the ball. When a hunchbacked old beggar woman slips into the house, it’s Cinderella who offers her a loaf of bread. That leads to scene two, in a forest, where the beggar reveals herself to be Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. But we don’t really get to enjoy Cinderella’s transformation; after a set of solos from the four seasons, she simply reappears, dressed in a sumptuous tutu and rushing off to the ball in a coach.
In some versions of this ballet, the Stepsisters pursue the Prince at the ball; here they barely notice him (or Cinderella, when she arrives), as they have their own beaux, the comically named Wellington and Napoleon. The Prince greets Cinderella as if he were expecting her; there’s beauty in their courtship pas de deux but no drama. And though the last act, where the Prince comes to Cinderella’s house and everyone tries on the glass slipper, is direct and heartwarming, the final pas de deux is almost perfunctory. Ashton’s is a classic fairytale, not a modern one.
On Friday, a beaming Han was just right for it. Her Cinderella is full of good humor, whether tasting the soup or ghosting her Stepsisters’ dance attempts. When she waltzes with her broom, she’s light, precise, and poetic; I don’t recall that Ashton’s steps have ever looked so lucid. Cinderella’s entrance at the ball calls for her to descend a staircase on pointe; Han did so with aplomb. During the pas de deux, she never stopped looking at Palkens out of the corner of her eye. I loved the controlled rhythm of her manège, and she made the most of that moment where Cinderella circumnavigates the Prince with chaîné turns, as if describing a protective circle around him.
Palkens was equally rewarding; the problem was that Ashton doesn’t give the Prince enough to do. Palkens’s double tours and pirouettes were exemplary, as was his partnering, especially in the lifts.
Some versions of “Cinderella” cast women as the Stepsisters; Ashton’s calls for men in drag. (He choreographed one Stepsister for himself.) Friday, Roddy Doble was the diva, John Lam the ditz. Doble swung his pearls like a hula hoop and fancied himself a flamenco señorita; Lam fluttered his eyelashes like a stereotyped Southern belle but had his own tricks, like dropping his fan in front of Michael Ryan’s superbly obtuse Wellington. Fingers got slammed, toes got stepped on, but after every tiff Doble and Lam made up.
Anaïs Chalendard was a composed, slightly brittle Fairy Godmother; the best of the seasons were Ji Young Chae’s quicksilver Spring and Viktorina Kapitonova’s sinuous, seductive Winter. Lawrence Rines made for an energetic, good-natured Jester at the ball. The Boston Ballet Orchestra under new music director Mischa Santora delivered a sweet, sunny performance, but with plenty of brass bite in the waltz at the end of act one and no little excitement in the pas de deux.
Music by Sergei Prokofiev. Choreographed by Frederick Ashton. Sets and costumes, David Walker. Lighting, John Cuff. Presented by Boston Ballet with the Boston Ballet Orchestra conducted by Mischa Santora. At Boston Opera House, through June 8. Tickets $37-$199. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org