Boston Ballet and its Finnish artistic director, Mikko Nissinen, opened the company’s 2017–2018 season Friday at the Boston Opera House with a salute to the 100th anniversary of Finnish independence. The Boston Ballet Orchestra’s playing of Jean Sibelius’s “Finlandia” was followed by the North American premiere of Wayne McGregor’s “Obsidian Tear” (to music by Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen) and then a world premiere by another Finn, Boston Ballet resident choreographer Jorma Elo’s “Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius.” It was a wonderful idea for a program that didn’t quite work out in practice.
A co-production of Boston Ballet and the Royal Ballet, the 30-minute, all-male “Obsidian Tear” premiered at Covent Garden in May 2016. Does “Tear” refer to ripping or crying? McGregor has said that the word is “deliberately ambiguous.” The first 10 minutes of the piece are set to Salonen’s solo-violin chaconne “Lachen verlernt” (“Laughing Unlearnt,” a title the composer borrowed from Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot lunaire”). We see two bare-chested men, one in red trousers (Irlan Silva Friday night), one in black (Paulo Arrais). They watch each other, solo in slinky agitation, then engage in a mating dance that’s half play and half domination.
The second section is set to Salonen’s orchestral tone poem “Nyx,” which is named for a primordial Greek goddess of night. Seven more men appear, led by Patrick Yocum in an unflattering shirt dress. (All nine men wear designer clothing ranging from a kilt to track pants; each outfit is credited in the program.) Arrais brings Silva back on and introduces him to these tough-minded acolytes of Night. You wonder whether Silva will fit in: he’s wearing red and everyone else is in black. He manages for a bit, and then Patric Palkens starts to bully him. Over the next 15 minutes, mini-dramas develop; Yocum and Roddy Doble partner each other in a duet that’s tense and tender. We get a sense of the extremes to which McGregor pushes the body, though everyone does the same kind of movement, and the choreography is not as electric as what we saw in his “Chroma,” which Boston Ballet presented in 2013 and 2015.
Silva hovers at the edges, sometimes part of the group, sometimes not, rarely with Arrais. The finale brings mystery but also melodrama. Yocum orders Arrais to push Silva off the top of the incline at the back of the stage — as a sacrifice to the goddess? Arrais does so, then crumples to the floor. Yocum gets him up and draws him into a duet before Arrais breaks away and throws himself off the incline. Salonen’s brooding score — reminiscent of Sibelius’s “Tapiola” — seems richer than this narrative.
“Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius” features a Puckish sprite in Ashley Ellis, three lead couples, four subsidiary couples, and a corps of 20 in what could have been titled “Smiles of a Finnish Summer Night.” As was the case with Elo’s “Creatures of Egmont” last May, the movement is pleasingly neo-Balanchinean. But there’s way too much of it, and it looks generic; the quirky choreographer of “Sharp Side of Dark” and “Plan to B” is hardly recognizable. Even the lead couples — Kathleen Breen Combes with Junxiong Zhao, Lia Cirio with Paul Craig, and Misa Kuranaga with John Lam — seem interchangeable. It’s a lighthearted romp that says little about Sibelius.
Guest conductor Daniel Stewart, the music director of the Santa Cruz County Symphony, didn’t really do Sibelius justice either. Both “Finlandia” and the Fifth Symphony were literal and heavy-handed; the symphony’s middle movement lagged well behind the composer’s “Andante mosso, quasi Allegretto,” and the “Swan” theme of the finale was leaden. Perhaps Stewart was following Elo’s instructions. The orchestra in general struggled, with a number of bobbles from the French horns. The winds were outstanding, however, and acting concertmaster Christine Vitale gave an impassioned reading of “Lachen verlernt.”Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
An earlier version misidentified Nissinen’s leadership position.