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Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSY (1840 - 1893)

The Nutcracker - complete ballet - (1892)
Nadja Saidakova, Mary
Vladimir Malakhov, Le Prince Casse-Noisette
Olivier Matz, Drosselmeyer
Beatrice Knop, Reine de Glaces
Viara Natcheva, Reine de Neiges
Torsten Handler, Dr. Stahlbaum
Barbara Schroeder, Frau Stahlbaum
Kira Kirillova, Luiza
Steffen Neumann, Fritz
Corps de Ballet, Deutsche Staatsoper, Berlin
Staatskapelle Berlin, conducted by Daniel Barenboim
Choreographer and Staging by Patrice Bart, Stage Direction and Costume Designer by Louisa Spinatelli, Direction by Alexandre Tarta, Produced by Francois Duplat.
recorded at the Berlin Staastoper, 1999 Coupled with Swan Lake(DVD).
ARTHAUS 100 960 [118 minutes]


This performance is fairly recent, but due to market forces (I suppose), it is now released with Swan Lake in a double DVD box from the same ballet company.

First reactions to this performance were that in many ways it is the best film of the ballet that I have seen. Further watching has brought me to the conclusion that it is far from perfect.

First of all, the Director has seen fit to re-interpret the story of the Nutcracker with some crackpot idea that we need to understand the motivations behind the story. Whether you agree with this or not is down to whether you consider Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece actually needs this kind of re-interpretation – it is a fairy story after all! What manifestations result from this idea? First of all, the well known overture to the ballet is prefaced by No. 7 Scene. Patrice Bart placed a prologue before the ballet. Its purpose was to elucidate the story in which Marie was abducted as a young child. Russian revolutionaries had attacked Marie and her aristocratic family and killed her father. The mother survived but went missing, leaving the traumatized little girl to believe that she lives in an imaginary land of ice and snow. She was adopted by the Stahlbaum family, but there she does not feel happy and so does not get on with her siblings Fritz and Luiza. She is not a "normal" child, playing with toys, carefree and happy on Christmas Eve; the trauma will not leave her. This is where the wondrous figure of Drosselmeyer comes into the story. Drosselmeyer knows of Marie’s history. He intends to lead her back to her mother, so he brings the Nutcracker to life and reconciles Marie with her past.

In Bart’s version, the Nutcracker is not a Christmas present from Drosselmeyer but a toy which she has always carried with her since before the abduction. The wooden puppet, whose uniform awakens memories of her father, is the catalyst for Marie’s renewed confrontation with the gruesome event in the dream — therapeutically speaking it is the first step towards becoming aware, towards healing. Drosselmeyer leads Marie back to her mother in her land of ice and snow, which in the end reveals itself as a land of love: the Nutcracker changes into a Prince. The visible and the hidden, reality and dream, the power of imagination and love — all of these are picked out as central themes and interpreted in the dance.

As I said at the beginning, whether you can accept this or not depends upon your approach to this fairy story – myself, I can’t see the point – after all Tchaikovsky’s ballet has stood the test of time without such psychological tinkerings.

Where the benefits of such recordings come firmly into place is in the dancing, sets and above all the orchestral playing of the Berlin Staatskapelle under Daniel Barenboim. Although the dancing is often superb, many of the competing versions, are let down in the orchestral department with dull, lifeless playing. Here, on the other hand, we have a superb orchestra, albeit stuck into a small pit, playing as if their very lives depended upon it. Even where Barenboim slows the tempo down to suit the choreography, there is a passion and sonority in the playing which I found very arresting.

The other drawback of ballet scores is there I am afraid (some floor noise) but this is not too distracting, given the superb attack of the playing of the orchestra.

For those who are interested in these things, the Prince has the biggest "codpiece" that I have ever seen in ballet – no wonder Mary is usually smiling.

Provided you are not put off by the re-interpretation of the story, this is a superb issue and will be enjoyed by all. Very highly recommended.

John Phillips

Coupled with
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSY (1840 - 1893)

Swan Lake - complete ballet (1872)
Steffi Scherzer, Odette / Odile
Olivier Matz, Prince Siegfried
Bettina Thiel, Siegfried’s Mother / The Queen
Torsten Handler, Rotbart
Jens Weber, Benno von Sommerstein
Corps de Ballet, Deutsche Staatsoper, Berlin
Staatskapelle Berlin, conducted by Daniel Barenboim
Choreographer and Staging by Patrice Bart, Stage Direction and Costume Designer by Louisa Spinatelli, Direction by Alexandre Tarta, Produced by Francois Duplat.
recorded at the Berlin Staastoper, 1998 (DVD).
ARTHAUS 100 001 [180 minutes]

This performance is fairly recent, but due to market forces, no doubt, is now released with The Nutcracker in a double DVD box from the same ballet company. Just like the same company’s Nutcracker recording this will be a first choice against competing sets.

Duplat’s production of Tchaikovsky’s first and most symphonic ballet score is superbly danced with excellent sets. This is matched by an absolutely first rate interpretation of the music by the Berlin Staatskapelle under its Music Director, Daniel Barenboim.

Although this production has the story of the ballet supposedly re-interpreted, the effect seems to be a re-arrangement of some of the numbers out of their usual sequence, plus additional items orchestrated by Riccardo Drigo. I am at a loss to understand why Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece can be butchered in this way, particularly with a conductor like Barenboim involved. There is nothing wrong with Tchaikovsky’s score, nor his interpretation of the story, but I suppose the modern way is to throw out anything traditional and to "update" the work. Many other companies also change the order of the pieces and introduce cuts, so I suppose I should stop complaining. Today, the Stage Director seems to control all the action. On this recording the following items are missing – Nos. 6, 7, 9, 16 and 17. Most of the well known items are here however, with some out of sequence.

The sets are superb, quite orthodox in appearance, giving the traditionally dressed performers a wonderful atmosphere in which to work. The sets are very subdued, and do not take attention away from the action on the floor. I find this very satisfying.

Sound quality is excellent as is picture quality with state of the art formats as follows: Sound – PCM Digital and Dolby Digital 5.1, Menu codes in German, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Swedish. Picture format is 16:9, but I found that watching on a 4:3 screen, no significant hardship was noticed.

By far and away the best part of this recording was the playing and interpretation of the score by the orchestra under the leadership of Daniel Barenboim. I hadn’t come across Barenboim as a ballet conductor before, but have attended quite a few of his orchestral concerts and possess many of his recordings. His live concerts, although never 100% perfect, have a frisson about them, and this comes over in this disc loud and clear. In addition, in the Berlin Staatskapelle, he has an orchestra which can deliver the goods exceptionally well (he has been their Music Director now since 1992) and has developed them into a band of high distinction.

Steffi Scherzer, (Odile / Odette), is the prima ballerina at the Berlin company, and one can see why. Her interpretation of the dual role is superb, with her dancing bringing out the tenderness and evil of the twin characters.

Oliver Matz (Price Siegfried) has been with the Company since 1980, and his experience in many roles has prepared him well for Swan Lake. Unfortunately for the other artists, their parts are much less important than those for the two principals. I could not detect a poor performance from any of the other principals, and this recording offered unalloyed pleasure.

The booklet offers notes in German, English and French. The only error in the booklet was that the track numbering is a little bit inaccurate; it does not tie in with the tracks right from the beginning.

Allowing for its relatively small drawbacks, this DVD, coupled with the same company’s interpretation of Nutcracker, is superb value for money.

John Phillips

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