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Peter TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake: Ballet in 2 Acts and Six Scenes Op.20 (see below)
Odette, Odile - Steffi Scherzer
Prince Siegfried - Oliver Matz
Siegfried's Mother/The Queen - Bettina Thiel
Rotbart - Torsten Händler
Benno von Sommerstein - Jens Weber
recorded live Deutsche Staatsoper 1998

Nutcracker: Ballet in 2 Acts Op.71
Mary - Nadja Saidakova
Le Prince Casse Noisette - Vladimir Malakhov
Drosselmeyer - Oliver Matz
Reine des Glaces - Beatrice Knop
Reine des Neiges - Viara Natcheva
Dr Stahlbaum - Torsten Händler
Fra Stahlbaum - Barbara Schroeder
Luiza - Kira Kirillova
Fritz - Steffen Neumann
recorded live Deutsche Staatsoper 1999
Ballet of the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin
Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
Choreography and staging: Patrice Bart
Based on the choreography by Marius Petipa
Regional Code 0. Picture Format 16:9; Sound Formats PCM Stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1
Reviewed using Dolby Digital 5.1
two discs in sleeve:
ARTHAUS DVD Swan Lake 100 001 [2 hours 30 mins]; Nutcracker 100 118 [1 hour 58 mins]

Certain aspects of these productions can be bundled together. They both look good with unfussy camera work save for the unfortunate placing of a high microphone which regularly comes into view stage left in long high shots. I may have been aware of this because I review with a large picture, those watching a normal TV may not even notice so do not let it put you off. The sound is excellent with enough clarity to make one aware of the gentle tapping of the Corps de Ballet's feet in some scenes. These are both straight films of single publicly staged performances. The films actually give specific dates at the start. So you are here at the ballet but with the benefit of a perfect view and without the disadvantages of people unwrapping and eating chocolates all around you. (Why do ballet audiences do that, don't they like music?) Both stagings look wonderful with superb and fairly traditional costumes. On the supremely important musical front, these are great scores, the orchestra of the Deutsche Staatsoper play as well as any I have ever heard and Daniel Barenboim takes the music as seriously as it deserves. As audio alone both ballets sound magnificent. The solo playing of various section leaders is very fine indeed and awarded with curtain calls from the stage at the end, the which recognition they richly deserve. Incidentally, how good to be able to watch and hear lots of curtain calls without being interrupted by presenters' babble as always happens on the BBC.

Did I mention there's dancing? Oliver Matz (Siegfried in Swan Lake and Drosselmeyer in Nutcracker) ) who is a principal of the company, is spectacularly good, doing all that leaping stuff with huge skill and grace and emoting his complex characters with all the style and professionalism of a stage actor. Steffi Scherzer (Odette / Odile in Swan Lake) is similarly good, taking on her two contrasting characters and moving one with the tragedy of the one and the evil of the other. Every soloist and every member of the Corps de Ballet manages to convey characters both small and large with an absorption in their roles that belies the fact that they also have to move like Olympic athletes to a complex score. This is utterly first class.

Now to the more contentious issues which may stop some balletomanes in their tracks. Though the choreography, on which I am no expert, is based on the original settings, the story lines of both ballets have been revised and updated in a post-Freudian manner to which one must adjust if one is to settle and enjoy the superb dancing. The only way to warn potential purchasers is to recount very briefly the "concept" which has been imposed on each ballet and which is detailed in the useful notes accompanying both sets.

Originally Tchaikovsky, Begichev and Heltser set the story in 4 Acts. On this DVD Swan Lake is restructured into 2 acts and given a major plot reworking. A study of the politics leading up to the first production of Swan Lake in 1877 shows that such reworking had been inflicted even during Tchaikovsky's lifetime, so it is not of itself grounds for censure (see Brown, D: Tchaikovsky: To the Crisis 1840-1878, Gollancz 1992 pp.67-80). In Bart's production Prince Siegfried is almost enslaved by his mother the young widowed Queen. He needs to escape this domination and the domination of others at court, including the overtly erotic attentions of his friend Benno, by making a free choice of his own. This he does by swearing eternal faithfulness to Odette. This precipitates a crisis in which his mother hatches political plots to divert Siegfried, culminating in Siegfried betraying Odette, murdering the Queen's minister and then casting himself into the lake. The ballet ends with the Queen in despair at having lost everyone she loves. It works, and the ballet suffers only a change of emphasis. However, that change does make the classic title "Swan Lake" a bit of a misnomer because the swans and the lake are less significant than the political plotting and Siegfried's Oedipus complex.

If I may abbreviate and paraphrase Guido Johannes Joerg's interesting note. In his choreography and production of The Nutcracker Patrice Bart placed a prologue before the ballet whose purpose was to clarify 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 traumatised little girl to believe that she lives in an imaginary land of ice and snow. She was adopted, but there she does not feel happy and so does not get on with her siblings. She is not a "normal" child, playing with toys on Christmas Eve because the trauma will not leave her. Drosselmeyer knows of Marie's history. He leads her back to her mother. He brings the Nutcracker to life and reconciles Marie with her past. 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 events in the dream. Therapeutically speaking it is the first step to becoming aware, towards healing. Drosselmeyer leads Marie back to her mother in the land of ice and snow, which in the end reveals itself as a land of love. It is a lovely concept but again not the original. Again it works and in many respects makes better sense of the rather unsatisfactory story Tchaikovsky set in which he tells the tale in Act 1 and then adds a divertissement in Act 2 to keep the public happy. Bart's version is coherent.

Dave Billinge

see also review by John Phillips

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