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Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 - 1893)
Swan Lake, ballet in four acts, Op 20 (1876) [107.00]
Choreography by Rudolf Nureyev, after Ivanov/Petipa.
Wiener Symphoniker/John Lanchbery
Odette/Odile - Margot Fonteyn
Prince Siegfried - Rudolf Nureyev
Mitglieder des balletts der Wiener Staatsoper
Sets and Costumes: Nicholas Georgiadis;
Direction: Truck Branss
Filmed at the Staatsoper, Vienna, Austria, 15 October 1966 [sic].
Sound recording by Ateliers am Rosenhügel, Vienna, Austria, 5 October 1966 [sic].
DVD 9 NTSC colour 4:3 region 0 [playable in all regions]
PCM Stereo 48/16 2.0. dts 5.0 surround sound.
Menu language, English. No subtitles or captioning. Advertising for other programs in the series.

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Comparison video recordings:
Evelyn Hart, Peter Schaufuss, London Festival Ballet, Danish Radio SO, Graham Bond. [Chor. Makarova/Petipa/Ashton] (110 minutes) ArtHaus Musik 100 438
Natalia Makarova, Anthony Dowell, Royal Ballet, Sadler’s Wells Orchestra, Ashley Lawrence, [Chor. Petipa/Ivanov/Ashton/Nureyev] (128 minutes) Pioneer Artists Laserdisc PA 02 018. Also available on NTSC Region 1 only Kultur DVD D-1408.
Comparison sound recordings:
Antal Dorati, Minnesota SO. (112 minutes) [ADD mono] Mercury Living Presence 2-CD 289 462 950-2
Maurice Abravanel, Utah SO. (115 minutes) [ADD] Silverline DVD Audio 288235-9
André Previn, LSO, EMI (156 minutes!) [ADD] EMI 5 73624-2.

When someone congratulated Tchaikovsky on the success of his Nutcracker ballet, he reportedly replied angrily, "I gave them a masterpiece in Swan Lake, but all they want from me is fluff." In 1876, the year of the Ring’s Bayreuth premier, Tchaikovsky had Wagner on his mind, and he wrote his own story of Siegfried but in the familiar Russian fairy tale mould of the young man bewitched on his wedding night. Although it consists of separate dance movements, the work begins in B minor, ends in B Major, and all the themes are linked together to produce a Dance Symphony in a sense similar to Wagner’s Vocal Symphonies.

It was probably the political context which caused the astonishing count of 89 curtain calls at the opening night of this 1964 Vienna production, Nureyev’s first public appearance after his defection. But it must be admitted that when Nureyev and/or Fonteyn are on the stage, nothing else is noticeable, an experience unlike any other ballet video I’ve ever seen. Fonteyn’s performance calls to mind descriptions of great ballerinas of the past in the swan role, yet here she is in the flesh before us. The first frame of this video is a close-up of Nureyev’s face and you can see that he has the most prominent cheek bones, longest eyelashes, biggest reddest lips, and coolest eye shadow of any other person on stage. When the camera pulls back, you see he also wears the tightest tights and the most meticulously form-fitted chemise. It seems that there are more solos for him in this version of Act I than in the others, or maybe they’re just more memorable. When Fonteyn joins him in Act II you forget they’re dancers and think they’re pantomime actors, they tell so powerfully the story of the bold hero and the frightened maiden gradually succumbing to his charms. Then when Fonteyn appears as Odile in Act III you wonder how Siegfried could be fooled because everything about her is different. Not just her facial expression, but her whole body language and style of dancing has changed. For the evil Rothbart’s appearance in this scene, it appears that an actor chosen for his massive square physique, a wrestler’s body, is chosen to pantomime him, since he has actually no dancing to do. For Rothbart’s dancing scenes, we see a slimmer dancer in the usual very elaborate costume, probably too difficult to remove and refit in time to begin Act IV.

This version has the most unhappy ending of all. The usual ending has the lovers committing suicide together and flying up to heaven on the back of a great swan while Rothbart collapses and dies, and I’ve seen it staged just that way. The Ashton version has a real brawl on stage between Siegfried and Rothbart over the Swan Queen. The lovers defy Rothbart and run off while the little swans gang up on the stricken Rothbart and tear him to pieces. When the lovers appear on the swan boat it’s not clear whether they are in this world or the next; you can believe what you want. In this Nureyev version, the stage is realistically filled with water, huge billowing waves of blue, purple, and black fabric. Siegfried, after a piteous, horrifying struggle against the waves, finally dies alone watching his beloved swimming away following the triumphant Rothbart. I guess Nureyev was used to a world where evil always wins.

Much of the choreography is new for much of this version and the corps have difficulty at times; even though, according to the notes, this recording was made two years to the day after the premier, more rehearsal for such a radical production would likely have improved things. Or perhaps the corps realise nobody’s going to notice anything they do and they just didn’t put themselves out. Sets and costumes are great, but not a lot better than the other video versions. The sound is extremely clear and wide range, and there is little difference to be noted between the dts surround and the pcm stereo heard through a surround decoder. But the conducting, while perfectly effective as accompaniment, is lacklustre. You wouldn’t want the sound track from this production to be your only recording of the music. Apparently the sound was recorded at a dress rehearsal ten days before the performance, and then the film was edited to this sound track; there is just the barest trace of stage noise now and then, but no audience sounds or applause at all. There are no curtain calls on this disk. If what you were hoping for is a journalistic record of that historic night, this is not it.

The picture is very clear. It looks like live high resolution video, but the notes claim it was filmed, and at rare times one can see a grain or two of salt and pepper on the screen typical of even the best filming. Although a single filming date is given, one can deduce that at least two performances (or rehearsals) were filmed, and probably a third to set up for close-ups and other camera angles, which are many and imaginative. Video direction is generally good; you’re usually, but not always, looking where you want to be looking. For instance, after meeting Odile, Siegfried apparently follows her off stage to wait for their duet. In real life, if the Prince and Princess together disappeared from everyone’s sight for ten minutes unchaperoned, then they’d have to get married. To summarise, this is a great, but not good Swan Lake. A must-have for the incredible dancing by the stars, but otherwise not the best.

The Hart/Schaufuss video version is overall the best, even though the two principals come nowhere near the skill of Nureyev and Fonteyn. But the sense of ensemble, the drama, the musical performance, and the resemblance to a traditional version, this version is superior. Schaufuss dances Siegfried in complement to his friend Benno, a sort of Narcissus and Goldmund pair, where Benno is all fun and life and Siegfried all agonised, lonely, sensitivity. Here the water effects are created with laser back projection which don’t quite come across on the flat screen, but must have been very effective stereoscopically in the theatre. For the video, these effects are enhanced with montage. If you must have just one video version, buy this one, but try to borrow the Vienna version to see it at least once. Every university and dance school library should have it.

The Makarova/Dowell/Ashton/Royal Ballet version is, at this writing, available only on an NTSC Region 1 DVD from Kultur. The musical track is the best of all, the dancing of the corps probably a bit more precise and graceful than the Viennese; the choreography includes a first act solo for Siegfried devised by Nureyev and the Ashton finale as described above. The production is nearly monochrome in design and attempts by the engineers to enhance the colour result in odd balances. However once you adjust for realistic flesh tones, you get used to the subtlety of hue. This is also a fine version with a satisfying ending.

The Dorati audio only recording is Tchaikovsky’s original 1876 score complete, so it should be the best one for appreciating Tchaikovsky’s innovation in musical form, although it features rough, astringent sound and a "serviceable" performance on a par with Lanchbery’s. The Abravanel recording features a superb performance and excellent authentic surround sound which will sound best if you have a DVD-Audio player but can be played at slightly lower fidelity on any DVD player. The Previn version, with excellent performance and sound quality (it was released on SQ quadraphonic disks and may some day appear as a surround sound DVD-Audio or SACD), includes some additional music Tchaikovsky wrote (or was adapted by others from music Tchaikovsky wrote for other occasions) for subsequent productions accounting for its nearly 44 minutes of additional music; however, no one, least of all Tchaikovsky, ever expected all this music to be used in one production. All other versions make some sort of selection from among what is available, which accounts for the varying lengths.

Paul Shoemaker

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