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The Best of the Bolshoi Ballet

Dance of the Tartars (from The Fountain of Bakhchisaray) (1934) [2:37]
Piotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Spanish Dance (from Swan Lake) (1877) [1:53]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Spring Waters (from the song, op.14) (1896) [2:08]
Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857)
Polonaise and Cracovienne (from A Life for the Tsar) (1836) [5:24]
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Walpurgisnacht (from Faust) (1859) [17:16]
Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
The Dying Swan (from The Carnival of the Animals) (1886) [3:48]
Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856)
Giselle – ballet in two acts (1844) [58:57]
Choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky
Galina Ulanova … Giselle
Nikolai Fadeyechev … Albrecht
Taisia Monakhova … Berthe
Alexander Radunsky … The Duke of Courland
Irina Makedonskaya … Bathilde
Vladimir Levashev … Hilarion
Rimma Karelskaya … Myrtha
Bolshoi Theatre Ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Yuri Faier (Rachmaninov, Glinka, Gounod, Saint-SaŽns and Adam) and Gennady Rozhdestvensky (Asafiev and Tchaikovsky)
rec. live performance, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 1956
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 0734425 [100:00]
Experience Classicsonline

This is a remarkable DVD that restores to wide circulation a 1957 cinema film that recorded the Bolshoi Ballet’s first ever visit to London. There is, let me say right at the beginning, some utterly amazing and quite unmissable material here and any lover of dance – and any ballet history buff - will want to see it. More of that later …
Almost as mind-boggling as the Bolshoi company’s artistry, though - and, indeed, the first point brought to your attention in the opening credits - is the claim that the film is in itself artistically groundbreaking. In an introduction notable for both sheer hyperbole and slipshod punctuation, we are informed that it was “directed by Paul Czinner in his special method and technique … The methods by which this performance has been filmed, originated with Paul Czinner. He elaborated and applied the technique by means of which outstanding stage productions can be caught and preserved for the enjoyment of wider audiences today and as a record for posterity.”
So, what was Mr Czinner’s amazing “technique”? I presume that there really was one as a certain Alfred Travers is, indeed, listed in the credits as “Director of Technique”. But I cannot, for the life of me, see what it might have been. We have here a perfectly decently filmed series of divertissements followed by a complete performance of Adam’s Giselle. But there are no innovative camera angles or any other out of the ordinary filmmaking techniques that might be described as “special”. Wait a minute, though … Doesn’t the cover sticker boast that the film was Oscar nominated? Well, yes it was – but it turns out to have been in the Scoring of a Musical Picture category. And it didn’t even win that - the accolade went instead to Andrť Previn for Gigi.
The only conclusion I can draw, given that DG’s booklet notes tell us nothing on the subject, is that, if Paul Czinner did indeed have a particular “special technique” that allowed him to record “outstanding stage productions”, it must have been the production of his cheque book.
With my opening gripe out of the way, let’s consider the dancing. This historically important film record leaves no doubt at all that the huge acclaim garnered by the Bolshoi company on its 1956 tour was entirely justified.
Taking the shorter divertissements first of all, contemporary audiences were immediately stunned, in particular, by the powerful virility and sheer ťlan of the male dancers for, as NoŽl Goodwin’s booklet notes point out, that was something not seen on London stages since the time of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes more than thirty years before. That characteristically immense energy and enthusiasm is immediately apparent in the opening Dance of the Tartars from Asafiev’s The Fountain of Bakhchisaray (an abridged performance of which, featuring not only Galina Ulanova but also Maya Plisetskaya, is available on VAI DVD 4263). It reappears in a more controlled fashion in the hugely enjoyable Glinka Polonaise and Cracovienne and then, once again, with appropriately wild abandon in Gounod’s depiction of Walpurgisnacht.
None of this is to say, of course, that the Bolshoi’s women are not up to the same standard. Indeed, they make a superb job of portraying Gounod’s will-o’-the-wisps, evil spirits, witches and goblins with vivid characterisation and immense flair. They tend, however, to make an even stronger impact as individual soloists. Lyudmila Bogomolova is virtuosic, fresh, unaffected and utterly delightful in Rachmaninov’s Spring Waters (billed in the film as Spring Water), while her colleagues in Tchaikovsky’s Spanish Dance – S. Zvyagina and A. Nersesova – make it look as if their spines are made of endlessly flexible rubber. Galina Ulanova is, it goes without saying, nonpareil in her depiction of Saint-SaŽns’s ubiquitous bird. Her performance is utterly tender and moving, with some gestures in the final death throes so affecting and “real” that you feel that there is really no other way that an in extremis swan should die.
The main focus is on Ulanova again in the abridged but well-staged performance of Giselle that takes up well over half the running time of this disc. Critic Arnold Haskell described her as “remote in a world of her own - which we are privileged to penetrate. She is so completely identified with the character she impersonates that nothing outside exists". Meanwhile, another famous interpreter of the role of Giselle, Margot Fonteyn, observed: “I cannot even begin to talk about Ulanova’s dancing, it is so marvelous. I am left speechless. It is magic”. Those two quotations neatly suggest the unique combination of genuinely convincing acting and immaculate technique that made Ulanova so special. Both qualities, thankfully, are well displayed in this filmed performance. The Bolshoi’s prima ballerina assoluta of her day creates truthful and touching portrayals, whether of a young, innocent country girl in the first flush of romantic love, a callously betrayed victim driven to insanity and death, or, in Act 2, the otherworldly lost soul who still fights to protect the lover who caused her death. Ably supported by Nikolai Fadeyechev (his character Anglicised to “Albert” and bearing an uncanny resemblance to 1950s TV star Richard Greene in Robin Hood) and by a very well drilled corps of vengeful water sprites, Ulanova’s performance retains its unique and compelling power after more than fifty years.
You will gather that I was very impressed by the content of this DVD. There are, though, a few negative points worth recording, most of which are probably related to the original material’s age (and possibly its poor state of preservation?)
Firstly, the colours can look quite odd at times, especially in the opening divertissements where facial hues, for instance, are sometimes completely lost in a sort of golden wash. In these days when it is a straightforward job to bring up colours in dull photographs on a home computer, I am surprised that nothing could be done about that. Secondly, there is some rather odd ambient sound at times, as if an engineer has superimposed a track of a chattering audience over the performance. Unless Royal Opera House patrons in the 1950s were much worse behaved than today, such a blatant case of lŤse majestť (the Queen was apparently present for Giselle) sounds more than a little unlikely. My third warning is of a few odd but tiny glitches in the sound (the opening of the second scene and the very end of the last act of Giselle) and also in picture (just a few moments into that second scene), both apparently on the original material. Finally, the DG documentation is uncharacteristically sparse and, while good on the company and dancers, tells us nothing about the making of the film. Two orchestras are listed – but we are not told which one was used for what. I assume that the Royal Opera House orchestra played for Giselle, but did the Bournemouth band do so for the divertissements? Were the latter even filmed on the Covent Garden premises or, indeed, on the same occasion? I suspect that DG have simply bought the rights to the old movie and placed it on DVD: many thanks for that, but perhaps they could have just done a little research to help put the whole thing into better context, as well as, perhaps, engaging in some technical restoration work on the print.
I suppose, though, that one ought just to be grateful to be able to watch this historic film at all. And for that, I guess that we really ought to thank Mr Paul Czinner who, whatever the nature of his “special method and technique”, certainly succeeded well in his stated aim of ensuring that this amazing spectacle was “caught and preserved for the enjoyment of wider audiences today and as a record for posterity”.

Rob Maynard


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