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CD: Crotchet

Léon MINKUS (1826-1917)
Don Quixote - ballet in prologue and three acts (1869)
Choreography: Nureyev/Petipa
Aurélie Dupont - Kitri
Manuel Legris - Basile
Jean-Guillaume Bart - Espada
Marie-Agnès Gillot - La danseuse de rue
Delphine Moussin - La reine des dryades
Clairemarie Osta - Cupidon
Mélanie Hurel - not identified
Véronique Doisneau - Les deux amis
Jean-Marie Didière - Don Quichotte
Fabien Roques - Sancho
Laurent Queval - Gamache
Alexis Saramite - Lorenzo
Karl Paquette - Le gitan
Fanny Fiat - La demoiselle d’honneur
Ballet de l’Opéra national de Paris
Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris/Ermanno Florio
Directed by François Roussillon
rec. live performance, l’Opéra National de Paris, April 2002
ARTHAUS MUSIK 107009 [122:00]

CD: Crotchet

Léon MINKUS (1826-1917)
Don Quixote - ballet in prologue and four acts (1869)
Choreography: Gorsky/Petipa
Vladimir Ponomarev - Don Quixote
Anton Lukovkin - Sancho Panza
Igor Petropy - Lorenzo
Olesya Novikova - Kitri
Leonid Sarafanov - Basilio
Vladimir Lepeyev - Gamache
Andrei Merkuriev - Espada
Yekaterina Kondaurova - Street dancer
Yana Selina - not identified
Yana Serebriakova - Flower sellers
Alina Somova - Queen of the Dryads
Yevgeniua Obraztsova - Amor
Galina Rakhmanova - Mercedes
Alexander Efremov - Tavern owner
Polina Rassadina - not identified
Nikolai Zubkovsky - Gypsy dance
Ti Yon Riu - Oriental dance
Elena Bazhenova - not identified
Karen Ioannisyan - Fandango
Olga Esina - Variation
Artists of the Mariinsky Ballet
Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre/Pavel Bubelnikov
Directed by Brian Large
rec. live performance, Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, 2006
DECCA 0743235 [118:00]
Experience Classicsonline

You know just how it is. You wait for ages for a bus and then two of them come along at the same time. And that’s exactly how it felt when I received these two DVDs within a week of each other - though thankfully, as it turned out, they were each sufficiently distinctive as to make comparison a worthwhile exercise.

First of all, though, a red herring ... You will no doubt have already noticed, in my heading, an apparent difference in structure. The Paris Opera Ballet (POB) describes its version as in a prologue and three acts, while the Mariinsky Ballet (MB) describes its as in a prologue and four acts.

Sometimes such differences can be of real significance. DVD buyers will find that Nureyev’s POB production of Minkus’s La Bayadere, for instance, really is substantially shorter than Natalia Makarova’s Royal Opera House or La Scala productions, both of which add an extra and valuable 20+ minutes by including her reconstruction of the ballet’s “lost” final scene.

But, in these two versions of Don Quixote, the most notable difference lies in the scene-setting prologues that show the Don fantasising about his adventures to come. MB gets its prologue out of the way in less than 2½ minutes so as to crack on with the main story of the Kitri/Basilio romance while POB’s, by taking its time in introducing Sancho Panza as a comic petty thief - and a friar to boot - and establishing his affectionate relationship with the Don, takes more than seven minutes. Thereafter, the differences between the two productions are really just cosmetic: each company offers essentially identical versions of Acts 1 and 2, before MB offers separate Acts 3 (the tavern scene) and 4 (the wedding celebrations) while POB combines those two into a single Act 3 of two scenes.

In the week that I had just the POB version in my possession, I was quite impressed by its many virtues. From the very opening orchestral introduction, it is clear that the orchestra plays with care and, beyond that, with real elegance and, at times, élan. Playing the lovers Kitri and Basile, soloists Aurélie Dupont and Manuel Legris are both authoritative and attractive. They are well matched physically and temperamentally and their technical coordination is first class. They certainly make a believable - if, at times, a somewhat restrained - couple and their Act 3 Grand pas de deux, while perhaps rather mannered, deservedly brings the house down.

The dancers taking the flashy, flirtatious roles of Espada and the street dancer are suitably assured and extrovert, while the less prominent solo roles are invariable executed to at least a satisfactory level - and usually much more. In the “character” roles, Kitri’s father Lorenzo is rather more fearsome than we sometimes find and the unsuitable suitor Gamache is even more camp than usual; in this portrayal I’d expect him to be chasing Basile rather than Kitri!

There were lots of impressive little touches throughout the Paris production. Just taking the second act as an example: Karl Paquette impresses as the Spanish gypsy chief. He seems to have cornered this type of role, for he can also be found playing it in the POB DVD production of the Minkus/Petipa Paquita. The POB children are put to effective use in the puppetry episode and the subsequent depiction of Don Quixote’s madness is theatrically most effective. The succeeding “dream” sequence is also notably well accomplished and Dupont gives a most charismatic portrayal of the Don’s idealised Dulcinea.

Other pluses I noted some effective comic mugging by Basile as he supposedly kills himself in Act 3 and Kitri’s particularly well delivered “fan” variation - not, I hasten to add, of the type danced by legendary burlesque queen Sally Rand - in the wedding scene.

There are, on the other hand, some unfortunate minuses in the POB production. The members of the corps de ballet, though undeniably well-drilled, seem to think that Spanish-ness can be achieved merely by vigorous, coquettish use of a fan or the twirling of a matador’s cape and the director misses a trick by not taking the opportunity of moulding them into individual personalities within the crowd. The costumes are also rather dull and unremarkable. No doubt they are quite realistic - but we surely expect the Spain of our imagination and of the stage to be more flamboyant and colourful than is shown here. The sets - apart from the Act 3 tavern - are rather bitty, unconvincing and often bland to the point of invisibility. Such things can be concealed on film by frequent close-ups that hide a poorly dressed stage but the video direction here is relatively unimaginative and flunks the challenge.

Had I not had the Russian Don Quixote to compare it with, I suspect that I might not have become quite so lukewarm about POB. But, in all truth, MB’s production is in a different league. It conveys an air of youthful excitement and commitment to the idiom that just does not come across from the more restrained Paris account. Here the corps de ballet members give the impression of being individuals within the crowd and of having their own distinct individual identities - and there is always plenty of activity going on in the background on the Mariinsky stage, with more colourful costumes whirling and twirling their way through generally “busier”, more convincing stage sets. Just to give a single example of its extra panache, the MB production brings on the Don on a real horse - whereas POB utilises a sort of pantomime version.

That air of “youthful excitement” that I referred to is much enhanced by the superlative technique and stage presence of Leonid Sarafanov. By my reckoning, Sarafanov was 23 or 24 when this performance was recorded, but he looks, you’d have to say, all of 16. If you haven’t yet come across him, check out a couple of YouTube postings, both from other performances of Don Quixote - where he performs solo and where he partners Natalia Osipova. As the Mariinsky audience clearly recognises, the boyish, playful Sarafanov is an incredibly charismatic dancer and he can act well too, with some rich comic facial expressions and stage play as he flirts outrageously with his Kitri. The camera just loves him. As a result, his partner, Olesya Novikova, is somewhat put in the shade when they perform together but, in reality, she is a fine dancer who matches Sarafanov in her commitment to the story. The two of them do really come across as a youthful Romeo and Juliet - while POB’s Dupont and Legris are, in their more obvious maturity, more of a Beatrice and Benedick partnership.

The MB character roles fare well, too. Igor Petropy’s comic interpretation of Kitri’s father Lorenzo works better than POB’s straighter version, while Anton Lukovkin’s amusing turn as Sancho Panza is also the superior one (in the MB production he is most definitely a layman of the most secular inclinations). The St Petersburg Gamache is silly, rather than camp, and is another effective performance, and I also especially enjoyed the highly accomplished dancing of Espada - very athletic and engaging in the Dance of the toreadors - and his street dancer. Altogether, MB’s strength in depth contributes to a very jolly and entertaining first act.

There are notable performances in all three variations in the Act 2 “dream” sequence - from the queen of the dryads, from Amor and from Osipova as the Don’s imagined Dulcinea. Act 3 is of a very high standard - a busy, believable tavern is the setting for a well-done oriental dance, Mercedes’s dance and a joyous finale - and Act 4 come off very well too. At the latter’s opening I was delighted to hear Minkus’s lively, foot-tapping introductory march (omitted in the POB production) and the dancing that follows is consistently top quality - in fact it is often nothing short of superb. Novikova is again excellent - a particularly attractive “fan” variation; no less than a staggering 38 fouettés en tournant in the Grand pas de deux - but most eyes will once more be on Leonid Sarafanov. He is simply in a league of his own: energetic, athletic, supple and playful, yet simultaneously demonstrating, when required, the finest degree of elegance. When Sarafanov leaps he gives an optical illusion of floating freely for an extra split second right at the top of his trajectory. Louise Levine’s excellent booklet notes suggest that “he seems to ride in the air... as if he had discovered secret thermals within the microclimate of the stage”.  

The Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre supports the whole performance most effectively. Pavel Bubelnikov’s chosen tempi are closely attuned to the dancers’ requirements and there is clearly an excellent rapport between the pit and the stage. The video direction - by Brian Large - is as well thought out as one would expect from a man of his experience and adds immeasurably to the viewers’ appreciation and enjoyment.

Both performances offer a great deal to delight and are a pleasure to watch, then, but MB’s offers one that simply has a greater frisson of excitement surrounding it. And it - along with the version starring Nina Ananiashvili that I reviewed here some months ago (see review) would be the recorded performances of this highly enjoyable ballet that I expect to return to with the greatest pleasure in the future.

Rob Maynard



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