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CD: AmazonUK

Piotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Sleeping Beauty - ballet in three acts (1890) [132:00]
Original choreography: Marius Petipa
Additional choreography: Frederick Ashton/Kenneth MacMillan/Feodor Lopokov
Viviana Durante - Princess Aurora
Zoltán Solymosi - Prince Florimund
Benazir Hussein - Lilac fairy
Anthony Dowell - Carabosse
William Tuckett - King Florestan
Elizabeth McGorian - The queen
David Drew - Cattalabutte
Artists of The Royal Ballet
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Barry Wordsworth
Directed for television by Colin Nears
rec. live performance, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 23 November 1994
OPUS ARTE OAR3107D [132:00] 
Experience Classicsonline

What an embarras de richesses from Opus Arte! Only a few months after releasing a DVD of a first class 2006 Royal Ballet Sleeping Beauty starring Cojocaru and Bonelli (see review here), they now give us this superb performance from 12 years earlier. Given that the 2006 performance was a commemorative revival of Sir Frederick Ashton's 1946 production, it is the 1994 one under review here, probably best recalled for the striking contribution of designer Maria Björnson, that is actually the more 'modern'.

Before her early death in 2002, Bjornson was recognised for creating outstanding work in both musical theatre and opera: she had, for example, been awarded 1988's Tony Award for Best Scenic Design for her designs for Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. Her conception for this Sleeping Beauty still polarises opinion. Ballet critics and buffs have often criticised it sniffily as utterly distracting and impracticable, but the popular verdict has generally been much more favourable with wide audience appreciation for the way in which Maria Bjornson's characteristically audacious and out-of-the-box imagination created some quite breathtaking effects on stage.

The predominant shades are blue, grey and silver but the most intriguing feature of the sets is their eye-boggling perspectives. If you've seen any German expressionist cinema of the Weimar era, Björnson's staging will seem quite familiar. Huge pillars carry the eye up to the roof at impossible angles and utterly impractical staircases sweep dramatically down onto the rear of the stage. I seem to recall that, in the television documentary The House, one dancer claimed to be quite terrified of having to race down them. There are some utterly stunning theatrical effects: the moment when the prince awakens Aurora with a kiss, for example, provides a real coup de theatre that makes the audience burst into spontaneous applause. Visually, this is the certainly the most sumptuous Sleeping Beauty that I have seen.

While still on the subject of design, we are normally used to the pre-spell scenes being danced in Louis XIV costumes and the wedding finale of a century later being dressed up as generic Georgian - amounting to a visually effective change from generalised baroque to generalised rococo. Here, however, chronology is spun on its heels, with the earlier scenes being rough approximations of 18th century taste before the finale reverts to a 17th century look. That may seem odd at first sight - but (a) is any land ruled by a king named Florestan XXIV and peopled with fairy-tale characters and fairies necessarily obliged to follow standard European costume history? (b) it certainly works on stage!

What of the dancing? Viviana Durante, a First Principal in the Royal Ballet by the age of 21, was, before falling out spectacularly with the management in 1999, one of the company's most admired artists. Along with Darcey Bussell, she is widely credited with making a key contribution to the revival of the Royal Ballet's fortunes in the 1990s. In this production she dances with both the technical precision and the great elegance for which she was always renowned. From a technical point of view, hers is a virtually flawless performance.

Zoltán Solymosi, her prince, never exhibited the same exalted level of technique in his dancing but was a true danseur noble whose physical strength and solid build enabled him to lift even the largest partners as required (the original intention was that he would partner Darcey Bussell in this production but, after she withdrew because of injury, the far more slightly-built Durante took her place). At the same time, though, Solymosi was a surprising graceful dancer. Here he also makes a strong impression with some effective and touchingly sincere acting - watch, for instance, his facial expressions as, initially perplexed, he eventually works out how to wake the sleeping princess from her century-long slumber and then ecstatically runs across the stage to her bedside.

Turning to the other major roles, there is a most characterful interpretation of the wicked witch Carabosse from Anthony Dowell who was, incidentally, this Sleeping Beauty's overall producer. Benazir Hussein's performance as the Lilac fairy may have split critical opinion over the years but I suspect that any technical deficiencies in her dancing will be forgiven by most viewers - if they spot them at all - in light of her attractive stage presence.

The Royal Opera House orchestra plays exceptionally finely under the idiomatic direction of Barry Wordsworth. He is a conductor who is immensely sympathetic to the dancers' requirements and who makes an important contribution to the overall success of this production.

The booklet accompanying the DVD confines itself to providing the cast list, a list of tracks and a brief synopsis of the plot. With more and more versions of popular ballets now becoming available, I do feel in general that we ought to be given at least a hint of any unique characteristics that make a particular performance worthy of reissue - whether it be the production, the performances, the rarity of the repertoire, or whatever. The release of this 1994 Sleeping Beauty could easily, as I have suggested, be justified on several grounds - but it would be good to have them set down intelligently in black and white so as to stimulate those readers who have enjoyed the production to explore even further into the world of ballet.

Rob Maynard


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