Ludwig MINKUS (1826-1917)
La Bayadère (1877) (orch. arr. John Lanchbery (1923-2003))
Isabelle Guérin - Nikiya
Laurent Hilaire - Solor
Élisabeth Platel - Gamzatti
Lionel Delanoë - The Fakir
Francis Malovic - The High Brahmin
Orchestre Colonne/Michel Quéval
rec. live, Palais Garnier, Paris, May 1994
Choreography and Staging: Rudolf Nureyev after Petipa
Sound Format: LPCM Stereo; Picture Format: 16:9
WARNER CLASSICS BLU-RAY 50-51865-5572-2-7 [130:00]

This production is spectacular to look at, brilliantly costumed (literally) and with magnificent sets to act as background to some top class dancing. All the principals are at the top of their profession and the large corps de ballet has a level of precision that leaves one breathless. The closing scenes are amongst the best drilled I have ever seen. The entrance of the 32 'Shades' is utterly superb. Classical ballet par excellence.

The disc opens outside the theatre with street sounds to give atmosphere and then whisks us inside the auditorium to become part of the audience. The performer credits are run against the opening music allowing us to segue straight into the story of doomed love. This is the second disc of French ballet from Warner I have reviewed this week and it seems this is the house style for the series. I largely approve apart from reservations about the use of music over the top menu. The sound is perfectly good but only stereo is available and no attempt has been made to use either of the 'HD' sound codecs which are part of the Blu-Ray format. The film derives from the EU 16:9 / 1250 project and is thus clean and clear if not up to 2010 standards.

The Minkus score is the basis for Lanchbery's orchestration and arrangement and there is some question about the extent of the latter's involvement in the end result. Some have condemned Lanchbery's work as diminishing the original. Those wanting chapter and verse on the complex history of La Bayadère are referred to the huge and interesting article on Wikipedia. Suffice to say that the music, whatever its provenance, is tuneful and very well played by the excellent Colonne orchestra.

As ballets go this has to be amongst the most sumptuous and it undoubtedly gains a lot from having a great deal of cash thrown at it. The costumes are a constant source of pleasure as befits a tale loosely set in some sort of European romantic view of 'India'. The whole thing is a 19th century confection designed to allow dancers to pose and demonstrate their technique. This ensemble has every iota of technique needed and balletomanes can settle down to two hours of magnificent dancing. The problem is that it is all a bit decorous because the story enforces it. Compared to Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, recently reviewed, it is rather undramatic. The music and the orchestration are very plain though this does undoubtedly allow full focus on the dancers. The only moment of drama is the confrontation between Nikiya and Gamzatti when the latter attempts to stab the former. Minkus and Lanchbery seem content just to make the music the same but louder for this moment. Act 2 is mostly festivities for the marriage of Gamzatti and Solor, an opportunity for endless set-pieces following the pattern, pose, smile, wait for the music, do your dance. It is all elegantly done despite the tediousness of the Minkus score which seems to have been written using a template! The very occasional noisy dance does nothing to conceal the essentially vapid nature of it all. To think that Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake was in production the same year and was accused of being over-complicated, too Wagnerian and too symphonic. Thank goodness it was all of those things. The original production, according to the booklet, concluded with a huge storm in which the palace collapses and buries all the remaining characters. After watching the Nth dancer take up her starting position and smile I began to wish this version had concluded the same way.

Dave Billinge

Elegantly done despite the tediousness of Minkus' score.