Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
Raymonda (ballet in three acts) (1898) [154:00]
Raymonda - Olesia Novikova
Jean de Brienne - Friedemann Vogel
Abderahman - Mick Zeni
Henriette - Mariafrancesca Garritano
Clémence - Francesca Podini
Béranger - Claudio Coviello
Bernard de Ventodour - Marco Agostino
Countess Sybille - Sabina Galasso
King Andrew - Luigi Saruggia
The white lady - Manuela Aufieri
Seneschal - Matteo Buongiorno
Officer Verlé - Matthew Endicott
Orchestra and corps de ballet of Teatro alla Scala/Michail Jurowski
Directed for TV and video by Lorena Sardi
Original choreography by Marius Petipa
Choreographic revival and staging by Sergej Vikharev
rec. live performance, Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 2011
ARTHAUS MUSIK BLU-RAY 108 051 [154:00]
“- it is a big thrill when suddenly a whole new classical ballet sunbursts upon you, with a whole new dazzling score full of eighteen-carat tunes (some of which, naturally, are familiar), and a series of dances, classical and character, which bear the stamp of sterling Petipa - And the score is so marvellous, and it isn’t Tchaikovsky. Glazounov has the same variety of invention, but into certain tunes he injects an extra vein of Straussian voluptuousness, a sick, decadent, Tennysonian over-sweetness, glittering in its autumn golds, which is irresistible just for a change.”
[Richard Buckle reviewing an Australian Ballet production, quoted in Buckle at the ballet: selected criticism by Richard Buckle, London, 1980, p.287.]
That sounds all well and good. In fact Mr Buckle was at pains to point out that he had enjoyed his evening at the London’s New Victoria Theatre in 1963 specifically because he was watching an abridged version of the original 1898 ballet. His review praised Rudolf Nureyev’s “drastic editing” of the storyline, especially the excision of both the “White Lady” episodes and the rather pointless presence of King Andrew of Hungary at Countess Sybille’s castle. He cited as supporting evidence the opinion of the Ballets Russes designer Alexandre Benois that the 1898 version had been both too complicated and too long.
The first point to make, therefore, is that this new Milan production has quite deliberately gone back to the original Raymonda of 1898. Immense effort has gone into recreating its choreography, costumes and sets as accurately as possible. That was no easy task, for although the original choreographic notation had survived in the invaluable Sergeyev Collection, the intervening 113 years had witnessed both artistic upheaval during the Russian Revolution and then official reticence in sharing cultural artefacts with the West during much of the Soviet era. The Milan team would have deserved the warmest scholarly appreciation for their recreative efforts whatever the outcome had been. As it happens, this 2011 production is a genuine artistic triumph.
It’s a fact that, at first encounter, Raymonda does appear to be a rather slow-moving story. Glazunov, moreover, loves wallowing in those melodies of “Straussian voluptuousness” or others that sound rather enervated and twee, avoiding the virile, populist, foot-tapping episodes that make Tchaikovsky’s scores so immediately memorable. In all probability, the first time you watch Raymonda you will find yourself, for long stretches, waiting for something - anything! - to happen. Perseverance does pay off and repeated viewings - the joy of DVD and Blu-ray - demonstrate conclusively that the story and the score have a pace of their own that, once allowed for and adjusted to, really works.
The very opening of the first scene of Act 1 sets the tone. No-one dashes about and everyone moves in the stateliest manner: the courtiers even play darts, it seems, in slow motion. Any rushing around the stage would have been rendered very difficult by the superbly elaborate costumes that everyone wears. The real-life Jean de Brienne and King Andrew II of Hungary both died in the 1230s but costumes from later and rather more glamorous periods are used here instead. They are drawn mainly from late 14th and early 15th century sources, I’d say, although the countess’s wimple looks rather early 14th century. The soldier who subsequently delivers a message from Raymonda’s fiancé Jean de Brienne is surely wearing the sort of helmet favoured by Spanish conquistadores in the early 16th century! My nit-picking criticisms are properly directed at St Petersburg’s Maryinsky Theatre designers of 1898 - not the Milanese producers of today who have deliberately and successfully replicated their idiosyncratic, light-on-historical-accuracy approach.
Carrying on for the moment with this production’s appearance - which is one of its most striking features - Act 1, scene 2 goes on to boast a beautifully-lit night-time set of the castle terrace. The real triumph of stage design, particularly when seen on a large HD television set, comes in Act 2 where the breathtakingly vivid colour palette utilised for the inventive heraldic designs simply dazzles the eye to pleasurable distraction.
The dancing that takes place within these wonderful settings is undeniably of a very high quality. From her first entrance, Olesia Novikova successfully conveys the girlish, rather vacant naivety that is, to be honest, Raymonda’s primary characteristic. Her acting ability is a little more challenged in the prolonged dream sequence of Act 1, scene 2, where she might have put greater emphasis on Raymonda’s repressed sexual desire for Abderahman. The way in which the young girl is torn, in her fantasies, between her “pure” relationship with Jean and the darker intentions of the Moor would, after all, have been a topical subject in 1898, when Sigmund Freud was just about to publish The Interpretation of Dreams. Whatever the limitations of Novikova’s characterisation, however, her dancing is first rate, as demonstrated from the opening scene’s Une fantaisie - variation de Raymonda onwards. She can certainly stand comparison with - even if not quite surpassing - such DVD rivals as Kolpakova (1980, VAI 4447), Semenyaka (undated performance, Kultur D1170) and, the most widely known, Bessmertnova (1989, Arthaus Musik 100 719).
The character of Jean de Brienne has - apart from killing his love-rival and looking generally noble - little to do on stage, but I was taken with the patent sincerity that Stuttgart Ballet First Soloist Friedemann Vogel brings to the role. He looks very much the part of a chivalrous medieval knight in his crusading outfit though rather less so later in his somewhat camp ethnic Hungarian costume. He also possesses all the necessary technique to make light of Petipa’s choreography. He offers excellent support to Novikova in, for instance, the Grand adagio of Act 1, scene 2.
The third element of the love triangle, Raymonda’s other suitor Abderahman, is very well portrayed and danced by Mick Zeni. One certainly suspects that he’d have offered Raymonda a rather more exciting life than she ultimately opts for with goody-goody Jean.
The corps de ballet is pretty large - Vesna Mlakar’s useful booklet note mentions 150 performers in all - and has quite a bit to do. Its members are variously Moors and Spaniards in Abderahman’s retinue, returning crusaders (and what appears to be some sort of Greek chorus!) in Jean’s party and various types of native Hungarians in King Andrew’s entourage. A large body of children throw themselves enthusiastically into the performance: the girls shine in the Valse fantastique that follows the Grand adagio, while the boys provide more than a few jolly moments with coconut shells (?) strapped to their thighs for percussive effects in Act 2’s Grand divertissement. All the adults and children add considerably to the colourful production and, towards the end of the third Act, the lively Coda and Galop final are both enjoyable romps that are especially well executed.
The Teatro alla Scala orchestra, under the experienced direction of Michail Jurowski, plays with consummate skill and feeling for the music. That said, if you’ve grown up with one of Svetlanov’s recordings of the score you’ll miss the outrageously intrusive - but highly effective - interruptions by typically raucous Soviet brass at moments of high drama. Perhaps as compensation, in this production an on-stage complement of brass players in full costume appears at appropriate moments to play straight out into the auditorium.
Overall, the production was easy to follow although there was one moment that I thought was rather botched and another that left me a little bemused. The former was at the climax of Act 2 where Jean de Brienne unexpectedly appears to deliver Raymonda from Abderahman’s excitingly choreographed bacchanale/kidnap attempt. Unfortunately, Milan’s complement of crusaders appear on stage a few seconds before we hear Glazunov’s dramatic musical cue for their arrival, so the required “surprise” rescue-in-the-nick-of-time isn’t any such thing.
The moment that caused me some concern came in the same scene and presumably derives from the 1898 version. I’ve always thought that Jean kills Abderahman in single combat, with or without a little supernatural help from the White Lady. My rather worn copy of Cyril Beaumont’s authoritative Complete book of ballets (London, 1937) explains (p.551) that “The contest [between Jean and Abderahman] is furious, but the White Lady appears and causes Abderam [sic.] to be seized with weakness and slain - ”. Here, however, it’s all done by said female herself, shining a light into the Moor’s eyes that doesn’t just blind him but apparently finishes him off entirely without the need for Jean’s sword thrust at all. Odd!
More serious reservations come, however, with the question of the direction for TV and video. I would suggest that, as a general principle for opera or ballet transmissions or recordings, we at home ought to be able to see at least everything that the theatre audience sees from its perspective. There are also plenty of close-ups to emphasise characters’ emotions, important pieces of stage business and, in ballet, the artists’ technical skills. Yet in this production there are a few instances where the screen fades to black for a few seconds for no apparent reason. (1) At 41:46 Jean and a few of his soldiers have come on stage to greet Raymonda - the screen goes black and then switches to the orchestra. At 42:10 we switch back to the same stage as before but now we see that Jean and his troops have been joined, while we were away, by all sorts of unexplained characters including a woman doing a passable impersonation of the Statue of Liberty. The sequence is oddly disconcerting and it’s alienating to the viewer not to have seen such a significant body of people actually come onto the stage and interact with the other characters already there. (2) Similarly, between 61:57 and 62:22 and also between 67:13 and 67:30 the director switches from the stage to images of the orchestra. It’s not because the curtain has come down at those points. In both cases we then simply return to the same scene we had been watching before so why were we deprived of seeing, like the audience, what was happening on stage in the meantime?
Another oddity that some will find needlessly distracting, especially on repeated viewing, occurs in Act 3’s Variation de Raymonda. We are watching Miss Novikova dancing away expertly in her solo when a third of the on-screen image fades out to be replaced by a shot of the hands that are playing the keyboard of the piano accompanying her. Meanwhile, the dancing continues on the remaining two-thirds of the screen! That’s repeated a few times and successfully destroys any suspension of disbelief by unnecessarily reminding us that this is, after all, just a theatrical performance.
To many reading this such quibbles will be of no great concern. Even if they are likely to worry you, I must still recommend that you see this fabulous once-in-a-lifetime - just think of the expense! - production. Raymonda is unquestionably a major ballet but one that has been unjustifiably overshadowed and is still staged comparatively rarely. The medium of the DVD offers, therefore, a great opportunity to get to know it better by repeated viewing. Moreover, as this new release triumphantly demonstrates, the extra clarity and definition offered by the Blu-ray technology might very well have been invented just for the lavishly fabricated, sumptuously staged and triumphantly successful production that it here records and preserves for posterity.
Lavish, sumptuous and triumphantly successful.