Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The sleeping beauty - ballet in three acts (1890) [129:00]
Original choreography by Marius Petipa, revised by Konstantin Sergeyev
Princess Aurora - Larissa Lezhnina
Prince Désiré - Farukh Ruzimatov
Lilac fairy - Yulia Makhalina
Carabosse - Vadim Guliayev
The king - Gennady Babanin
The queen - Nina Mikhailova
The Kirov Ballet
Orchestra of the Kirov Theatre/Viktor Fedotov
rec. Place des Arts, Montreal, Canada, June 1989
Sound: PCM stereo
Picture format: 4:3
Region code: 0
DVD 9, NTSC
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 100 313 [129:00]
This familiar recording of Tchaikovsky's ballet masterpiece, recorded at a live performance in Montreal during a Kirov tour of Canada, returns to the catalogue in a new guise. In spite of its age, anyone who knows it from a previous incarnation will be aware of its considerable strengths.
The most obvious of those is the presence in the leading roles of Larissa Lezhnina and Farukh Ruzimatov. They were regular partners on stage from 1989, the year Ms Lezhnina made her debut in the role of Princess Aurora, until she left Russia for a new base in the Netherlands in 1994. This recording thus preserves their comparatively brief but starry collaboration in its earliest days.
Larissa Lezhnina brings several very useful qualities to the role of the princess. Most obviously, she looks very pretty on stage - an undeniable asset when one is portraying a sleeping beauty but one which not all ballerinas, I must ungallantly admit, necessarily possess. She is, moreover, slightly built and clearly not very tall, which makes her casting as the innocent and positively naive young princess quite convincing. She manages, too, a nice line in adolescent royal wilfulness as she brazenly defies her parents' Health & Safety guidelines: "Aurora! How often have I told you not to play with needles?" Even more importantly, she possesses bucketsful of charisma that - combined with a permanent smile so dazzling that it ought to have been signed up for a toothpaste commercial - wins the audience onto her side whenever she is on stage. That, in truth, cannot quite disguise a technique that, at this early stage of her career when she had yet to achieve the rank of First Soloist at the Kirov, could be a little unsure: note how, in the supreme test of the Rose Adagio, she can be slightly unsteady whenever her cavaliers' supporting arms are withdrawn, so that she quickly reaches out for them again. Overall, however, the young pocket spitfire Larissa Lezhnina proves a huge asset to this production.
So, indeed, does her partner Farukh Ruzimatov. The more established dancer of the pair in 1989, he imparts believability to his role by the effort he puts into acting it whenever he can. Along with Zoltan Solymosi in a 1994 Royal Ballet production (Opus Arte OA R3107 D, see here), Ruzimatov is my favourite Prince Désiré/Florimund - take your pick - on DVD. Both of them are theatrically aware and use their best opportunity - basically the five minutes or so leading up to that kiss - to attempt to inject some genuine character into the role. Whereas Zolymosi endearingly opts for sweet-but-dim, Ruzimatov is all sword-slashing heroics. As well as acting, the lithe and athletic Ruzimatov's dancing is remarkably impressive, whether he is performing exciting solo leaps or partnering Ms Lezhnina in the gloriously romantic final pas de deux.
I enjoyed Yulia Makhalina's characterful performance as the Lilac Fairy, and her wicked counterpart, Carabosse, is equally well portrayed by Vadim Guliayev. He does, however, remind me how male dancers en travesti can sometimes be inclined to ham up that part. An aura of genuinely shocking evil comes across much more effectively, I think, when the role is danced by a woman. When the Kirov company made a feature film of The sleeping beauty in 1964, they cast no less than Natalya Dudinskaya in the role - and, strikingly, she danced much of it en pointe. More recently, Genesia Rosato took the role in the latest Royal Ballet version to appear on DVD (Opus Arte OA 0995 D, see here).
Meanwhile, back on the Kirov disc under review, the king and queen parade regally around the stage, doing exactly what ballet monarchs are supposed to do. I'm not suggesting that Petipa should have gone so far as to allocate them a pas de deux, but these thankless roles invariably leave one concluding that King Florestan XXIV and his consort - to all intents and purpose, mere animated playing cards - might just as well have slept not only through Act 2 but throughout the whole show … and wondering where Oliver Cromwell is when you need him.
Today the corps de ballet of the Mariinsky Theatre - as the Kirov has been renamed - is, when well directed, a particularly impressive body. I wrote of one of their recent performances that they "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... stage" (see here). Sadly, the DVD under review shows that while their 1989 predecessors were certainly enthusiastic and often individually skilful, they were not as collectively well drilled on stage as their counterparts today. Note, for instance, how in the Rose Adagio some of Aurora's attendants pretend to strum their small guitars in a rough approximation of time to the music; others simply can't be bothered at all. Mind you, if I had to wear their horrendous orange wigs, I wouldn't be too keen to draw attention to myself either.
The orchestra in this performance offers us something of a mystery. Neither the opening and closing credits nor the packaging gives its name. An earlier incarnation of this production on an Image Entertainment DVD (ID9282RADVD) also omits that information. You might ordinarily have expected that it would be the Kirov's own orchestra, but, with the Soviet Union on the verge of economic collapse in 1989, I wonder whether costs dictated that the Leningrad orchestra stayed at home and a local and clearly skilled Canadian pick-up band was then engaged for this Montreal performance. The characteristic in-your-face Soviet blaring brass is certainly notable by its absence on this occasion. What we do have, though, is the vastly experienced Viktor Fedotov, "the prince of ballet conductors" as critic Clement Crisp once described him, to lead the players. Finely attuned to the practical requirements of the dancers on stage, Fedotov directs a thoroughly idiomatic performance that is full of colour, charm and drama.
Unfortunately, the sound quality doesn't always show the orchestra off to best advantage. Montreal's Place des Arts sounds a pretty cavernous venue and that causes some of the score's finer detail to be lost. Certainly we can see that the stage itself is very large, so that it can sometimes seem somewhat under-populated. I wonder too whether the practical and economic difficulties involved in mounting a Canadian tour prevented the Kirov company from bringing with them as much in the way of elaborately regal sets as they might ideally have liked.
Direction for the original TV broadcast has been pretty well done. There are rather more long shots, encompassing the whole of the action on stage, than we are sometimes used to today, when intimate - and occasionally rather too revealing - close-ups are increasingly common. That may well, however, suit balletomanes who regularly complain on internet forums that today's filmed productions often fail to show the dancers' all-important footwork. It is also worth noting that some post-production work has been applied. There is a brief bit of soft-focus, slow-motion, superimposition and general playing about with images during the Act 2 panorama sequence, for example. Similarly, at the end of that same Act, a bit of visual trickery is used to create a freeze-frame in mid-gesture that some may find odd - though I personally thought it rather neat and effective to conclude with the dancers captured in both character and in action, rather than coming out of character to acknowledge the applause of the audience.
This, then, is a DVD with many notable strengths. It has, though, one significant weakness that may rule it out for some potential purchasers. If you are a serious watcher of ballet or opera productions at home, you will probably, by now, have moved up, space permitting, to a large screen TV. Watching this particular DVD on a smaller domestic TV certainly offers a more than acceptable picture, but my 50-inch screen makes its age sadly apparent. Individual images that were no doubt acceptably sharp when broadcast on Canadian TV in 1989 can now look indistinct and rather blurred. If you insist - as many will - on watching performances shot and reproduced at the highest modern standard, this may not be a disc for you. For anyone who puts the quality of the artists' performance before that of the medium of delivery, however, this is a production that will give real and lasting pleasure.
It does not, though, displace in my affections the 1994 Royal Ballet production. That features some superb dancing and characterisation from Viviana Durante and Zoltan Solymosi – with the added attraction of Maria Björnson's amazing, if controversially eye-boggling, theatrical sets. Since I reviewed that outstanding DVD on this website, I have, however, added a new favourite to my collection: the 1964 Kirov feature film. This abbreviated (86:00) but quite beautifully made version of The sleeping beauty features not just the great Dudinskaya as Carabosse, stealing every scene in which she appears, but also Alla Sizova and Yuri Solovyov as the princess and her prince. There is a widely available DVD on the Kultur label (Kultur D1280), but I chose instead to order the rival pressing on the Japanese IVC label (IVC IVCF-2504). That restores the film’s original CinemaScope dimensions, meaning that you watch in letter-box format but do get to see the complete width of the visual image. Sound and picture have both been painstakingly restored, too. Unfortunately, the disc can only be ordered from Japan itself – a somewhat bureaucratic and difficult process – but, even abbreviated as it is, it has now joined the 1994 Royal Ballet production as a version of The sleeping beauty that I would not want to be without.