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Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Jean-Christophe Maillot's 'Lac' (after Swan Lake) (1876)
Choreography by Jean-Christophe Maillot
Her Majesty the Night - Bernice Coppieters
The white swan - Anja Behrend
The black swan - April Ball
The prince - Stephan Bourgond
The king - Alvaro Prieto
The queen - Mimoza Koike
The prince's confidant - Jeroen Verbruggen
The two archangels of darkness - Asier Uriagereka, Asier Edeso
The conceited woman - Simone Webster
The indifferent pretender - Gaëlle Riou
The two libertines - Anajara Ballesteros, Noelani Pantastico
The insatiable woman - Maude Sabourin
Les Ballets de Monte Carlo
Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
rec. Grimaldi Forum, Monaco, January 2013
Directed for the screen by Denis Caïozzi
Sound formats: LPCM 2.0 and dts Digital Surround
Picture format p: 16:9 anamorphic (for DVD)
Region: all regions
DVD-9 double layer disc
OPUS ARTE DVD OA1148D [93:00]

Tchaikovsky may have been a great composer, but he was certainly no expert in statecraft. That's all too clear from Swan lake where the queen appears to do little more in the way of governing her realm than intermittently parading across the boards. In fact, Tchaikovsky doesn’t even accord her a name. She has just one brief moment centre-stage when, thanks to her son and heir's naïveté, all her plans for the succession go awry. At that point she swoons dramatically as the curtain falls on a court in complete disarray.

Lac not only restores the monarch to her rightful place at the top of the political pyramid but also gives her a husband, even if neither of them are exactly paragons of marital devotion. While she likes to surround herself with hunky young male courtiers, he has something of Henry VIII's eye when it comes to the ladies-in-waiting. The queen, moreover, isn't just the passive playing card of traditional Swan lake productions: here she ends the wedding celebrations scene not by feinting limply at centre-stage but by grabbing Odille and throttling her to death.

As that’s just one of Lac's more striking amendments to the usual storyline, it's probably worth outlining the most important changes in full.

The ballet begins with a brief non-danced Prologue, filmed rather in the manner of a German Expressionist silent movie. This establishes that, some time previously, while the royal family were out picnicking with their infant son Siegfried, the little boy’s favourite playmate - a young blonde girl - had been kidnapped by Her Majesty the Night who planned to put her own dark-haired daughter in her place.

Act 1: years later, the still-traumatised prince is proving a disappointment to the king and queen. He resists his father's efforts to make more of a man of him, and rejects a series of potential brides who are paraded before him. Siegfried comes closest to taking an interest in Odille, brought to court by her mother Her Majesty the Night, but ultimately rejects her as well.

Act 2: wandering in a forest, the prince encounters Odette in the form of a swan. Her Majesty the Night attempts to disrupt his courtship, but when night falls Odette is transformed into a woman. Prince Siegfried recognises her as his kidnapped childhood friend. At daybreak Odette becomes a swan again, but the prince is now in love.

Act 3: the court rejoices that Siegfried has chosen a bride. The marriage takes place, but Her Majesty the Night has secretly substituted her daughter Odille in place of Odette. This causes the distraught prince to run off in search of his real love. A final confrontation takes place between Siegfried and Her Majesty the Night. When the king and queen have Odille's corpse brought on stage, Her Majesty the Night retaliates by producing Odette's dead body. Grief-stricken Siegfried joins Odette in death, leaving Her Majesty the Night victorious yet ultimately defeated by the transcending power of love.

Those quite substantial changes - including not just a revised storyline but the abandonment of a major male character, Rothbart, in favour of an equally evil villainess - work surprisingly well. Unlike some modern reworkings, Lac has a score that, apart from that brief Prologue, is pure Tchaikovsky, even if a few excisions have been made, notably in the wedding celebrations scene, in order to move the action along. Jean-Christophe Maillot's choreography is simultaneously inventive and very attractive.

Both Her Majesty the Night and Odille have been accorded more emphasised "swan-ness" in both their movement and, especially, their facial expressions - there's lots of vicious, gaping-mouthed hissing and snapping on display. As Her Majesty the Night, Bernice Coppieters demonstrates both technical accomplishment and real charisma, grabbing the opportunity of the villainess’s beefed-up role with both hands. She deservedly receives top billing in the cast-list. While Stephan Bourgond is a more playful than soulful Siegfried, Anja Behrend is an especially affecting Odette. They may not dance together with the sheer glamorous romantic ardour that Marius Petipa accorded them, but that would have jarred in this particular production. On their own terms, they certainly make an endearing couple. The king and queen are suitably regal and are obviously accomplished dancers themselves.

This is quite a spare production, so that the very large Monaco stage is fully utilised for dancing rather than being cluttered up with scenery. The colourful and attractive costumes are shown off well by the expert lighting.

Denis Caïozzi's direction for the screen is impeccable. He uses lots of long shots, so that we see all the busy on-stage action as well as keeping the dancers' feet on show when we want to watch their technique. A couple of Busby Berkeley-type overhead shots add some effective variety. In general, the production is filmed pretty much straight, but the opportunity was taken on a few occasions to utilise the camera to go beyond what could have been seen on-stage. Thus, at 25:06, Her Majesty the Night's voluminous cloak "dissolves" into her two supporting Archangels; similarly, Odette's later transformation from swan to woman is marked by a bit of camera trickery as her feathery "wings" are transformed into hands. I also thought that a brief sequence of swans flying through the air (64:19-64:25) was rather beautifully filmed and edited. The technical quality of both picture and sound on the DVD are excellent.

Arriving as it does amid all the other Christmas ballet offerings, Lac might be easily overlooked. That would certainly be a great shame as it is one of the most attractively presented realisations of the Swan lake story that I've seen for some time.

Rob Maynard