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Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan lake, ballet in one prologue and four Acts (1876) [133:00]
Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala/James Tuggle
The sleeping beauty, ballet in three acts (1890) [129:00]
Orchestra of the Kirov Theatre (?)/Viktor Fedotov
The nutcracker and the mouse king, ballet (1892) [108:00]
Holland Symfonia/Ermanno Florio
rec. 1989-2011
ARTHAUS MUSIK Blu-ray 107544 [3 discs: 397:00]

"Maybe if I tried it, I'd love ballet. I just can't understand the reason why they have these girls dancing on their toes. Why don't they get taller girls? It would be so much easier" - Formula 1 motor racing boss Bernie Ecclestone offers his views on ballet (see here)

We all have our blind spots. Pace Bernie Ecclestone's remarks, I have to confess that I don't see the appeal of motor racing. While the Formula 1 supremo may not be able to get his head around the whole idea of ballet, thankfully plenty of other people can. For them – and no doubt with the Christmas gift market very much in mind – Arthaus Musik has collected Tchaikovsky’s ballets together in a single convenient box.
The three performances vary markedly in their approach. While that of The nutcracker and the mouse king offers us a decidedly quirky take on the familiar story, those of The sleeping Beauty and Swan lake are much more traditional. The decision to select performances from different companies based in Amsterdam, St Petersburg and Milan also means that we don't see a consistent house style such as we do in a rival all-Tchaikovsky box set from the Royal Ballet (Opus Arte OA1119D). What is consistent throughout these three discs is the high standard of performance, especially from the leading dancers.
I have reviewed the Blu-ray disc of The nutcracker and the mouse king before on these pages (see here), and anyone considering buying this new box is advised to refer to that earlier review, as well as various others cited below. To save repeating myself unnecessarily, this Dutch National Ballet performance's undoubted assets include Anna Tsygankova and Matthew Golding who not only dance with great artistry but also communicate real star quality. Add to this the skilful deployment of a large but individually characterised cast, a novel and imaginative approach to Act 2 that has been cleverly thought out and that really works and some attractive period sets and costumes. My colleague Brian Wilson also thought highly of conductor Ermanno Florio's judicious choice of tempi and, rather to his own surprise, judged that the modifications to the storyline worked well (see here). It is, though, worth noting that our fellow reviewer Dan Morgan found the production somewhat downbeat and lacking in glamour (see here).
The oldest of the productions in this box is the 1989 recording of The sleeping beauty. It was made for Canadian TV during a North American tour by the Kirov Ballet, nowadays better known as the Mariinsky - though, rather oddly, unlike The Dutch National Ballet and the Teatro alla Scala the Russian company remains uncredited on this front cover of the box under either name. Like many others, I have a great affection for this particular performance that has circulated in various incarnations for many years. Watching its latest re-release on DVD as recently as April this year (see here for the full review), I was vividly reminded of the superb artistry of leading dancers Larissa Lezhnina and Farukh Ruzimatov. Their charismatic performances are more than enough to compensate for some rather basic production values. Another real plus is the contribution of the Kirov's vastly experienced ballet conductor Viktor Fedotov who directs a reading of the score that is simultaneously thoroughly idiomatic and fully attuned to the practical requirements of the dancers. A drawback of that DVD for some may have been the picture quality of its 1980s TV recording - but now we have this new version marketed on Blu-ray. I will consider any resulting improvement below.
As far as I can see, the Zakharova/Bolle/La Scala Swan lake has never been reviewed by MusicWeb International. That is a great shame, for it pairs two of the best known superstar dancers of our time. Svetlana Zakharova has been a Principal Dancer of the Bolshoi Ballet - and frequently its leading lady of choice - for the past decade or more, while Roberto Bolle's well-deserved fame has expanded beyond the frontiers of the ballet world in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Rudolf Nureyev or Mikhail Baryshnikov. This performance of Swan lake captures them at their most technically accomplished. Zakharova is sublimely graceful and elegant, while the long-legged Bolle's natural demeanour and innate athleticism combine to produce a convincingly aristocratic characterisation. Before our eyes these two become a young woman whose erotic allure is only enhanced even further by an air of icy reserve and the handsome and dashing prince of a million schoolgirls' dreams. They are well supported by the Milan company, an accomplished orchestra and La Scala’s typically high production values. Inevitably there are one or two quibbles - I'd immediately dispatch the annoyingly grinning court jester to the dungeons if I were king and, more seriously, the Soviet-style "happy ending" fails to offer the same emotional impact as the more usual double deaths would have done - but overall this is a fine production that's very well performed.
So all three of these discs offer performances of great interest. If you already own them in their DVD incarnation, is it worth upgrading to Blu-ray? I'm a very great fan of the newer medium and have, since buying an appropriate player, been gradually replacing my ballet and opera DVDs with their Blu-ray equivalents. In general that's been a positive experience. The best recent Blu-ray releases, such as the La Scala Raymonda (Arthaus Musik 108 051 see here) or the Bolshoi Giselle (BelAir Classiques BAC474), offer pin-sharp images on even the largest home TV screen, replicating the view from the best seat in the house while providing a personal zoom lens for close-ups. There are, I have to concede, some duds, notably a few discs that exhibit a sort of juddering effect whenever the camera ranges quickly and laterally across the stage. Checking out other purchasers' reactions on one of the larger Internet retailers' sites is always, therefore, a sensible precaution before taking the plunge. In general, it's fair to say that Blu-ray can offer a huge enhancement of viewing pleasure for ballet fans.
As the small print on this new box set reveals, The nutcracker and the mouse king, filmed as recently as 2011, was recorded in genuine 1080i High Definition. The original sources for the 2004 Swan lake performance and the even older The sleeping beauty, dating from 1989, were not HD, however, so that we find that their picture resolution on these new discs is described as “1080i High Definition (upscale)”. As I understand it, upscaling means technologically enhancing the original source material so as to fit the requirements of modern big-screen TVs (see here for more details). Obviously, the success or otherwise of that operation is likely to be an important consideration for anyone deciding whether or not to purchase this set.

In practice, the visual image on each of the three discs in this Blu-ray box sees a real improvement over its counterpart on DVD. The nutcracker and the mouse king already looked impressive in the older format, but its Blu-ray incarnation - which has long been available as a stand-alone disc - offers an even sharper and more realistic experience. I should mention that although, as noted in my original review, my own player picks up a slight moment of juddering at 9:32, I’m told that it is not noticeable on some other machines.
In the cases of The sleeping beauty and Swan lake, nothing can be done to alter the fact that they weren't originally filmed in HD, but the upscaling process does seem to have improved the visual image and to offer greater clarity and definition, especially when watched on a larger screen like my own which measures 50". In the end, it boils down to how you balance the artistic worth of a particular performance against the quality of its reproduction. In these three cases, as I hope I’ve made clear, the opportunity to see the fine work on stage in, presumably, the best currently achievable visual quality makes this set worth anyone’s consideration.
I should, though, mention a small but rather annoying feature of the presentation. As noted earlier, there has long been a Blu-ray disc of The nutcracker and the mouse king. That has simply been repackaged for this box set and, as one might have expected, comes with a menu offering the means to jump straight to any particular point in the ballet. Neither of the other discs has had a stand-alone Blu-ray release before and seem not to have been manufactured in such a user-friendly way: after beginning with a trailer, they offer no options at all other than starting the main – and only – presentation. Thus, if you fancy going straight to Larissa Lezhnina’s glorious Rose adagio or the lively Dance of the cygnets, you’ll be doing a bit of scrolling or jumping about rather than getting straight there.
Nonetheless, I can certainly see Santa’s sack bulging with copies of this very recommendable box set as he goes about his seasonal deliveries to children – and to those “taller girls” - of all ages.
Rob Maynard
Swan lake
Choreography by Vladimir Burmeister and Lev Ivanov
Odette / Odile​ - Svetlana Zakharova
Prince Siegfried​ - Roberto Bolle
Jester - Antonino Sutera
Rothbart - Gianni Ghisleni
Princess - Sabrina Brazzo
Queen - Flavia Vallone
Pas de quatre - Beatrice Carbone; Alessandro Grillo; Maria F. Garritano; Mick Zeni
Corps de ballet of the Teatro alla Scala
Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala/James Tuggle
rec. Teatro degli Arcimboldi, Milan, 2004
Sound: PCM stereo
Picture format: 16:9
Region: worldwide
Resolution: 1080i (upscale)
Blu-ray disc 25 GB (single layer)

The sleeping beauty
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: worldwide
Resolution: 1080i High Definition (upscale)
Blu-ray disc 25 GB (single layer)

The nutcracker and the mouse king
Choreography by Toer van Schayk and Wayne Eagling
Clara Staalboom - Anna Tsygankova
Prince/Drosselmeijer’s nephew - Matthew Golding
Nutcracker - James Stout
Mr Drosselmeijer - Wolfgang Tietze
Louise, Clara’s sister - Nadia Yanowsky
Frits, Clara’s brother - Rink Sliphorst
Mouse king - Alexander Zhembrovskyy
Mr Staalboom - Nicolas Rapaic
Mrs Staalboom - Rachel Beaujean
Young Clara - Amaljá Yuno
Young Frits - Giovanni van den Berg
Poet - Juanjo Arqués
Faun - Roman Artyushkin
Old Don Juan - Steven Etienne
Prince in the lantern - Oleksey Smolyakov
Princess in the lantern - Erica Horwood
Leading snowflakes - Maria Chugal and Sasha Mukamedov
The Dutch National Ballet
Students from the Nationale Balletacademie Amsterdam
Children’s Choir ‘Waterland’
Holland Symfonia/Ermanno Florio
Directed, filmed and edited by Altin Kaftira
rec. live, Amsterdam Music Theatre, 2011
Sound formats: PCM stereo, dts-HD Master Audio 5.1
Picture format: 16:9
Region code: worldwide
Resolution: 1080i High Definition
Blu-ray disc 25 GB (single layer)