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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird (1910)
Greta Hodgkinson (Firebird), Aleksander Antonijevic (Prince Ivan), Rebekah Rimsay (Princess Vasilia), Rex Harrington (Kastchei), Victoria Bertram (Kastchei’s wife), Lorna Geddes (Priestess)
Kirov Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
James Kudelka (choreographer), Barbara Willis Sweete (director)
Picture format DVD: 16:9 - NTSC
Sound format DVD: PCM Stereo
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Booklet notes: English, German, French
EUROARTS DVD 2061088 [53.00]

In terms of the presentation of ballet on DVD, there are a great many advantages to a filmed staging with a pre-recorded soundtrack such as we have here. The use of a studio recording of the music means that the occasional unrhythmical thumps which inevitably occur during a stage production can be obviated. Also camera angles can be adjusted to show us effects that would be impracticable in a live performance. On the other hand, if the studio recording is too obviously a concert performance, the strict correlation between the choreography and the orchestra can be more difficult to achieve, especially if the conductor of the recording makes too plentiful use of rubato. In the event, on this DVD, there are only a couple of points where Gergiev’s ritardandi leave the suspicion that the dancers are slightly nonplussed by the fact that the music is moving slower than they are, and the dancers very quickly adjust.

What is more serious is the fact that for some totally unfathomable reason the producer here has placed microphones in the studio with the dancers, with the result that we hear stage movement in places. The use of electronic visual effects, very effective in themselves, are also reinforced with electronic sound effects. This is particularly damaging during the spectacular staging of Kastchei’s destruction towards the end, where the ‘onstage’ sounds drown out Stravinsky’s music – which is surely already dramatic enough. It also appears that someone turns down the playback volume during the Infernal Dance, which considerably reduces its impact and makes Gergiev’s players sound under-powered. I cannot believe that the original recording sounded like this. Indeed I am surprised that a Canadian ballet company would not have preferred to use Charles Dutoit’s excellent Montreal recording of the work but maybe that was not available.

Stravinsky’s ballet was originally conceived with very close dramatic links between the music and Fokine’s choreography. In this new version by James Kudelka he adheres quite closely to the original scenario. The Dance of the Princesses with their golden apples is a decided improvement on Fokine’s understandably cautious staging — ballet dancers are not trained to throw and catch like cricketers. Inevitably, however, there are points which jar. Given that Kudelka stages the opening prelude, we see Prince Ivan on the stage from the very beginning, where Fokine carefully managed his initial entry to correspond with the first appearance of his personal theme on the horn. Here that musical moment goes for nothing. We don’t see the startled reaction of the princesses when Ivan emerges to interrupt their dance, which Stravinsky so carefully reflects in the strings. We are also introduced to an extraneous character in the form of Kastchei’s wife, whose role in the proceedings is unexplained. Also the entry of Kastchei is nothing like as hair-raising as the staging devised by Fokine, with the ogre’s monstrous skeletal costume. In the final wedding scene it is surely perverse to allot such a prominent role to the Priestess, who almost assumes the central focus of attention even though she is not even credited on the DVD sleeve. The staging of the appearances of the Firebird herself, frequently seen flying through the air with computer enhancement, is however a good effect which could never be realised on stage. The scenery designed by Santo Loquasto, although nothing like as luxuriant as the original sets produced for Diaghilev by Bakst, has plenty of atmosphere especially when it is so tastefully lit.

Indeed I thoroughly enjoyed this staging of the ballet. The filming is carefully conceived to ensure that a viewer can clearly follow the evolution of the story. As I have indicated, there are places where it improves on the original Fokine, and the dancing is quite simply superb. There is a good deal more flesh on display here than in the original, but the Diaghilev costumes can look quite unnecessarily coy nowadays; and Aleksander Antonijevic, who displays a bare chest throughout, is handsome enough to stand the close-ups to which he is subjected. Greta Hodgkinson and Rebekah Rimsay are also fine, and Rex Harrington is most impressive when he begins his spell to turn the Prince to stone, stopping between each gesture to examine the progress of the procedure. Victoria Bertram as his wife is also fine in the short cameos she is allotted, even when it is unclear precisely what she is doing there in the first place. Lorna Geddes as the Priestess is suitably hieratic in the final scene.

One final cavil: it is unfortunate that before the ballet starts, and again at the end, the credits are rolled over a recording of the Firebird’s lullaby, which fits the context on neither occasion. Silence would have been preferable, but I suppose you can always turn the volume down.

The DVD comes enclosed in a gatefold cardboard sleeve complete with a copiously illustrated booklet but there are no extras. One might have welcomed some comments from the choreographer on the ballet itself and his approach to it.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



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