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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Cinderella – ballet in three Acts (1940-1944) [110:00]
Choreography by Alexei Ratmansky
Cinderella - Diana Vishneva
The prince - Vladimir Shklyarov
Stepmother - Ekaterina Kondaurova
Khudishka - Margarita Frolova
Kubishka - Ekaterina Ivannikova
Fairy - Elena Bazhenova
Spring - Ilya Petrov
Summer - Anton Pimonov
Autumn - Maxim Zyuzin
Winter - Andrei Solovyov
Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, June 2013
Video format disc 1 (Blu-ray disc): BD50 (all regions), 16:9
Video format disc 2 (DVD): DVD9 (region 0), 16:9 (NTSC)
Audio format (both discs): 2.0 PCM stereo
MARIINSKY Blu-ray & DVD MAR0555 [110:00 + 110:00]

Although Prokofiev's Cinderella has proved to be one of the 20th century's more enduring full-length ballets, it has never quite attained the popularity of the composer's better-known Romeo and Juliet. That's largely because the latter, based as it is on a Shakespearean tragedy, has the advantage of a far stronger storyline that taps more effectively into its audience's emotions. Cinderella, by contrast, openly betrays its origins as a rather simple fairy tale peopled by characters who hardly manage to attain an even one-dimensional existence. Such thin characterisation of the main roles means that, while it is certainly enjoyable to watch, Cinderella isn't a ballet in which you make much of an emotional investment.

To take the most obvious example, the eponymous heroine never really becomes much more than a long-suffering put-upon drudge who's, at the same time, more than a little drippy. In fact, she's such a thoroughgoing goody-goody that, when her malevolent step-sisters prove unable to fit the discarded slipper onto their own feet, she expresses genuine sympathy for their misfortune, even while the audience is fervently hoping that she'll give them well-deserved kicks up the backside - something that Coppélia's spirited Swanilda or La fille mal gardée's feisty Lise would certainly have dished out without so much as a second thought.

Meanwhile Cinderella's appropriately unnamed Prince is a bland and blank slate of whom we know - and hence care - nothing. Critic Richard Buckle made the point well and with characteristic wit when he reviewed a 1966 Royal Ballet production: "The Prince was nobody, his relationship with Cinderella never had a chance to develop into anything, nothing worked up to a climax ... Why does the Prince lack character...? Because we meet him cold, knowing nothing of his background. The princes in Swan lake and Sleeping beauty are not attracted by Court ladies and [are] prone to melancholy. The former has a friend, a tutor, and an overwhelming mother, and he drinks. The Prince in Giselle is a randy double-crosser... A passage of mime in Act 1 telling how [Cinderella's Prince] is dying of boredom, or won't inherit Rembrandt's Night watch unless he marries before he is twenty-one, might help." [Richard Buckle Buckle at the ballet (London, 1980), pp. 136-138.]

The fact that the ballet's narrative line follows that of the original fairy tale also results in something of a structural problem. We expect such stories to end with the participants living, as the saying goes, "happily ever after". In the world of ballet, that often means some Act 3 wedding jollifications - as in, for instance, The sleeping beauty, Don Quixote or Raymonda. Such celebrations serve the purpose of setting the audience's feet tapping and putting broad smiles on their faces as they leave the theatre. But because a ball had already been the subject of Cinderella's second Act, Prokofiev wisely eschewed yet another one for the third and thereby gave his ballet a subtler but more musically downbeat finale.

One way that some productions have chosen to give Cinderella a little more in the way of obvious general appeal has been to broaden its already existing comedy elements even further. Frederick Ashton's 1948 production, for instance, re-imagined Cinderella's step-siblings as "ugly sisters", played en travesti - and virtually as traditional English pantomime dames - by Robert Helpmann and Ashton himself. A 1960s Royal Ballet revival of that production, with the two of them reprising their roles, was filmed in 1969 and is currently available on DVD, though only in Region 1 format, on the Kultur label (D0093). It is, as you might imagine, at times quite hilarious in an engagingly over the top way. That English pantomime dame tradition does not, however, seem to travel well, least of all to contemporary Russia where we know that issues of gender identity are handled less flexibly. Critics have reported, for example, that recent Russian productions of Ashton's La fille mal gardée have toned down Widow Simone's Les-Dawson-caricature-mother-in-law moments, forcing one to wonder why, in that case, they bother casting a man in the part at all.

We see something very similar going on in this St Petersburg Cinderella, originally conceived in 2002 by Alexei Ratmansky, for, while the comedy element is certainly still present, it is much less broad than in Ashton's version - even if it's thereby more in accordance with Prokofiev's original concept. What the composer certainly wouldn't have recognised, however, are one or two twists that have been added to the storyline in an attempt to give it a contemporary edge as well, perhaps, as offering a few more opportunities to the corps de ballet. Thus, while searching high and low to find the unknown girl who had entranced him at the ball, the Prince checks out not only a whorehouse but - somewhat illogically, one might have thought - what appears to be a gay bar.

The stage sets, designed by Ilya Utkin and Yevgeny Monakhov, are deliberately spare. There is no attempt at realism, with the stage kept virtually bare apart from some scaffolding and staircases to the sides or else, for the second Act, a simple backdrop of the princely ballroom. That approach certainly adds flexibility to the staging, as well as subliminally reminding us that this is fantasy rather than reality, though I for one prefer to see woebegone Cinders tackling a real pan-filled kitchen sink rather than an imaginary one. Props, too, are kept to a minimum, even to the extent that at one point someone pours an imaginary drink from an imaginary bottle into an imaginary glass - even though I guess that does help to minimise all that washing up.

If I haven't been too enthusiastic so far - and that, I concede, is a purely personal reaction that may not be shared by everyone - the good news is that the quality of the dancing is very fine indeed. The period since the departure of its director Makharbek Vaziev in 2008 has not been an easy one for the Mariinsky Ballet: several star dancers have unexpectedly left the company, accusations have been made of plum roles being given to management favourites and a perception has taken hold in some quarters that Valery Gergiev is less interested in dance than in opera productions and the orchestral repertoire. Nevertheless and whatever the rights and wrongs of those issues or any degree of backstage discontent, the Mariinsky continues to mount productions that showcase a great deal of superb artistry.

Diana Vishneva has been known for some years as one of the world's finest dancers. Writing in The New York Observer in 2007, Robert Gottlieb considered her "probably the most accomplished, the most complete, ballerina in the world today"; more recently the Daily Telegraph described her as "as close to physical and technical perfection as it is possible to be". The leading role in Ratmansky's Cinderella is one of which she has considerable experience, having actually danced it at the production's 2002 premiere. Her long familiarity with the role and its demands shines through in a perfectly accomplished performance. Her boyish-looking co-star Vladimir Shklyarov makes a fine partner and takes full advantage of the opportunity to display his technical skills to the full. The two of them make a very attractive couple and convey their mutual attraction very convincingly. The roles of the step-sisters - a vacuous and dizzy but on this occasion certainly not an "ugly" pair - are well conceived and danced, but special mention must go to Ekaterina Kondaurova who gives us a memorably grotesque turn as Cinderella's utterly self-absorbed and constantly self-promoting step-mother.

Conductor Valery Gergiev, well known as an enthusiastic and expert interpreter of Prokofiev's music, offers an entirely idiomatic account of the score that is, moreover, well attuned to the practical needs of those dancing on the stage. The Mariinsky orchestra plays the score with great commitment and artistry. The quality of the Blu-ray image is first class with no hint of the judder that can sometimes appear in ballet recordings during fast-moving lateral tracking shots. The PCM stereo sound quality is also very fine, with the full detail of Prokofiev's scoring coming through clearly. Just as with the Mariinsky's recent account of Romeo and Juliet - another collaborative effort from the Vishneva/Shklyarov/Mariinsky Ballet/Gergiev team - your money gets you not only a copy of the Blu-ray disc but also a standard DVD thrown in, for no more than the price you'd usually pay for just a single premium-priced Blu-ray.

I would not want to be without the classic 1969 Royal Ballet performance that I have already mentioned. As well as the Ashton/Helpmann drag act, it features memorable performances from Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell in the leading roles. On the other hand, this new disc from the Mariinsky certainly offers us an interesting new perspective on Cinderella along with first-rate performances that have been recorded in excellent quality picture and sound. As such it will be a welcome addition to many balletomanes' collections.

Rob Maynard



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