Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856) & others (see below)
Le Corsaire - ballet in a prologue and three Acts (1856) [100:00]
Cast & performance details below review
rec. London Coliseum, 2014
Directed for the screen by Chris Blane
16:9 anamorphic (for DVD)
Audio formats: LPCM 2.0, dts Digital Surround
OPUS ARTE OA1147D DVD [100:00]
As you will deduce from the fact that the names of no fewer than nine composers are listed
as contributing to this score, Le corsaire’s score is something of a mongrel creation. Over the years, choreographers including Marius Petipa (1818-1910), Joseph Mazilier (1801-1868), Alexander Gorsky (1871-1924), Pyotr Gusev (1904-1987) and Konstantin Sergeyev (1910-1992) have jettisoned large sections of Adolphe Adam’s original music where it didn’t suit their personal conception. They have then added that of other composers, some of it borrowed - not necessarily always, one suspects in the earliest instances, with permission - and some of it newly commissioned.
As a result, any performance in the theatre or on DVD these days tends, at least when it comes to the score, to be something of a leap of faith. One recent filmed production, for instance, assured its viewers that the music that they’d just heard had been Adam’s alone. Yet, as the credits scrolled up the screen, they listed the artists who had just appeared in the famous section Le jardin animé – the music for which had actually been composed by Léo Delibes.
Members of the audience, whether in the theatre or at home, do, therefore, need to keep their ears, as well as their eyes, open in Le corsaire. On DVD, the two longest-surviving recorded performances in the catalogue, from American Ballet Theatre (Arthaus Musik 100 066) and the Kirov Ballet (Warner Music Vision 9031-71483-2), both claim to use only the music of Adam, Pugni, Delibes, Drigo and Prince Oldenburg. In contrast, a recently released competitor, choreographer Kader Belarbi’s production for Ballet du Capitole (see here), restored much of Adam’s original score, but then ditched all the others in favour of a pick’n’mix – but very enjoyable - selection of music by Arensky, Lalo, Massenet, Sibelius and conductor David Coleman.
Fortunately, Le corsaire’s action-packed but essentially flimsy storyline has proved adaptable enough to accommodate the various demands placed upon it over the years – whether musical, choreographic or dramatic. Just, for instance, to take the matter of its plot’s final resolution, it really doesn’t matter too much whether the hero and heroine (a) successfully escape from kidnap and imprisonment and sail blithely on to new adventures (Kirov Ballet), (b) are shipwrecked but cast up on shore to live another day (English National Ballet), or (c) are shipwrecked and drowned (Ballet du Capitole). In all fairness we should note that Le corsaire isn’t alone in exhibiting such uncertain outcomes. The enduring popularity of Swan Lake, for instance, doesn’t seem to be affected by the fact that one can never be sure whether Odette and Siegfried will (a) die, (b) die but float ethereally away into some sort of avian paradise, or (c) kill Rothbart and survive the whole imbroglio intact ... but, hey, that’s ballet for you.
This production of Le Corsaire was Tamara Rojo’s first major undertaking after she took the reins at English National Ballet (ENB) in the summer of 2012. Many readers will, I suspect, have seen it either in London or on tour, but, for those who haven’t, a simplified synopsis of ENB’s version of the story may be useful. Act 1: the beautiful Medora is among the slave girls being sold in the market place by the dealer Lankendem. Purchased by the lecherous pasha, at the last minute they are daringly rescued by Medora’s admirer Conrad and his band of corsairs. Act 2: the corsairs take the slave girls to their lair where, at Medora’s request, Conrad sets them all free. A faction of the men, led by Barbanto, resents the loss of their captives and stage a mutiny, drugging Conrad and taking the girls back to be sold to the pasha. Act 3: the pasha orders Medora to his harem before falling asleep and enjoying an erotic dream in which she and her fellow slaves entertain him by dancing in a fantasy garden (Le jardin animé). Arriving in disguise at the pasha’s court, Conrad and his loyal followers rescue the slaves once again, killing the traitor Barbanto in the process. They escape on Conrad’s ship but a storm at sea sinks the vessel. Conrad and Medora are the only survivors. As you’ll have gathered from that summary, there’s rather a lot of to-ing and fro-ing in Le corsaire, but then I don’t suppose that a gang of piratical cutthroats would make much in the way of plunder if they just stayed in the same place all the time.
Before considering anything else, it is worth making the point that, in presenting Le corsaire as her first production at the helm of ENB, Ms Rojo was taking a big gamble. Rather than choose the safe option of one of ballet’s warhorses, she chose to put her reputation on the line with a work that had never before featured in the repertoire of any native UK dance company. As it turned out, positive critical coverage, adventurous audiences and word-of-mouth recommendation made this production a big success. Audiences loved it, as I could confirm at the time from my seat in the stalls of the Bristol Hippodrome.
The casting of the two lead dancers, Alina Cojocaru – a recent defector from the Royal Ballet – and Vadim Muntagirov certainly helped. Although I personally find that the slightly-built Ms Cojocaru doesn’t always possess the on-stage charisma of, say, Marianela Nuñez or Tamara Rojo herself, her artistry and technique certainly cannot be faulted. She dances with exquisite precision and invariably in complete sympathy with both the score and her partner. Mr Muntagirov, on the other hand, has charisma to spare and relishes every opportunity he is given to exhibit his showy skills. It was no surprise that shortly after dancing Le corsaire for ENB, he accepted an invitation to join the Royal Ballet.
The score’s abundant rhythmic rum-ti-tummery offers huge opportunities to the two male soloists taking the roles of mutineer Barbanto and Conrad’s faithful slave Ali. Yonah Acosta – yes, he’s a nephew of you-know-who – both looks convincing in the former role and throws himself into it with enthusiasm and energy. As the slave, Junor Souza has, for most of the time, little to do apart from run messages and gaze in puppy-dog fashion at his master, but he certainly seizes his big opportunity of the famous and spectacular Act 2 pas de deux with Medora. Many performances – including the Kirov’s on the aforementioned DVD - turn this into a real showstopper where the two dancers try to outdo each other in a sequence of non-stop virtuosity. Although this ENB production somewhat interrupts the flow by inserting a solo for Conrad right in the middle, Mr Souza still wows the Coliseum audience with his spectacular pyrotechnics.
The smaller roles are all well taken and performed. Michael Coleman, in particular, demonstrates a natural bent for comedy as he offers a particularly fruity turn as the lascivious potentate. The ENB orchestra under the baton of Gavin Sutherland may not be required, except in one gorgeous Delibes melody in Le jardin animé, to display a great deal in the way of lush romance, but they certainly produce more than enough of the rhythmic snap and sheer enthusiasm that is Le corsaire’s alternative hallmark.
The production is a very traditional one, recreating the fantasy perception of “the exotic East” as imagined by 19th century artists and - as sets and costume designer Bob Ringwood explains in the booklet - Hollywood. The sets were invariably serviceable and often attractive. I was especially impressed with the effectively-lit opening and closing scenes, both set on board ships at sea. Only one aspect really didn’t work for me: the opening Act appears to be lit strongly with yellow – presumably to imply a blazing Middle Eastern sun. Unfortunately, much of the set and costumes themselves share the same tonal range, so that the overall effect lacks sufficient visual contrast and interest. Opus Arte chose only to supply MusicWeb International with a DVD disc, rather than a Blu-ray one. Had I been able to assess the latter, I suspect that this might well have been one of those occasions where the extra clarity and precision offered by Blu-ray technology would have effected a significant overall improvement.
Presentation of the DVD is generally good. I do, however, think it rather unfortunate that all we are offered in the way of extra on-disc features is a gallery of photographs of the cast. Given Le corsaire’s relative unfamiliarity to many ballet-goers and the significance of this production as a UK company first, I’d have hoped for a background feature or two of some sort. As well as the required synopsis, the booklet contains a brief but useful background essay by Jane Pritchard and an interesting interview with Bob Ringwood. I wish, though, that someone had picked up on a typo found on both the cover and in the booklet where one of the composers is misnamed as Baron Boris Fintinhof-Schnell. That should actually be Fintinhof-Schell. I think too that, if I’d been designing the DVD cover, I’d have utilised the strikingly dramatic image of piratical derring-do that featured on the original production’s posters, rather than yet another photograph of dancers in a pas de deux.
Even if it had not been as well executed as it actually is, this new version of Le corsaire would certainly have deserved a warm welcome simply as an addition to a relatively small field. As it is, however, the whole thing is, with the odd reservation or two, something of a triumph in its own right and, I hope, merely the first of many commercial releases from ENB under its new and clearly ambitious regime.
Other composers whose music is used in the score
Cesare PUGNI (1802-1870)
Léo DELIBES (1836-1891)
Riccardo DRIGO (1846-1930)
Prince Pyotr van OLDENBURG (1812-1881)
Ludwig MINKUS (1826-1917)
Yuly GERBER (1831-1883)
Baron Boris FINTINHOF-SCHELL (1829?-1901)
Albert ZABEL (1834-1910)
Cast & performance details
Staging by Anna-Marie Holmes, after Marius Petipa and Konstantin Sergeyev
Medora - Alina Cojocaru
Conrad - Vadim Muntagirov
Gulnare - Erina Takahashi
Lankendem - Dmitri Gruzdyev
Ali - Junor Souza
Birbanto - Yonah Acosta
Pasha - Michael Coleman
Pasha’s assistant - Juan Rodriguez
Villager - Nancy Osbaldeston
Odalisques - Shiori Kase, Alison McWhinney, Laurretta Summerscales
Roses - Nancy Osbaldeston, Ksenia Ovsyanick, Adela Ramirez, Laurretta
Flowers - Jem Choi, Senri Kou, Jenna Lee, Jia Zhang
Artists of English National Ballet
Students of English National Ballet School
Pupils of Tring Park School
Orchestra of English National Ballet/Gavin Sutherland