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Daniel-François-Esprit AUBER (1782-1871)
Marco Spada - ballet in three Acts (1857) [126:00]
Choreography by Pierre Lacotte
Marco Spada - David Hallberg
Angela - Evguenia Obraztsova
Marchesa Sampietri - Olga Smirnova
Prince Federici - Semyon Chudin
Count Pepinelli - Igor Tsvirko
Brother Borromeo - Alexei Loparevich
Prince Osario - Andrei Sitnikov
Bride - Anastasia Stashkevich
Groom - Vyacheslav Lopatin
Bolshoi Ballet
Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra/Alexey Bogorad
rec. Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, March 2014
Video: BD50, 1080i HD, colour, 16:9
Audio: PCM 2.0, DTS Master Audio 5.1
Region code: A, B, C
BELAIR CLASSIQUES Blu-ray BAC413 [126:00 + 23:00(bonus)]

I'll put my cards on the table right away. This release is a superb achievement. However, before I explain my enthusiasm in more detail, I think it may be useful to offer a little background information about Marco Spada itself, for it can hardly be said to be a commonly encountered work.

In December 1852 Auber presented his latest opera Marco Spada - the tale of an 18th century Italian aristocrat-cum-bandit's criminal adventures and the romantic entanglements of his daughter – to the Paris public. He was, however, evidently convinced that the story would make an equally effective subject for dancers. Over the next four years he therefore reworked some of the opera's more memorable melodies and added extra material from some of his other works, the best known of which was his 1830 success Fra Diavolo. Finally, in April 1857 he unveiled his new ballet, somewhat unimaginatively and, indeed, confusingly given the same name as its operatic predecessor.

The new incarnation of Marco Spada met only a lukewarm critical response, partly owing, it seems, to routine choreography and poor production values. According to one contemporary critic, "There are many new settings ... but it is far from having the attraction of ... [the popular ballet] Le Corsaire. ... [The choreographer] M. Mazilier did not tax his imagination. These tarantellas and ensembles which run through the ballet are very crude and prove once more that the management of the Opera must seek out young and intelligent maîtres de ballet" (quoted in Cyril W. Beaumont Complete Book of Ballets (London, 1937), p.282).

I suspect, however, that a rather confusing storyline that involved no fewer than five central characters also accounted for the work's failure to establish itself. Posing as a wealthy nobleman, Marco Spada is, in reality, the head of a bandit gang, although his daughter Angela knows nothing of his criminal activities. Meanwhile, two genuine aristocrats, Marchesa Sampietri and Prince Federici, are engaged to be married, but in reality each of them loves another: the marchesa's affections incline to a certain Count Pepinelli, while the prince's heart belongs to Angela. When Spada and the four young people attend a ball at the Governor’s palace, the supposed nobleman’s nefarious double life is revealed. His gang thereupon kidnaps Marchesa Sampietri and Count Pepinelli who are forcibly – though, in reality, hardly against their will - married to each other by order of the bandit leader so as to free up the marchesa's former fiancé Prince Federici for Angela. Spada then removes any remaining impediment to his daughter's union with her prince by firstly revealing that he was not her real father at all and then conveniently dying from a gunshot wound.

With story, production and choreography counting against it, it was perhaps hardly surprising that Marco Spada was soon forgotten. It was to remain so, in fact, for more than 120 years until the French choreographer Pierre Lacotte revived it as a showpiece for Rudolf Nureyev in 1981. That Rome production was recorded and can still be seen - in dated but perfectly acceptable quality - on DVD (Hardy Classic Video HCD 4040).

Rather surprisingly perhaps, given the ballet's unfortunate early history, this Moscow production is a real triumph. Much of the credit for that is due to Pierre Lacotte who not only rescued Marco Spada from obscurity and rendered it fit for presentation, but, now in his ninth decade, was also the dynamic driving force behind this Moscow production that premiered in November 2013.

For those who may be unfamiliar with his name, it is worth noting, if briefly, the important influence on ballet - and specifically 19th century Romantic ballet - that M. Lacotte has exercised for the past forty years. Having begun his career as a dancer, Lacotte eventually turned to choreography and quickly began to specialise in recreating forgotten ballets from the Romantic era. In many cases the original dance notation had been lost over time and all that survived were the musical scores, contemporary descriptions of the sets and the dancing and, in rare cases, the odd number or two that had been preserved as an exhibition piece. By painstakingly scouring the archives of dance companies and theatres all over Europe, studying all the available historical sources that he could find, interviewing ageing dancers at length and, on occasion and somewhat controversially, making leaps of faith based on his own instinct and imagination, Lacotte has since restored several "lost" 19th century ballets to the stage. The first was his 1972 recreation of Filippo Taglioni’s version of La sylphide (1832), which was considered such a remarkable artistic achievement that it was selected as the first colour transmission on French TV. The following year he brought the original 1870 version of Coppélia back to life, while in 1976 he unveiled his restorations of two mid-19th century showpieces - the pas de six from Arthur Saint-Léon's 1844 La vivandière and the pas de deux from Taglioni's Le papillon of 1860. Over the years Lacotte has famously restored yet more lost or forgotten gems from the Romantic era's most prominent choreographers, including, among several others, Petipa's 1862 spectacular The pharoah's daughter (recreated 2000), Mazilier's Paquita (1846, recreated 2001) and Perrot's La Esmeralda (1844, recreated 2009). With the first two widely available in very desirable DVD transfers (on, respectively, Bel Air Classiques BAC001 and TDK DV-BLPAQ), many MusicWeb International readers will already be aware of Pierre Lacotte's considerable achievements. The Blu-ray disc under review now offers the chance to assess the new Moscow production of his Marco Spada restoration.

Aside from M. Lacotte's invaluable work to bring it back to something like its original form, Marco Spada benefits immensely from the artists who appear in this performance. David Hallberg became famous in 2011 as the first American to be appointed a principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet and he is clearly presented here as the star of the show. Not only is he the only dancer pictured on the disc's front packaging, but the headline billing there reads, most unusually, not simply "Marco Spada" but "David Hallberg in Marco Spada". His casting in the leading role is at first something of a surprise: he simply looks too young to be a believable "father" or to have the authority of a bandit chief. That said, the long-legged Mr Hallberg quickly makes the audience and we viewers at home forget such a minor quibble by bringing to his part both tremendous raw energy and a superlative command of technique. The crowning glory of his performance is his ability to act - though the demands of a preposterous plot like this one are, admittedly, not that great - and, moreover, to interact with the audience. He conveys throughout a playful yet affectionate awareness of the story's absurdities and he deliberately sets out to draw the initially somewhat bemused Bolshoi patrons into his performance. Constantly directing a veritable battery of melodramatically villainous winks and smirks at the front stalls - and the camera - Mr Hallberg very soon wins us over into joining in the fun that he is so obviously having on the stage.

Deprived by the storyline of any love interest, Hallberg's main partner is the much-admired Evguenia Obraztsova, a favourite of the Bolshoi audience, who takes the role of his daughter. Although she looks much the same age as him, the fact that she is considerably shorter helps convince us that he might just be a believable father who’s got a particularly good skin. Ms Obraztsova is clearly a very accomplished dancer and her virtuosity, matching that of her partner very well, offers us repeated thrills. One has to feel rather sad, then, that she suffers from the fact that Hallberg's charismatic performance - and his shameless but endearing mugging - keeps our eyes glued to him whenever he is on stage. Risking a huge generalisation, I suspect that may reflect a temperamental difference between Russian and American dancers. We are used, by now, to the way in which the former often perform some utterly astounding move of the highest technical quality and then stride imperiously or even aloofly off the stage as though it had just been an everyday reflection of their ability. American dancers, in the other hand, often appear to take a more open delight in their own achievement and their audience's appreciation, almost as if they were competitors milking the audience for all they're worth in the America's got talent TV show. It reminds me a little of the way in which, at Moscow's 1958 International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, the charismatic and media-savvy Van Cliburn distinguished himself from his dour Russian rivals.

Of the other three leading dancers, I was particularly impressed by Semyon Chudin’s technique as demonstrated in the role of Prince Federici. Like David Hallberg, Mr Chudin is an exceptionally lean and long legged performer with great physical capabilities. He is let down somewhat, however, by not imposing much in the way of individual personality on his admittedly one-dimensional role, failing to take it by the scruff of its neck and make something out of it as the American does. Olga Smirnova, a frequent partner of Chudin, is a very attractive on-stage presence. She dances neatly and with great precision, especially in the opening scene set in the busy but criminally infested town square. The last of the dancers in leading roles is Igor Tsvirko in the role of Count Pepinelli. He is more compactly built than either Hallberg or Chudin, but that suits his character's more down to earth and at times even comic persona. I enjoyed his dancing a great deal, notably, once again, in that opening scene where he has an attractive pas de deux with the marchesa.

The Bolshoi company's corps de ballet has a great deal to do throughout Marco Spada, as they portray, variously, townsfolk, partygoers, soldiers and bandits. Often individually and attractively characterised, they acquit themselves with distinction and add considerably to the overall jollity. Alexei Bogorad and the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra play the score as if they had been familiar with it for years, though they probably weren't too taxed by Auber's relatively unambitious and quite repetitious writing - incorporating lots of flourishes and fanfares as all those soldiers and bandits march to and fro across the stage. The production itself is an attractive looking one with simple but effectively used sets. There's one particularly attractive piece of business (Dance with veil) in Act 3, Scene 1, that brings a justified round of applause from the Moscow audience and was evidently thought to be so striking that a photograph of it takes up not just the packaging’s back cover but also a double page spread of the accompanying booklet.

The picture quality on my disc was of demonstration quality. It was absolutely pin-sharp and completely steady, with no trace of the juddering effect that sometimes affects lateral panning shots in ballets presented in Blu-ray format. The sound quality was excellent too. More than twenty minutes of extra material takes us usefully behind the scenes to learn something about the background to the production from Pierre Lacotte and the leading dancers.

Production values of the highest level are, in fact, characteristic of all the Blu-ray discs that I have collected in recent years in the Bel Air Classiques Bolshoi Ballet HD Collection, of which Marco Spada is just the latest release. All the performances have been quite outstanding too, with, in particular, exceptional quality and expertly-filmed accounts of Giselle (BAC474), La bayadère (BAC501) and The sleeping beauty (BAC478). I live in hope that those may be joined at some point by Blu-ray releases of some other Bolshoi productions that were also, I believe, recorded for worldwide cinema relay - Le corsaire, La Esmeralda and, especially, a Don Quixote that starred the incomparable pairing of Ivan Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova.

For now, though, this new disc of Marco Spada not only maintains that superb level of performance and presentation but is, in its own right, very simply a real treat.

Rob Maynard



 




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