Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan lake - ballet in two Acts op.20 (1877) [116:00]
Choreography by Natalia Makarova, Sir Frederick Ashton and Marius Petipa
Odette/Odille - Evelyn Hart
Siegfried - Peter Schaufuss
Benno - Martin James
The Queen - Elizabeth Anderton
Rothbart - Johnny Eliasen
The London Festival Ballet
Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Graham Bond
Produced and Directed by Thomas Grimm
rec. DR-Studios, Århus, Denmark, 1988
Picture resolution: 1080i High Definition (upscale)
Picture format: 4:3
Sound formats: PCM 192 kHz / 48 kHz
Blu-ray Disc, 50 GB (dual layer)
ARTHAUS MUSIK Blu-ray 109185 [116:00]
One of the most striking features of daily life in the USSR was the Soviet government's determination to bring culture - if, often, with added political colouring - to the proletariat. In practice, however, that high ideal was sometimes compromised by a realistic grasp of what mass audiences would find palatable. As a result, when it came to popularising ballet in cinema productions or on television, the classics were sometimes cut ruthlessly to the core. Charming divertissements were jettisoned as irrelevant or unnecessary distractions that might prove a bore, while storylines were simplified and their pace accelerated in order to make them more easily understood and accessible to audiences unfamiliar with the more arcane conventions of classical dance.
Even Tchaikovsky's three iconic ballets were not immune to that process. Leading ballerina Maya Plisetskaya may have been awarded the title People's Artist of the USSR in 1958, but when, that very year, she was showcased in a feature film of Swan lake it was a version slashed to just 81 minutes in length (VAI DVD 4261). A production of the same ballet made a decade later and starring Yelena Yevteyeva as Odette/Odille was similarly abbreviated to just 83 minutes (Silverline Classics DVD 80015). In the meantime, the year 1964 had seen the production of an abridged 90 minutes long version of Sleeping beauty (Kultur DVD D1280) headlined by Kirov star Alla Sizova - and featuring, in the subsidiary role of Princess Florina, a 24 years old up-and-coming dancer named Natalia Makarova.
After defecting to the West in 1970, Ms Makarova extended her career to encompass not only dancing but staging and production, concentrating initially on works such as Paquita and the Kingdom of the shades scene from La bayadère that were little known outside Russia. By 1988, however, she was ready to try her hand at more mainstream repertoire with the London Festival Ballet production of Swan lake that features on this disc. While we cannot know whether she'd been influenced by Soviet producers' aforementioned fondness for the editing scissors, Ms Makarova's version turned out to be a cleverly abridged one, aiming, as this Blu-ray disc's anonymously-written booklet note accurately points out, to produce something "lean and fast-paced". The Swan lake story thereby emerged as rather more clearly focused and dramatically intense than usual.
In purely practical terms, what that means is that we get a performance clocking in at 116 minutes. While that's certainly longer than those mid-century Soviet ballet-in-a-hurry versions, it remains somewhat shorter than most of its modern competitors. Confining myself to just the other Blu-ray versions on my shelves - in a variety of different choreographers' productions - the 2009 performance by Marianella Nuñez/Royal Ballet (Opus Arte OA BD7131 D, a box set of all three Tchaikovsky ballets) comes in not too far behind Makharova at 122:00. The Svetlana Zakharova/Bolshoi Ballet version (BelAir Classiques BAC 473), filmed in 2015, takes 125:00; the duration of the 2014 account from Olga Esina/Wiener Staatsballett (C Major 717704) is 132:00; Svetlana Zakharova/Teatro Alla Scala's 2004 version (Arthaus Musik 108 144) takes 133:00, as also does the 2015 recording from Natalia Osipova/Royal Ballet (Opus Arte OA BD 7174 D); and the longest account, from Agnès Letestu/Paris Opera Ballet (Opus Arte OA BD 7001 D), filmed in 2006, lasts 137:00.
I find the Makarova production's accelerated pace a real plus. Though Swan lake has become arguably the world's best loved ballet, there is more than a grain of truth behind the criticisms voiced at its premiere about its inconsistent quality. Here, however, thanks to the producer's scissors, there are absolutely no longueurs at all.
Gifted with exceptionally long legs, Evelyn Hart, a dancer long associated with Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet, makes a supremely elegant heroine. Her exquisitely executed interpretation of the role of Odette is particularly distinctive. Ms Hart portrays her as a gazelle - a mere deer, let alone a rabbit, would be too inelegant an image - caught and transfixed by approaching headlights and more than usually nervous of the prince and his intentions. Once persuaded, however, that Siegfried's affections are genuine, she abandons her cool demeanour and offers him - if not the full-blooded passion that one feels would be alien to this particular Odette's core nature - at least her unreserved trust. In the parallel role of Odille, however, Ms Hart convincingly demonstrates that she is just as capable of seductive, duplicitous wickedness as any of her competitors.
Meanwhile, the Makarova production offers its own particular take on Prince Siegfried, for he is presented here less as a romantic hero than as essentially another victim, either of Rothbart's devilry or simply of Fate. From the opening scene, we find him, in spite of his best friend Benno's tireless efforts to cheer him up, seriously depressed by the shallowness and vacuity of his life - and a more than usually nagging mother certainly doesn't help either. Rarely thereafter does the prince rise to much more than a somewhat detached, Hamlet-like expression of confused bemusement, gazing abstractedly into the middle distance while all the drama unfolds before him. One suspects that, even if things had worked out rather better in the end, Odette's evenings in at the palace would have been rather dull affairs. Of course, it goes without saying that Mr Schaufuss's technique is utterly secure and that he offers us more than a few bravura moments, but his performance has, I think, been compromised by an unconvincing concept of the prince’s character that ultimately fails to generate much sympathy for his various emotional predicaments.
Martin James's Benno is certainly worth a mention, for his fizzingly extrovert energy offers a noticeably greater than usual contrast to the prince's ennui. His vivacious Act II Danse napolitaine with Karen Gee, with, quite appropriately, more than a hint about it of the choreographic style of the famous pas de six and tarantella from Bournonville's Napoli, is a particular delight. Meanwhile, the well drilled members of Festival Ballet's corps de ballet dance very well indeed, whether exhibiting the strict precision and uniformity required of the massed swans or adopting the varied characterisations required as they portray the courtiers.
This is not a recording of a live theatrical performance, so that one is frequently disconcerted by stony silence at moments where one might have expected enthusiastic applause. Studio filming allows, however, for the use of special visual effects and they are quite liberally applied. Back projections by Günther Schneider-Siemssen - also responsible for the costumes and sets - are used to establish scenes, while other lighting magic is used to indicate Rothbart's overweening and malevolent presence and, if rather less successfully, the lovers' death in the inexorably rising waters of the eponymous lake.
This performance was captured on film almost thirty years ago, well before the advent of High Definition technology. As is only to be expected, in spite of the application of upscaling to optimise its quality, the visual image inevitably lacks the pin-sharp quality of today's highest quality recordings. What this release does major on, however, is improved sound quality - which is repeatedly promoted by the "Hi-Res Audio" logos on its front and back covers, its spine and on the disc itself, as well as by a full, detailed page of seemingly impressive technical and aesthetic claims verging on sheer hyperbole ("To finally hear great masterpieces without frequency loss or compression of the audio data, in a form that faithfully reproduces every nuance of the original recording, is a dream come true for every music lover.") Not having access to any earlier incarnations of this performance, I cannot say how much sound improvement has actually been achieved. What I can say, however, is that what we have here is very good audio reproduction indeed, with, to my ears, the lower frequency sounds making a particularly strong impact.
In referring to those lower frequencies, I did not intend, by the way, to include Ms Makarova's own richly deep ur-Russian tones. She actually gives oral on-camera introductions to each Act, but, to be honest, I rather wish that she hadn't because they prove something of a distraction. She is clearly reading from some sort of script positioned off camera and consistently looks at that, rather than directly into the lens, thereby producing a weirdly alienating effect on the viewer.
I reacted rather more positively, on the other hand, to the way in which this release has been packaged. It comes in something looking like a thin hardback book with very stiff covers that ought to survive transit successfully if you choose buy via mail order. Inside you'll find track listings, a pretty detailed synopsis of the ballet and a couple of paragraphs focusing on the merits of this particular production.
I'm pleased to have made the acquaintance of a Swan lake that I hadn't encountered before and that makes a useful addition to the range of ballets available in Blu-ray format. While not, perhaps, an obvious first choice for a collection, it does offer a distinctive, individual and generally enjoyable approach that may tempt many to add it to their shelves as a supplementary version of this most popular of ballets.