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La Reine Morte
Ballet in two Acts (2011) [110:00]
Music by Tchaikovsky
Libretto, choreography and stage direction: Kader Belarbi
King Ferrante - Artjom Maksakov
Doa Ins de Castro - Maria Gutierrez
Don Pedro - Davit Galstyan
The infant - Juliette Thlin
Ballet du Capitole
Orchestre National du Capitole/Koen Kessels
Directed for the screen by Luc Riolon
rec. Thtre du Capitole, Toulouse, 28 February 2015
NTSC DVD-9 double layer disc
16:9 anamorphic
Audio formats: LPCM 2.0; dts Digital Surround
Regions: all
OPUS ARTE DVD OA1201D [110:00]

One of the great benefits of a knowledge of world history is that it equips you with a fund of amusing stories illustrating the peculiarities and the downright follies of the human race. With thousands of years worth of evidence available to back up virtually any proposition you care to make, you can usually come up with an anecdotal reference or two to win most arguments over the dinner table.

One of the most fertile grounds for producing weird and wonderful illustrations of our forebears' sheer oddity is their attitude to the subject of death. These days, even believers in an afterlife usually consider that a dead body is merely an empty shell to be disposed of with a sense of definite finality. But corpses in the past sometimes had far stranger fates than that, as a couple of those aforementioned anecdotes certainly demonstrate.

At the end of the ninth century, for instance, the body of the recently deceased Pope Formosus was dug up by orders of his successor, dressed in papal vestments and put on trial. After unsurprisingly failing to convince the jury of his innocence of all charges, the late pope was summarily convicted and his corpse unceremoniously dumped in the river Tiber. And, just in case you think that was a bizarre one-off, let me remind you of the case of Doa Is de Castro (1325-1355). The mistress of Prince Pedro of Portugal, she was murdered by order of his father King Alfonso IV, whereupon the enraged prince launched a successful rebellion and ascended the throne as Pedro I. The newly installed monarch quickly took his new subjects somewhat aback, however, by retrieving Doa Is's dead body from its grave, acclaiming "her" as his consort and crowning the decomposing corpse as Queen of Portugal - a sequence of actions that irresistibly brings to mind the famous observation made by one Victorian theatregoer after a performance of Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra: "How different, how very different, from the home life of our own dear Queen!"

Needless to say, the dramatic - not to say positively melodramatic - possibilities of Is de Castro's Grand Guignol story have proved an obvious inspiration over the years to more than a few novelists, playwrights and composers, with one painstaking musicologist claiming to have identified no less than 120 operas written by Italian composers alone. In October 2011, the lurid tale of necrophilia was used as the basis of a new production by the Ballet du Capitole, Toulouse, choreographed by its resident Directeur de la danse Kader Belarbi.

In the past few years several of M. Belarbi's Ballet du Capitole productions have been released on Blu-ray and DVD by the Opus Arte label. I found his version of Le corsaire (review) both great fun and a considerable artistic success. La bte et la belle (review), on the other hand, did nothing much for me at all. I'm delighted to report that this new La reine morte is, in some respects, the most enjoyable of the three.

Much of that enjoyment comes about because of Belarbi's decision to set the story to the music of Tchaikovsky. Reworking that composer's non-ballet scores for the purposes of dance is not, of course, a particularly novel idea. To mention just three of many previous instances, George Balanchine used the third symphony for the glittering Diamonds finale of Jewels (review); Kenneth MacMillan utilised various piano pieces in Winter dreams, his take on Chekhov's Three sisters; and Serge Lifar devised a powerful, if much less well known, danced version of Romeo and Juliet (review). In fact, as Belarbi explains in a useful booklet note, he had not originally intended to go down that path at all, but, having done so, the end result works tremendously well. Familiar extracts from Capriccio italien, Hamlet, The seasons, The sleeping beauty, Francesca da Rimini, the original 1869 version of Romeo and Juliet and all four orchestral suites prove to be entirely apt choices for whichever aspect of the involved, passionate drama that they are called upon to support.

That concocted score, well played by the Orchestre National du Capitole under the direction of Koen Kessels, offers plenty of opportunities for the Toulouse company's dancers to demonstrate their artistry and their technical skills. In general, it's fair to say that La reine morte's style of choreography is comparatively conventional. Unlike many other contemporary ballets, it doesn't attempt to demonstrate its "relevance" to modern audiences by incorporating breakdancing and other contemporary street styles. Anyone familiar with and appreciative of classical dance will find much that is familiar here, albeit with more than a few interesting twists along the way.

Though the choreography itself is attractive, initially at least it is not, I think, applied to best advantage. Belarbi opens the ballet with an intense pas de deux but, with no back story yet established, it emerges, as it were, from nowhere and can't yet fully engage our emotions. However, once the action moves to the royal court and a clear narrative begins to develop, it's not long before Maria Gutierrez and Davit Galstyan convincingly begin to convey Doa Is’s and Prince Pedro's obsessively intense love. They are strongly supported by Artjom Maksakov who gives real character to his interpretation of the king - who is, for some reason, renamed here as Ferrante. Effectively portraying a conflicting range of emotions including love for his son, his duty to promote the kingdom's interests and, one suspects, a degree of sublimated lust for Is, Maksakov makes much more of his role than simply a pantomime villain.

The other Ballet du Capitole dancers offer solid support. Balarbi gives a strong and important place in the story to Ferrante's male courtiers. A bunch of cruel thugs, their severe black outfits conjuring up a resemblance to vicious birds of prey, they certainly make the most of their on-stage opportunities, whether craftily poisoning the king's mind against his son, attacking and imprisoning the prince or murdering both Doa Is and, out of pure spite, the priest who had officiated at her marriage to her lover. The female members of the corps de ballet have more limited chances to shine, but a brief scene where they portray ethereal spirits rather reminiscent of Giselle's vengeful wilis is well done.

The production's staging is somewhat spare. King Ferrante's court is certainly not opulent: his throne resembles a tall step-ladder and there is virtually no set decoration to speak of. Indeed, the most elaborate construction on the stage, a prison cell, poses something of a practical problem in that its elaborately decorative "bars" deprive us of an ideally clear view of what's taking place beyond them. Instead of detailed sets, the production relies more on costume to establish its atmosphere. The chosen style is not necessarily, however, what might have been anticipated. Whereas the real-life Is, Pedro, Alfonso/Ferrante and the rest would have worn the fancifully elaborate clothes typical of mid-14th century European aristocracy, here their costumes are more reminiscent of the late 16th century court of King Philip II of Spain. Even then, though, a few more quirky styles are added to the mix. Sometimes it's possible to detect, if vaguely or speculatively, some possible symbolism: thus, as "the infanta" - Pedro's intended bride whom he rejects in favour of marriage to Is - quietly contemplates her situation, she reveals her inner - possibly sexually frustrated? - self by slipping out of a vertical gap in the rigid carapace of her farthingale and emoting/dancing in some rather provocative underwear. At other times, however, any intended symbolism entirely escapes me. Why, for instance, when we first encounter the male courtiers are they wearing natty trilby hats straight out of 1940s film noir?

La reine morte has been well filmed. Because the stage can be very busy at times, the director has sensibly used plenty of long shots to ensure that we see everything going on, though medium shots and close-ups are also employed as you'd expect whenever they're more appropriate to the action. The recorded image is crisp and sharp, while the sound quality is also very fine.

The combination of Tchaikovsky's familiar and tuneful melodies, attractive and accessible choreography and an intriguing historical setting and story mean that La reine morte will appeal to those who sometimes feel alienated by some of the more challenging features of contemporary ballet. Both on their behalf and for its own sake, I warmly welcome this new release.

Rob Maynard



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