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Ludwig MINKUS (1826-1917)
Don Quixote, ballet in prologue and 3 Acts (1869) [120:00]
Orchestration and adaptation by John Lanchbery
Choreography by Rudolf Nureyev
Kitri/Dulcinea... Natalia Osipova
Basilio... Leonid Sarafanov
Don Quixote... Giuseppe Conte
Sancho Panza... Gianluca Schiavoni
Lorenzo... Matthew Endicott
Gamache... Riccardo Massimi
Kitri's friends... Lusymay Di Stefano and Denise Gazzo
Street dancer... Vittoria Valerio
Espada... Christian Fagetti
Queen of the dryads... Nicoletta Manni
Cupid... Serena Sarnataro
Gypsy... Antonino Sutera
Two gypsies... Deborah Gismondi and Emanuela Montanari
Gypsy king and queen... Luigi Saruggia and Caroline Westcombe
Fandango soloists... Vittoria Valerio and Christian Fagetti
Bridesmaid... Virna Toppi
Ballet Company of Teatro Alla Scala
Students of the Ballet Academy of Teatro alla Scala
Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala/Alexander Titov
rec. live at Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 25 September 2014
Filmed in High Definition and mastered from an HD source
Picture format: 1080i 16:9
Sound formats: PCM stereo; DTS-HD MA 5.1
Région code: A / B / C
C MAJOR Blu-ray 735804 [120:00]

The ballet Don Quixote is an absolute gem. It is that rare thing - a 19th century comedy that has hardly dated. Much of its humour is, admittedly, simple slapstick. Characters are variously tossed in the air, whacked in the face with a large wet fish or even, in the case of our nubile heroine, subjected to a couple of grabbed kisses from a supposed corpse. But, nevertheless, it's all very effective. This is one of those ballets that sends audiences out onto the streets with wide smiles on their faces and their feet still tapping to Ludwig Minkus's delicious pastiche-Spanish score - you'll get the idea if you think of Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio espagnol done at much-extended length and on steroids. Don Quixote is also a work that's become increasingly popular in the past 50 or so years, as producers rediscovered previously neglected ballets by nineteenth century composers long overshadowed by Tchaikovsky and his ubiquitous stage masterpieces.

If this is a ballet with a great deal going for it, there are also a couple of reasons why this performance itself should have engendered high expectations. In the first place its guest soloists, Natalia Osipova and Leonid Sarafanov, are two dancers widely acknowledged as at the very top of their profession. After rocketing to fame with Moscow's Bolshoi and St Petersburg's Mikhailovsky companies, Osipova won even more admirers after joining London's Royal Ballet as a Principal in autumn 2013. At about the same time, Sarafanov starred as one of the "Kings of the Dance" - five male soloists reckoned to be among the finest in the world - when leading ballet impresario Sergei Danilian put the high profile show of that name on in London in 2014. The fact that Sarafanov's four co-monarchs were none other than Teatro alla Scala's Roberto Bolle, Ivan Vasiliev and Marcelo Gomes from American Ballet Theatre and the Mariinsky's Denis Matvienko gives a good indication of his professional status.

Both Osipova and Sarafanov have frequently been associated with - and widely acclaimed in - the roles of Don Quixote's romantic leads Kitri and Basilio. Osipova first came to the attention of many balletomanes through her dynamic partnership with Ivan Vasiliev in those very roles. Their signature performances in Russia and on sellout tours wowed audiences worldwide and won rave reviews. Sarafanov, meanwhile, has also been a noted interpreter of the role of Basilio for both the Mariinsky Ballet and the Mikhailovsky company. Indeed, it was largely his charismatic performance that led me to nominate the Mariinsky Don Quixote (review) as one of my MusicWeb International Recordings of the Year in 2009.

A second reason for anticipating this particular release with some relish is that it's a recording of a Teatro alla Scala ballet production. That in itself can often be taken as something of a recommendation in its own right, for the Milan company has considerable strength in depth and its dancers are some of the most artistically and technically accomplished in the world. Teatro alla Scala productions can also be some of the more interesting to be found on European stages: a particularly lavish and detailed recreation of Raymonda was, for instance, one of the most visually exciting productions that I've seen in recent years (review of the recording on Blu-ray).

This release comes, then, with very high expectations. Unfortunately, however, in several respects it fails to fulfil them.

As one would expect, Natalia Osipova dances with the characteristic combination of spitfire energy and graceful delicacy that has made her one of the world's most admired dancers. Leonid Sarafanov, meanwhile, demonstrates his exceptional technique and, while he may no longer exhibit the sheer boyish exuberance that made his Mariinsky Basilio so memorable and such a delight, he has gained greater physical strength in the intervening years so that, for instance, his one-handed lifts at the end of the first Act are stronger and more secure. Both dancers, then, demonstrate that they remain individually at the summit of their profession. But that word individually is key here, for in all honesty there seems to be little chemistry between them. Quite simply, they fail to gel as a believable romantic couple. Take a look at that Osipova/Vasiliev on-stage partnership, or the one between Sarafanov and his partner in that Mariinsky DVD, Olesya Novikova, and you will see convincing emotional connections. Of course, that could simply reflect the fact that the former pair were once real-life partners and that the latter two are actually married to each other. But, at least as demonstrated on this new disc, the Osipova/Sarafanov pairing doesn't create many comparable sparks. At times, indeed, their characters even manage to give the impression of finding each other somewhat unlikeable - and that's sadly not in a Beatrice/Benedick sense where you know that underneath the apparent indifference they're really keen to get together. Sarafanov makes more of an effort, I think, remembering - sometimes with a jolt - to flash a generic smile of adoration at his Kitri. Osipova, on the other hand, can sometimes give the impression of being rather more engaged with the Milan audience than with her Basilio. Jotting down my initial impressions after a first viewing, I thought that she hadn't actually smiled much. In fact, when I watched again I found that she had smiled a great deal - but isn't it odd that I thought that she hadn't? Ms Osipova is no mean actress. Her Giselle, in which role she has to convey the widest range of feelings, is one of the most compelling I've seen. But I think that, on this occasion, she simply fails to convince me of her emotional involvement or sincerity.

Of the other dancers on stage, Christian Fagetti and Vittoria Valerio didn't make the most of their opportunities as glamorous Espada and his volatile street dancer. Those roles need to be danced with a degree of flamboyance that makes you temporarily think that they're the real stars of the show, but I never felt that here. On the other hand, Nicoletta Manni as the queen of the dryads and Serena Sarnataro as Cupid gave much more characterful performances, so that, as a result, I found the "vision" scene - often something of a twee interlude - much more enjoyable than usual. Of the non-dancing roles that help drive the plot forward, Giuseppe Conte's Don was even more away-with-the-fairies than most, while Gianluca Schiavoni chose to portray his sidekick Sancho Panza as a crafty chancer rather than merely a few slices short of a loaf. A costume of 19th century/Edwardian street clothes rather than 17th century frills and laces inevitably rendered Riccardo Massimi's Gamache a little less camp than usual and his overall characterisation suffered somewhat as a result.

What about the look of this production? Generally speaking, it's all quite serviceable and there's nothing at all to frighten the horses - on the subject of which, by the way, Teatro alla Scala eschews a real-life beast for a wicker-looking construction when the Don arrives in town. As already noted, some of the characters he finds there appear in comparatively modern clothes. Others wear traditional shapeless peasant clothes that could have come from any era. Don Quixote himself sports his traditional suit of armour which no-one appears to find at all incongruous as he wanders abstractedly among them. The sets tend to be on the dull side: there's no traditional Mediterranean seascape in the background, and I've seen hotter-looking days at the beginning of April in Weston-super-Mare. At one point towards the end, things get even gloomier as the stage is momentarily bathed in deep red light of the sort that directors sometimes use while particularly bloody events are occurring on stage. Given that the most violent thing happening at that point might possibly be one of the more energetic members of the corps de ballet suffering a broken toenail, the point of that particular lighting effect was, I confess, entirely lost on me.

All those gripes aside, there are two big issues that irritated me with this performance. The first is, admittedly, one that many viewers may not find a problem at all: the use of John Lanchbery's adaptation of Ludwig Minkus's score. No-one would claim that Minkus was up there with Tchaikovsky. His music was less ambitious and more formulaic, but, given the strictly circumscribed requirements of the ballet masters who commissioned his scores, so were his intentions. His score to Don Quixote is, though, a brilliantly functional one and he can, moreover, certainly come up with attractive - and, most importantly at that time, rhythmic and danceable - melodies. Marius Petipa, arguably the greatest choreographer in ballet history, worked with Minkus for many years and was evidently very appreciative of his talents.

When it comes to Don Quixote, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you acquaint yourself with the Minkus score in its full - and fully orchestrated - form. You can easily do that via the Decca DVD referenced above - where, given that it accompanies a live on-stage performance, you will find tempi that are particularly well judged. Alternatively, listen to one of the two available full-length CD recordings, both, oddly enough, performed by the Sofia National Opera Orchestra. One, conducted in 2002 by Nayden Todorov, may be found on Naxos 8.557065-66. Reviewed twice on this website, it was described by an enthusiastic Patrick Gary as "flawless... a gem" (review), while Michael Cookson, with a few reservations, was also generally well disposed to it (review). Much as I enjoy Todorov's account, my own recommendation would be the earlier Sofia version recorded in 1994 by Boris Spassov. That one demonstrates just a little more winning flexibility in tempi and conveys a greater sense of theatricality. It may be found on Capriccio 5054 or, if you can source a used copy, in its earlier incarnation on Capriccio 10 540/41 which has, in my own experience, better sound.

Exposure to any of those accounts of the score immediately reveals what many will perceive as infelicities in a reorchestration by John Lanchbery that was very much a product of its time and circumstances. The 1960s were an era, as we all know, of rebellion for its own sake when hitherto conventional norms in all fields of life, not least the Arts, were subject - very often entirely justifiably - to intense scrutiny and challenge. Bursting onto the ballet scene in the West in 1961 after his dramatic defection, Rudolf Nureyev embraced that emerging Zeitgeist with a will and proceeded thereafter to shake up and, in many respects, reinvigorate the way that audiences looked at dance. Much of what he did - including raising ballet's public profile and enhancing the role and status of male dancers - was arguably long overdue and all to the good. But Nureyev also exhibited an iconoclastic side that sneered at old ways of doing things and could lead to the proverbial throwing out of the baby with the bath water. Thus, when he turned his attention to producing his own version of Don Quixote - and ultimately went on to make a feature film of it (review) - he commissioned John Lanchbery to "inject the Minkus score with a lighter-hearted tone" (Julie Kavanagh Rudolf Nureyev: a life [London, 2008], p.342). What that meant in practice was a reorientation of the orchestral balance, away from lush strings and towards raucous brass, together with the unnecessary addition of musical underlinings that gave more obvious support to comic moments. If I had £1 for every extra twiddle, flourish and vulgar wah-wah on muted brass that's been added to support the visual slapstick, I'd be a wealthy man indeed. While well played on this occasion by the Teatro alla Scala orchestra under Alexander Titov, this remains a wrong-headed and dumbed-down version of an accomplished score that had worked perfectly well as it was. While no doubt well meant at the time, this Minkus-lite arrangement now causes me, for one, to cringe in embarrassment for the poor, abused composer.

Another reason why this won't be my top recommendation for a Don Quixote recorded performance is its direction for the screen. Good directors should at the very least offer us what we could have seen from a good seat in the house - or perhaps from several of them in different locations. Conversely, given that choreographers generally design their work to be watched from seats positioned at the front edge of the stage, directors for the screen ought to avoid filming from other angles from which they may miss out on deliberately and carefully constructed choreographic patterns. Meanwhile, they should be able to anticipate action so that a camera doesn't cut to it just a moment too late. It's a good thing too to put on screen any details that are important to the plot but are going on in the background and are consequently at risk of passing unnoticed - jealous Hilarion catching sight of the canoodling lovers in Giselle is an instance that springs to mind. Occasional close-ups are also useful, as long as we don't thereby lose too much of the bigger picture. And directors need to remember that ballet fans want to see plenty of detail of the dancers' legs and feet.

Unfortunately, this film of Don Quixote, originally an Italian TV broadcast, fails in many, many ways. In fact, it is one of the most flawed filmed performances that I have ever seen. I was not surprised to discover that, when it was originally transmitted, one internet blogger was so appalled that he or she pulled no punches in headlining their review What a mess: Italian tv tries to film Don Quixote and ultimately went on to conclude that a great opportunity had been missed because camera operators and the director had been insufficiently familiar with the requirements of filming ballet. This pseudonymously written but perceptive critique is so accurate in its detailed analysis of what went wrong that, rather than my merely echoing what has already been written by someone else, I recommend that you read their detailed critique for yourself (review).

Finally, I need to consider the quality of the visual image on the disc. It's not, I'm afraid, good news, for, just as I had begun to think that it had gone away for good, the dreaded Blu-ray screen judder makes an unwelcome reappearance. For anyone unfamiliar with the phenomenon, a small minority of ballet recordings on Blu-ray seem to exhibit difficulties whenever a camera simultaneously pans both laterally and quickly - when, for instance, tracking the trajectory of a leading dancer pirouetting at speed across the width of the stage. On such occasions any stationary characters in the background can appear to shake and become blurry and indistinct. Googling for more information about this issue throws up a number of theories as to why it sometimes happens and why only some releases are affected - but the bottom line is that there doesn't yet appear to be a technical fix in sight. The problem is particularly apparent on this disc in Act 1 where a great deal of on-stage activity, involving a large number of dancers and others in non-dancing roles, takes place. Whether the DVD version is affected, I am unable to say.

As will be apparent by now, there are too many issues with this release to justify giving it a clear recommendation. Ultimately, of course, all critical judgments remain personal ones. Nonetheless, from my own perspective this Don Quixote recording simply brings too many problems along with it. And, while I freely concede that not everyone will share my subjective distaste for, for example, those musical Lanchbery-isms, other issues including the unacceptable TV direction are unarguably drawbacks that ultimately count against this new Blu-ray disc.

Rob Maynard



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