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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Cinderella ballet in three Acts (1940-1944) [87:00]
Additional music by Jean Schwarz
Choreography by Maguy Marin
Cinderella… Françoise Joullié
Stepmother… Dominique Lainé
The sisters… Jayne Plaisted and Danièle Pater
The father… Patrick Azzopardi
Fairy godmother… Nathalie Delassis
The prince… Bernard Cauchard
Ballet and Orchestra of the Lyon National Opera/Yakov Kreisberg
Directed for video by Mans Reuterswård
rec. live at Lyon National Opera, 1989
Blu-ray disc 25 GB (single layer)
Resolution: 1080i High Definition (upscale)
Picture format: 4:3
Sound format: PCM 192 kHz / 48 kHz
Region: 0
ARTHAUS MUSIK Blu-ray 109183 [87:00]

Following a relatively conventional London Festival Ballet performance of Swan Lake (review) and a strikingly unusual one of Coppélia from Opéra National de Lyon (review), this is the third Blu-ray release that I have encountered in Arthaus Musik's newly-branded "Hi-Res Audio" ballet collection.

Apart from standardised packaging that takes the form of something like a small hardback book, all three discs share two other characteristics. The first is their origin in performances filmed the late 1980s or 1990s, with this particular Cinderella dating from 1989. The second is Arthaus Musik's contention that modern technological advances have radically improved their sound quality over that of any previous incarnations of the material. Unfortunately, that interesting and possibly significant claim raises more than the odd snigger thanks to some oily booklet hyperbole that seems to be targeted at audio snobs: "Hi-Res media is primarily aimed at music connoisseurs, who prize the excellence of an authentic, high-resolution listening experience... [It is] a dream come true for every music lover." Moreover, it's frankly irritating that more space is allocated to discussing the quality of the sound than to offering useful background information about either Prokofiev's ballet itself or the idiosyncrasies of this particular production - of which, as we shall see, there are several.

As, however, the marketing material for this release makes such a big deal of that "authentic, high-resolution listening experience", let's consider that aspect first of all. I can certainly confirm that the quality of the sound - whether here on Cinderella or on either of those other Hi-Res Audio releases - is attractively warm while also crisply focused and clear, especially in the lower registers. It undoubtedly belies its true age and all those "music connoisseurs" should certainly be delighted. When it comes to picture quality, however, it would be misleading to pretend that the upscaling process has overcome all the deficiencies of the original visual material. While the image is generally perfectly acceptable, even on large TV screens, the odd slightly fuzzy moment suggests that we're not watching something filmed yesterday using the latest technology.

Turning to the production itself, choreographer Maguy Marin's concept of the story will be familiar to anyone who recalls the film Tales of Beatrix Potter, a cinematic showcase for the Royal Ballet stars of the early 1970s. In both that movie and here, the story is precipitated by a lonely young girl who wordlessly projects her creative flights of fancy onto a range of non-human characters. Whereas those were anthropomorphic mice, frogs, pigs and rabbits in Tales, in this Cinderella they're a troupe of toy dolls from the child's playroom who are brought to life - and to dance - by her imagination.
However, it is actually those dolls themselves that first present us with a problem. With waxy, emotionless faces, unblinkingly vacant eyes and mouths that neither smile nor frown, these incarnations of Cinderella, her prince, her sisters and the rest of them aren't even pretending to be anything like real people, let alone becoming them in the way that, say, Tchaikovsky's nutcracker/prince does. They display none of the various emotions that we expect the story's characters to exhibit and, as a result, we the audience are never called upon to become truly engaged with them or to invest much emotional capital in their various plights and predicaments.

A second issue that some may have with this production is that it severely abbreviates Prokofiev's original score. The DVD of the well-known 1969 Royal Ballet production, featuring Antoinette Sibley, Anthony Dowell and, as an unforgettable pair of Ugly Sisters, Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpmann, clocks in at 102:00 (Kultur D0093). Even longer, at 110:00, is the Mariinsky's current production starring Diana Vishneva and Vladimir Shklyarov (MAR0555 - review). Maguy Marin's 1989 Cinderella, on the other hand, is resolved in just 87:00. Even that figure exaggerates the length of the original Prokofiev score that’s on offer, however, because as many as five of this disc's 39 separate tracks - amounting to no less than 15:40 of that 87:00 - turn out to consist of music by a certain Jean Schwartz or what sounds like abstract sound effects. That is quite obviously a very significant departure indeed from the usual Cinderella.

As the eponymous put-upon household drudge and her prince, Françoise Joullié and Bernard Cauchard are inevitably hampered by facial make-up that renders them unable to express the full range of emotions indicated - nay, surely demanded - by the score. But, even though they are similarly required to move for much of the time in a jerky, doll-like fashion, their technique is of a consistently high standard and they successfully surmount their characters' imposed physical limitations to pull off their big moments. The Act 2 pas de deux, for instance, is delivered with real style and aplomb. Ms Joullié also deserves a medal, by the way, for the resilience she displays when being repeatedly hit, dropped, trodden on or otherwise physically abused by virtually all and sundry on stage. Meanwhile, benefiting from permanently-fixed grotesque physiognomies that do actually suit the music depicting them, Cinders’wicked stepmother and sisters make their own striking and successful contributions to the production.

The cleaned-up sound reveals that Lyon National Opera's orchestra was an accomplished body of musicians in the late 1980s. They benefit, moreover, from the idiomatic and often powerful conducting of Yakov Kreizberg - or Kreisberg, as he is billed on this occasion. More usually associated in the theatre with opera than ballet, he nonetheless demonstrates a keen appreciation of both Prokofiev's characteristically sweet'n'sour musical style and the practical requirements of the dancers on stage.

Abbreviated and idiosyncratic as it is, this production cannot really be recommended as a core library choice for Cinderella. Anyone who already owns a more conventional - and more complete - version might, however, find it to be an intriguing alternative take on the familiar story and one that's worth taking off the shelf for occasional viewing.

Rob Maynard



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