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Essential Royal Ballet
Extracts from Giselle, La bayadère, Don Quixote, Swan lake, The nutcracker, Symphonic variations, La fille mal gardée, The dream, Romeo and Juliet, Mayerling, Alice’s adventures in wonderland, Infra and The sleeping beauty
Soloists and dancers of the Royal Ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/various conductors
Introduced by Katie Derham
With spoken contributions from Carlos Acosta, Matthew Ball, Francesca Hayward, Marianela Nuñez, Natalia Osipova, Steven McRae and others
rec. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2005 – 2019
Picture format: 16:9 anamorphic
Audio formats: LPCM 2.0; dts-HD master audio
All regions
OPUS ARTE DVD OA1313D [88:00]

Collins English Dictionary defines “essential” as vitally important; absolutely necessary and so, when you cast caution to the winds and boldly apply that word to a new release, it’s a reasonable expectation that there will be something special to justify the hyperbole. This new Opus Arte / Royal Ballet release has, therefore, a lot to live up to.

Let’s examine, first of all, the material that’s been included here. With the exception of a Yasmine Naghdi/Matthew Ball Romeo and Juliet which was relayed to cinemas in, I think, June 2019 but does not yet seem to have been made generally available on DVD/Blu-ray, all of it comes from already-released full-length performances. The earliest recording is that of La fille mal gardée, as performed in February 2005 (review). There follows, in order, Mayerling (October 2009), Don Quixote (October 2013, review), Giselle (January 2014, review), The nutcracker (December 2016), The sleeping beauty (February 2017), Symphonic variations and The dream (June 2017), Alice’s adventures in wonderland (2017), Swan lake (June 2018) and La bayadère (November 2018,

You will note, by the way, that all these excerpts are described not in general terms as “essential ballet” but specifically as “essential Royal Ballet”, so that one might reasonably suppose that they will reflect at least one or two distinctive features of the company’s work. The greatest achievements of Covent Garden’s in-house choreographers are certainly given generous recognition. From the past, Frederick Ashton is well represented by Symphonic variations (1946), La fille mal gardée (1960) and The dream (1964), while Romeo and Juliet (1965) and Mayerling (1978) illustrate some of Kenneth MacMillan’s finest work. Coming into the 21st century, Wayne McGregor’s Infra (2008), Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s adventures in wonderland (2011) and Carlos Acosta’s revision of Don Quixote (2013) offer effective snapshots of some of the diverse choreographic styles more recently on display at Covent Garden.

Of course, like any other world class ballet troupe the Royal Ballet also keeps some predictable warhorses in its repertoire. As one of the company’s signature productions for the past 70 years, the inclusion of The sleeping beauty on this disc might be taken as read. Tchaikovsky’s trilogy is then completed by the inclusion of two other distinctively individual Covent Garden productions – Peter Wright’s enduringly popular version of The nutcracker and Liam Scarlett’s hugely acclaimed 2018 production of Swan lake. Both automatically justify their own places here.

Specific connections with the Royal Ballet are less apparent in two other showcased 19th century classics, Giselle and La bayadère (although it’s fair to point out that the company did play a leading role in promoting Natalia Makarova’s recreation of the latter’s missing last Act). More significant are both ballets’ myriad artistic and technical challenges, offering a range of yardsticks sufficient to measure the company’s best qualities. Giselle’s status as the Romantic ballet par excellence gives the Royal Ballet’s dancers an opportunity to demonstrate their affinity with that sometimes elusive style. Meanwhile, classical ballet’s ultimate “white Act”, La bayadère’s Kingdom of the shades, puts its corps de ballet through its most challenging paces.

As you might expect, the performances also showcase some of the company’s leading soloists. Partnered by Carlos Acosta, Natalia Osipova kicks off the disc with the Act 2 pas de deux from Giselle and, while I usually find that her general on-stage demeanour lends itself best to imperious - or, at the other end of the spectrum, comedic – roles, here she demonstrates her versatility by delivering a supremely touching characterisation of the tragically betrayed wili. Meanwhile, Covent Garden’s current regular and felicitous pairing of Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov features in the Swan lake Act 3 pas de deux and the finale to the third Act of The sleeping beauty, as well as in Symphonic variations. The Swan lake excerpt allows us to watch Ms Nuñez as Odile, dancing her wicked and precisely delivered interpretation of the role with great aplomb; Mr Muntagirov, as deluded Prince Siegfried, partners her with characteristic elegance and consideration. His own artistry is later showcased to good effect in a few brief moments from Symphonic variations.
Other high-profile partnerships featured on the DVD include Akane Takada and Steven McRae (pas de deux from The dream), Mara Galeazzi and Edward Watson (Act 2 pas de deux from Mayerling), Marianela Nuñez and Edward Watson (Infra) and, as already noted, Yasmine Naghdi and Matthew Ball (Act 1 pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet). Impressive solo turns are delivered by both Lauren Cuthbertson (Dance of the sugar plum fairy from The nutcracker) and Ryoichi Hirano (Espada’s solo from Don Quixote), while other faces from the Coven Garden stage - including Yuhui Choe, Francesca Hayward, Sarah Lamb, Laura Morera, Gary Avis, Alexander Campbell, James Hay and William Tuckett – feature in the ensemble numbers. Given that every excerpt here has presumably been carefully selected so as to justify its inclusion in an “essential” collection, it’s unsurprising that the dancing is, in every case, of a very high quality.

Viewers’ enjoyment is further enhanced by the addition of verbal contributions by some of the featured artists. Katie Derham’s introduction and her links between the various excerpts are useful, but it is more interesting to hear the dancers themselves speaking – albeit very briefly – about the featured ballets and the various challenges that they pose. Many of these spoken inserts may be familiar, having featured among the extra features included in past individual Opus Arte releases. Nevertheless, they provide a little extra information that will no doubt be useful to anyone unfamiliar with any of the ballets. Annoyingly enough, however, the excerpt from Infra – a work that is perhaps the least familiar included on the disc – doesn’t appear to be thought worthy of a comment or two from the dancers, even though Marianela Nuñez and Edward Watson elsewhere demonstrate considerable charm and fluency as interviewees.

It goes without saying that the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House knows these scores intimately. Just as importantly, conductors Boris Gruzin (Giselle, La bayadère, The nutcracker), Martin Yates (Don Quixote), Koen Kessels (Swan lake, The sleeping beauty, Mayerling), Anthony Twiner (La fille mal gardée), Emmanuel Plasson (The dream), Pavel Sorokin (Romeo and Juliet), Barry Wordsworth (Alice’s adventures in wonderland, Infra) and Daniel Capps (Infra) are all clearly aware of the need to accommodate the scores to the practical requirements of dancers on a stage. Apart from Infra, which was directed for the screen by Jonathan Haswell, all the excerpts have been filmed by the very experienced Ross MacGibbon. His characteristic attention to visual detail is fully apparent throughout each of them.

Is this, in conclusion, an “essential” release? Given that much of the material is core ballet repertoire, I suspect that many collectors will already have at least a few of the full-length productions on their shelves. The disc certainly makes, however, a good introduction to the Royal Ballet’s repertoire and, as such, perhaps a useful choice as a seasonal gift. Think of it as a box of chocolates – full of small, tasty treats and, just for once, a collection that can be easily enjoyed at a single gluttonously enjoyable sitting.

Rob Maynard



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