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Peer Gynt
Ballet in two Acts by Edward Clug (2018)
Music by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Choreography and libretto by Edward Clug
Peer Gynt – Jakob Feyferlik, Solveig – Alice Firenze, Death – Eno Peci, A deer – Zsolt Török, Ĺse – Franziska Wallner-Hollinek, Ingrid – Ioanna Avraam, A green-clad woman – Nikisha Fogo, Little Helga – Isabella Lucia Severi
Wiener Staatsballett
Shino Takizawa (piano)
Chorakademie und Extrachor der Wiener Staatsoper
Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper/Simon Hewett
Video director: Balázs Delbó
Filmed in High Definition, mastered from an HD source
Picture format: NTSC, 16:9
Sound formats: PCM stereo, DTS 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
C MAJOR 755808 DVD [112 mins]

Like, I suspect, many other children born in the early 1950s, I came across Grieg’s Peer Gynt music early. That’s because a recording of one of its most famous numbers, Morning mood, was used as an accompaniment to my infants’ school “movement” class, when, stripped down to our underwear, twenty or so of us seven-year-olds would attempt to interpret its melody as we crouched, stretched and jumped our way across the floor of the school hall.

Maintaining a naďve belief that our headmistress would surely have introduced young children only to positive role models, I assumed for years that the central character of the Ibsen’s play must have been an individual of unblemished character. It was, therefore, something of a shock to eventually discover that Peer Gynt is, in fact, a selfish, feckless, disloyal and distinctly unlikeable fellow.

Edward Clug’s ballet understandably excises many episodes from the original lengthy, picaresque story but follows the remainder relatively faithfully. Self-centred Peer quarrels with his sensible, down-to-earth mother before disrupting Ingrid’s wedding by flirting with Solveig, picking a fight and then bedding the bride; abandoning Ingrid, he impregnates and then rejects a mysterious “green lady” who, in revenge, has the king of the trolls and his followers assault him; he is reunited with Solveig but then abandons her a second time in order to travel the world; having made his fortune in Morocco, he is swindled out of it by the dancing girl Anitra before, having lost his reason, he is incarcerated in an asylum, bullied by its inmates and mockingly crowned its “king”; returning to Norway as an old man, he sees flashbacks of his profligate, wasted youth, before he gets together, for the last time, with the repeatedly-betrayed but ever-faithful Solveig; finally, the embittered Peer, appreciating at last that he has missed out on the really important things in life, departs with her for the hereafter.

As that highly simplified synopsis suggests, there’s more than enough action here to form the basis of a ballet and Clug’s two-Act production certainly finds plenty for the full Wiener Staatsballett company to do. The focus is, in fact, very much on the dancers, for the minimalist set neither offers much to distract the eye nor provides anything substantial in the way of clues as to where any particular part of the action is set. Apart from the asylum inmates and the fat-suited “green lady” and trolls, the costumes are also kept deliberately bland and vaguely contemporary, which once again means that we focus exclusively on the dancing. When needed, however, a distinctive atmosphere is conjured up by the clever use of props. A set of ethnic rugs, for example, is skilfully deployed so as to suggest that we are in Morocco. Meanwhile, our central character is instantly transformed, before our very eyes, into a wizened old man by the simple expedient of having three or four cans of dust thrown over him – an image that’s cleverly reversed in the final scene when the devoted Solveig brushes the grey out of his hair to suggest that, to her old, sightless eyes, Peer will be forever young.

A wide range of Grieg’s music is heard during the course of the production. Some, as you would expect, comes from the score he composed to accompany Ibsen’s play. Apart from that, you’ll recognise excerpts from the string quartet no. 1, a couple of the Lyric pieces, one of the Norwegian dances and music from the Holberg suite. Probably the most successfully utilised, however, are two of the longer extracts, the adagio second movement and the allegro moderato molto e marcato finale from the piano concerto, both of which, it transpires, lend themselves very well to dancing.

In Peer Gynt, Clug’s choreographic style is occasionally graceful, most notably in the romantic encounter between Peer Gynt and Solveig. More often, however, it is somewhat angular and jerkily abrupt, though in practice that’s actually a neat fit for such a fast-moving, episodic and sometimes violent story. I suspect that even hardcore fans of ballet in its most classical form will have no difficulty whatsoever in appreciating what the choreographer and performers are aiming to achieve.

The production’s undoubted star is 23 years old Jakob Feyferlik who, after spending seven years with the Vienna company, has recently joined Dutch National Ballet as a principal dancer. He is rarely off the stage for the entire show and delivers a performance that combines sensitive artistry with energetic athleticism and, in the ballet’s final sequences, a touching degree of pathos. Alice Firenze, meanwhile, seizes every chance to shine as Solveig. She partners Feyferlik so well in their prolonged romantic encounter set to the piano concerto’s adagio (track 6, with a very well delivered account of the solo part from Shino Takizawa) that one wishes there had been more such opportunities.

The rest of the action is so fast-moving that few other dancers manage to make a comparable impact. While third billing goes to Eno Peci as a striking figure of Death, much of his role is to act as a deus ex machina figure and, although his on-stage movements can be striking, his dance opportunities are somewhat limited. That’s even more the case for fourth-billed Zsolt Török who strides enigmatically about the stage as a symbolic deer, adding plenty of mysterious atmosphere but nothing in the way of danced action.

The members of the well-drilled Vienna corps de ballet deserve a mention, in particular for their strikingly delivered contributions as galumphing trolls and capering lunatics. The playing, meanwhile, of the Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper under conductor Simon Hewett and the singing of the Chorakademie und Extrachor der Wiener Staatsoper is consistently accomplished and recognises the dancers’ capabilities and on-stage requirements extremely well.

It’s also worth pointing out that C Major’s booklet is more than usually useful on this occasion, for, as well as offering some background to the production, its brief plot summary proves an invaluable guide to a ballet that will be new to most of us and also boasts an unusually busy storyline.

The only feature of this production that I didn’t especially enjoy was Clug’s practice – sadly becoming an increasingly common one in the ballet world – of adding jarring extraneous sounds that can, to my mind, destroy the carefully-created on-stage illusion. Various vocalisations, yells and shouts erupt at 14:53, 17:50 and 1:35:45. Then there’s the introduction of a sequence of Arabic music at 1:06:00, arguably adding appropriate atmosphere at that particular point of the story but sounding annoyingly incongruous when heard alongside all that Grieg. And what’s with the prolonged declamatory passage (in German? Norwegian?) from 37:15 onwards? For all I know, it may well have been some sort of vitally important bit of plot exposition but, because the DVD menu doesn’t include an option to bring up English (or, indeed, any) subtitles, I’m afraid I was left none the wiser - and not even much better informed - at the end of it.

From a technical point of view, video director Balázs Delbó has done a good job, with, on the one hand, plenty of comprehensive long-shots ensuring that all the busy on-stage action is captured and, on the other, a range of close-ups focussing on the characters’ more intimate moments. A slight technical glitch, lasting for no more than a fraction of a second, occurred – at least on my own copy – at 1:00:57 when the on-screen image momentary froze. It was reminiscent of the thing that used to happen on early DVDs where a packaging note warned that dual-layering (whatever that was) would cause a similar effect. This particular glitch was sensitively positioned at a point where it didn’t interfere with the action, so I suspect that it may have been placed there deliberately for some technical reason and isn’t simply a defect in the manufacturing process. In any case, it certainly wasn’t enough to spoil my overall enjoyment of this interesting and enjoyable new release.

Rob Maynard

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