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Concerto
Music by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Choreography by Kenneth MacMillan
Enigma variations
Music by Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Choreography by Frederick Ashton
Raymonda Act III
Music by Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936)
Choreography by Rudolf Nureyev, after Marius Petipa
Artists of the Royal Ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Pavel Sorokin
rec. live, 28 October and 5 November 2019 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Directed for the screen by Ross MacGibbon
Picture: 16:9 1080i High Definition
Audio formats: LPCM 2.0, dts-HD Master Audio
All regions
OPUS ARTE Blu-ray OABD7272D [156 mins]

Until the advent of the current pandemic, the Royal Ballet was laudably – and, these days, almost uniquely – filming virtually all its staged productions for a wider home audience. This latest release celebrates aspects of the company’s heritage by presenting pieces associated with three of its past leading lights – its two most famous choreographers of the mid-20th century, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan, and its most celebrated male dancer of the time, Rudolf Nureyev.

Frederick Ashton worked with the Covent Garden company in its various incarnations - as the Vic-Wells Ballet, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet and finally the Royal Ballet - for almost four decades. His career culminated in a highly productive period as Director from 1963 until his retirement in 1970. Ashton’s successor as head of the company, Kenneth MacMillan, also held the post for seven years, retiring in 1977 so as to devote the remaining 15 years of his life to choreography rather than time-consuming administration. The star dancer Rudolf Nureyev had been in contention to succeed Ashton as the Royal Ballet’s Director in 1970 but, having lost out to MacMillan, eventually became Artistic Director of the Paris Opera Ballet in 1983 and held that post until his death a decade later. Works that he choreographed still feature regularly in the repertoire in both Paris and Vienna, where his protégé Manuel Legris heads the State Ballet company, though they tend to be performed rather less frequently elsewhere.

All three choreographers are showcased here in shorter works. While productions of full-length three Act ballets have always been the standard by which the top international companies are judged, less elaborate productions certainly have an appeal of their own. Some choreographers may find that more concise, sparer works are more suited to their temperaments and artistic sensibilities, while also offering, in the absence of ossified performance traditions, greater opportunities for artistic innovation. Dancers, meanwhile, understand that an evening of, say, three shorter works offers more members of the company an opportunity to display their talents in leading roles. Management, needless to say, appreciates the lower production costs associated with smaller casts and less elaborate settings. And what, finally, of ballet audiences? They, I suspect, may be more divided on the issue, but some members, at least, will no doubt appreciate the opportunity to enjoy mixed programmes of more diverse dancing styles than would normally be encountered at an evening of Giselle or Swan lake.

This disc opens with a performance of Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto, set to the music of Shostakovich’s second piano concerto. It’s a piece of pure dance that MacMillan created in 1966 as newly-appointed Director of the Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin in order to test the abilities of the whole company. As described by his biographer, “Phalanxes of young people march and swivel in the first and last allegro movements, constantly changing direction. They move en bloc, so any errors or weaknesses are immediately evident… sloppy dancers are soon exposed. MacMillan was deliberately devising choreography that would improve the company’s technical training, while giving soloists a chance to shine” (Jann Parry Different drummer: the life of Kenneth MacMillan [London, 2009], p. 319).

MacMillan ensures that we focus on the dancers’ bodies by removing other visual distractions. The stage is bare, the backdrop is a plain creamy orange in colour and the dancers all wear simple and unadorned costumes – orange to distinguish the leading dancers, red for those in featured but lesser roles and yellow for the corps de ballet. The choreography for the concerto’s first and last movements conveys boundless joy in movement, as various permutations of athletic dancers enter, leap around and exit the stage. The concerto’s beautiful yet deceptively simple second movement forms the heart of the ballet, however, as two of the “orange” dancers – Yasmine Naghdi and Ryoichi Hirano – deliver a supremely elegant and concentrated display of precisely calibrated movement and gestures in a rigidly maintained smile-free atmosphere of studied emotional neutrality. This is one of the evening’s undoubted triumphs.

Opus Arte’s Blu-ray/DVD Royal Ballet releases have, in recent years, showcased many of Frederick Ashton’s shorter works. OA BD7180 D, for example, coupled the pure dance of Rhapsody with The two pigeons, a bittersweet romantic concoction that expertly targets the more general matinee audience. The story-driven ballets The dream and Marguerite and Armand were joined by the abstract Symphonic variations on OA BD7240 D, while Ashton celebration: the Royal Ballet dances Frederick Ashton (OA BD7128 D - review) delivered not only an alternative performance of Marguerite and Armand, but also threw in La valse, ‘Méditation’ from Thaïs, Voices of spring and Monotones I and II.
 
With this new release, Ashton’s much-loved Enigma variations, first produced in 1968, also becomes available for home viewing. The popular success of a piece that was so apparently out of tune with the Zeitgeist of late ‘60s counter-culture evidently came as something of a surprise to some. The Sunday Times’s celebrated critic Richard Buckle, for instance, delivered a mockingly cynical first review (“India wants us back, Enoch Powell for Viceroy! Touching their forelocks, the lower classes beg to be underpaid and undernourished again. Enigma variations!”) before rapidly backtracking just a fortnight later when he described the piece as “this tour de force, which was such an odd ballet to want to do and such an amazing feat to bring off successfully” (quoted in Buckle at the ballet: selected criticism by Richard Buckle [London, 1980], pp. 154-155).

The potential for oddity to which Buckle referred arises largely from its setting. Ashton’s ballet depicts Elgar himself, along with his wife and the various characters that he’d sought to portray in the variations, in the context of a story that’s so slight that it’s really little more than an extended anecdote: while the pensive, self-doubting composer awaits a decision on whether his music is to be given its first performance, his friends drop by to lend their support and encouragement before the eventual arrival of good news. With the ballet set “realistically” in the grounds of a Victorian country house, the women come off rather better in their long, elegant dresses that emphasise and flatter their graceful movements. The male dancers, however, face a problem, for their heavy, multi-layered period costumes do not lend themselves easily to dance – a point so obvious that, at the time of Enigma variations’s premiere, two observers made it in virtually identical terms, with dancer Alexander Bland worrying that “two stiff-collared gentlemen arabesquing together with their watch chains flying… [is] uncomfortably near the comical” (quoted in Julie Cavanagh Secret muses: the life of Frederick Ashton [London, 1996], p. 510) and Richard Buckle pointing out that “a man wearing tweeds and a genuine watch-chain would look ridiculous expressing feeling by a rond de jambe” (Buckle op. cit., p. 155).

Ashton tackles the problem head on by choosing to emphasise, rather than gloss over, those episodes with comic potential. One after the other, various affectionately-depicted eccentrics are given their moments to shine on stage, although, given the brief duration of several of the variations, it’s easy to suppose at times that we are watching little more than a succession of comic skits. Early on there’s a notable succession of three of them. With a pipe clamped firmly between his teeth, Paul Kay, dancing the role of Hew David Steuart-Powell, bicycles merrily onto the stage. That gimmicky entrance is immediately trumped, however, by tricyclist Philip Mosley, portraying Richard Baxter Townshend as a lookalike Tweedledee to Kay’s Tweedledum and brandishing a fearsome-looking ear trumpet before getting tangled up with a children’s hoop. The last of the trio, Calvin Richardson gives us a William Heath Baker who leaps all over the place with impulsive abandon in his natty college scarf. Such high jinks can, of course, appear easy to execute but in reality it takes dancers of real technical assurance and expertise to fulfil the choreographer’s demands with so little apparent effort – tweeds, flying watch chains and all.

Audience smiles or even broad grins notwithstanding, Enigma variations is rather more than a purely comedic tour de force. The stage’s colour palette, devised by Julia Trevelyan Oman, is distinctly autumnal, matching the central characters’ generally melancholic, reflective mood, and there are moments of genuine pathos as Elgar’s wife and his close friend and publisher A.J. Jaeger reassure the despondent composer of their faith in his talent and offer their ongoing emotional support. Julie Cavanagh accurately suggests that the whole ballet is pervaded by “an atmosphere of almost Lisztian romantic despair… The final scene between the composer and his wife is one in which the anguish and loneliness of the creative artist is most keenly felt” (Cavanagh op. cit., p. 508). Such exquisitely conceived and executed moments give Enigma variations much greater emotional depth than suggested by its comic turns. Indeed, that fruitful contrast between amusement and elegiac poignancy serves to emphasise the latter’s significance even more. Christopher Saunders (Elgar), Laura Morera (his wife, though rather oddly billed as “the lady”) and Bennet Gartside (Jaeger) deliver Ashton’s finely delineated character studies with the greatest skill as their most subtle glances or smallest gestures speak volumes about what’s going on behind the repressed Victorian facades.

While the leading dancers deserve particular praise, this performance once more demonstrates that Enigma variations is a genuine ensemble piece. Everyone on stage, even in the smallest of roles, makes a positive impact, offering a conclusive demonstration of the current company’s great strength in depth.

It is, by the way, worth noting that the score used in the ballet differs significantly in one respect from that heard in the concert hall. After the climactic arrival of a telegram confirming that Elgar’s piece has been accepted for performance, Ashton brings the matters to a relatively swift conclusion by utilising the composer’s original, more abrupt finale - almost 100 bars shorter than the one invariably heard in concert today. Given that the inclusion of the more grandiose later version might well have unbalanced the ballet’s overall proportions, structure and air of warm intimacy, Ashton thereby delivers a more effectively balanced conclusion to his story.

Rudolf Nureyev’s contribution to the evening’s programme is his reworking of Marius Petipa’s original choreography for Act 3 of Raymonda. Julie Kavanagh’s authoritative biography Rudolf Nureyev: the life (London, 2008) demonstrates that her subject was an enthusiastic admirer of the complete three Act version and he was to work on various productions with the Royal Ballet (1964), Australian Ballet (1965), Zurich Opera Ballet (1972), American Ballet Theatre (1975) and the Paris Opera Ballet (1983). Nureyev was often a difficult and stubborn character, but he could also, when necessary, be pragmatic. Given, for instance, the huge costs of mounting an expensive, full-length production of a ballet that’s never gained an entirely secure place in audience affections, in 1966 he cannily created a stand-alone production of the more obviously crowd-pleasing Act 3 wedding jollifications for the Royal Ballet Touring Company (the forerunner of Birmingham Royal Ballet).

In the story, the young Countess Raymonda’s fiancé and eventual husband is Jean de Brienne, a warrior in the service of the king of Hungary. As a result, in spite of its supposed French setting, the ballet’s third Act exhibits an eastern European flavour so pronounced that one wouldn’t be surprised to find spicy goulash and lashings of the finest Imperial Tokay wine served at the happy couple’s wedding breakfast to the strains of a Zigeuner band. Petipa’s original 1898 St Petersburg production had set Act 3 in “a park on the estates of Jean de Brienne with, in the distance, the castle gleaming in the sunlight” (see here for my review of a complete performance seeking to recreate the ballet as it was first seen). Nureyev, however, chooses to set the action in a sumptuous red and gold room of generic Romanesque-cum-Byzantine design. It appears to be a chapel, which, given that Act 3 is celebrating a marriage, is appropriate enough - even if the holy fathers watching over the proceedings from their immense icons on the walls would hardly have approved, I suspect, of the decidedly secular entertainment that’s about to take place.

Nureyev’s version of Act 3 offers an opportunity for the whole Royal Ballet company to shine in a series of individual divertissements and ensemble numbers. They include a Hungarian dance; an elaborately extended grand pas in which stars Natalia Osipova and Vadim Muntagirov join eight other couples before we treated to various individual variations, a pas de trois for women and an all-male pas de quatre; and a rousing finale for the whole company. The latter sees Nureyev’s sole artistic misjudgement when, in bringing the piece to a close with a rousing galop, he jettisons Glazunov’s original apotheose – a rather gorgeous piece of music that delivers, moreover, an effective emotional catharsis as the curtain falls

Both Osipova and Mutagirov are technically at the top of their games and deliver dancing of the finest quality. I do confess, though, to having a problem with some of Ms Osipova’s performances of late. While I have no reason whatsoever to doubt that she is, in real life, a charming individual, she can all too easily appear uninterested with what’s going on around her and reluctant to engage fully with either her peers or the audience. The same apparent froideur that I noted between her and Leonid Sarafanov in La Scala’s Don Quixote (review) seems to affect, if, perhaps, to a lesser extent, this performance too. Countess Raymonda appears, on this occasion, rather less in love with Jean de Brienne than with herself.

Meanwhile, even if Vadim Muntagirov does not seem quite as relaxed and comfortable as he can be when pairing his frequent Royal Ballet partner Marianela Nuñez, he gives a technically superb performance, delivering, in particular, some fabulous jumps during his variation (number 5) in the grand pas. Also particularly impressive in their own contributions to the grand pas are Fumi Kaneko (variation 1) and Beatriz Stix-Brunell (variation 4).

As might well be expected, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House delivers expertly crafted accounts of all three scores under Pavel Sorokin’s experienced direction, while the vastly experienced Ross MacGibbon’s video direction is as accomplished – and very well reproduced for home viewing - as we invariably expect.

There is, however, a most irritating fly in the ointment for, quite atypically for an Opus Arte Royal Ballet release, the booklet notes are seriously deficient. On the positive side, Zoë Anderson and Jonathan Gray give interesting accounts of the genesis and main features of, respectively, Concerto and Raymonda Act 3. No exposition of story is needed in either case for, as we have noted, the former is plotless while all that anyone needs to know about the latter is that a wedding is being celebrated. When it comes to Enigma variations, however, there is a problem. The notes here are written by Patricia Linton who danced with the Royal Ballet in the 1960s and so has several interesting recollections to offer and observations to make. Neither in her essay nor anywhere else in the booklet, however, are we offered any details of the story that Ashton has devised to fit the music or even a track list of the ballet’s numbers. As a result, even viewers who know the score inside out will probably be somewhat mystified by some of the unexplained shenanigans on stage. Are the mutually affectionate Steuart-Powell and Townshend a gay couple? Is the mysterious woman who floats across stage in a diaphanous gown Worcestershire’s local version of Miss Havisham? (No, it’s actually Lady Mary Lygon, but we are never told.) And what’s in the mysterious telegram that sends everyone into paroxysms of delight at the ballet’s climax? Has the composer achieved a full house of A* grades in his A levels – or happy notification of a negative coronavirus test? The point is that Ashton’s Enigma variations is not The nutcracker and it ought to have occurred to someone involved in the production process that we need to be offered more information.

That particular gripe aside, this new release is a very valuable one that adds three somewhat rarely encountered – and here very well performed – ballets to the home viewing catalogue. Balletomanes living outside the UK will no doubt especially appreciate the opportunity to watch Enigma variations, for, as a closely-guarded jewel in the Royal Ballet/Birmingham Royal Ballet’s crown, the only other company ever permitted to perform it (once, in 2018) was the Sarasota Ballet. I wholeheartedly commend this new release, not just to admirers of Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan and Rudolf Nureyev but to all fans of exquisitely crafted choreography and supremely well executed dancing.

Rob Maynard
 
Details
Concerto
Dancers: Anna Rose O’Sullivan, James Hay, Hannah Grennell, Melissa Hamilton, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Luca Acri, Nicol Edmonds, Valentino Zucchetti, Yasmine Naghdi, Ryoichi Hirano, Mayara Magri
Enigma variations
Edward Elgar: Christopher Saunders, The lady: Laura Morera, Hew David Steuart-Powell: Paul Kay, Richard Baxter Townshend: Philip Mosley, William Meath Baker: Calvin Richardson, Richard P. Arnold: Reece Clarke, Isabel Fitton: Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Arthur Troyte Griffith: Matthew Ball, Winifred Norbury: Romany Pajdak, A.J. Jaeger: Bennet Gartside, Dora Penny: Francesca Hayward, George Robertson Sinclair: Luca Acri, Basil G. Nevinson: Erico Montes, Lady Mary Lygon: Itziar Mendizabal, Schoolgirl: Grace Blundell, Country girl and boy: Ashley Dean and Joshua Junker, Sailor girl and boy: Isabella Gasparini and Joseph Sissens, Housekeeper: Charlotte Tonkinson, Gardener: Giacomo Rovero, The carrier: Harris Bell, Country woman: Katharina Nikelski, Telegraph boy: Harry Churches
Raymonda Act III
Raymonda: Natalia Osipova, Jean de Brienne: Vadim Muntagirov, Hungarian dance: Itziar Mendizabal and Reece Clarke, Grand pas: Claire Calvert, Ashley Dean, Lara Turk, Isabella Gasparini, Meaghan Grace Hinkis, Fumi Kaneko, Romany Pajdak, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Luca Acri, Harry Churches, Cesar Corrales, Lukas Bjørneboe Brændsrød, David Donnelly, James Hay, Francisco Serrano and Valentino Zucchetti, Variation 1: Fumi Kaneko, Variation 2: Meaghan Grace Hinkis, Variation 3: Claire Calvert, Pas de trois: Ashley Dean, Isabella Gasparini and Romany Pajdak, Pas de quatre: Luca Acri, Cesar Corrales, James Hay and Valentino Zucchetti, Variation 4: Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Variation 5: Vadim Muntagirov, Variation 6: Natalia Osipova, Finale: entire cast




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