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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Sleeping Beauty – ballet in Prologue and three Acts (1888-1889)
Choreography and direction by Rudolf Nureyev
Princess Aurora – Polina Semionova, Prince Désiré – Timofej Andrijashenko, King – Alessandro Grillo, Queen – Marta Romagna
Ballet company of Teatro alla Scala
Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala/Felix Korobov
Video director: Arnalda Canali
rec. Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 2019
Filmed in High Definition, mastered from an HD source
Picture format: 1080i, 16:9
Sound formats: PCM stereo, DTS-HD MA 5.1
Region code: A / B / C
C MAJOR Blu-ray 756104 [158:00]

Today Sleeping Beauty is still for me the perfect accomplishment of symphonic ballet. The choreographer is required to find harmony with Tchaikovsky’s score… [and to produce] a lasting show that supports the excellence of the company” – Rudolf Nureyev, quoted on the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation official website.

Generally acknowledged as the greatest, if not necessarily the most popular, of Tchaikovsky’s three ballets, The Sleeping Beauty may lack the tear-inducing pathos of Swan Lake and the jolly fun of The Nutcracker but still exhibits distinctive qualities of its own – most notably a sense of scale and grandeur lacking in those others. Rudolf Nureyev himself described it neatly as “the Parsifal of ballet… very long and very lush” (quoted in Julie Kavanagh’s authoritative study Rudolf Nureyev: the life [London, 2008], p. 346). Not for nothing have some of the world’s greatest ballet companies, in particular the Royal Ballet, made it something of a calling card when seeking to impress new audiences.

Marius Petipa’s choreography for the piece’s first production in 1890 generally still holds sway whenever the ballet is staged. Nevertheless, Nureyev devised and repeatedly revised his own choreographed productions over the years, presenting them at La Scala, Milan in 1966, for the National Ballet of Canada in 1972 (an Emmy Award-winning broadcast performance from that year, starring Veronica Tennant and with Nureyev himself as Prince Florimund, is preserved on a Video Artists International DVD, VAI 4288), for London Festival Ballet in 1975, for Vienna Opera Ballet in 1980 and, finally, for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1989 (a performance of a revival from a decade later, starring Aurélie Dupont and Manuel Legris, is available on an NVC Arts DVD, 8573-85802-2).

It seems that the original Milan production remained one that Nureyev considered particularly successful, so it is worth detailing the major innovations and changes of emphasis that it introduced. As detailed by Ms Kavanagh (op. cit., pp. 346-348), they included the introduction of a lavishly over-the-top baroque setting of “ultra-masculine Romanov opulence”, or, in the words of The Observer’s critic Alexander Bland, “Russian furs-and-diamonds glitter” (its sheer expense was underlined in 1972 when the National Ballet of Canada’s chairman had to bankroll performances by mortgaging his own house). However, Nureyev counterintuitively juxtaposed those sumptuous settings not with the big, bold dancing that one might have expected but with a relatively restrained and precise choreographic style modelled on that of his Royal Ballet partner Margot Fonteyn. Finally - surprise, surprise! – he egotistically increased his production’s focus on the prince, to the extent that, when his Aurora, Cala Fracci, failed on one occasion to turn up for a rehearsal of a solo number, he simply reallocated the dance to himself for the whole run.

La Scala has a notable history with The Sleeping Beauty, for its 1896 production had been the very first after its Russian premiere. It had, moreover, starred Milan-born Carlotta Brianza who had created the role of Princess Aurora in St Petersburg. Having later been the company that premiered Nureyev’s first 1968 production, La Scala has been understandably keen to commemorate the latter’s 50th anniversary with a revival. How, then, does it stack up?

Judged simply as a production by the standards set by Nureyev himself, the answer is, in fact, very well. The lavishly dressed and effectively lit sets, conceived by veteran and Oscar-winning designer Franca Squarciapino, certainly look magnificent, with barley twist pillars stretching dramatically up into the fly tower - even if their impression of architectural substance is undermined within less than half a minute when a dancer accidentally knocks against one and it wobbles alarmingly. Ms Squarciapino is also responsible for the elaborate, colourful costumes that are a constant feast for the eye. While never complex enough to hamper the dancing, the main characters’ outfits are quite gorgeous (the beautiful dress worn by the lilac fairy once she’s stopped dancing and started waving her magic wand is especially well conceived). Squarciapino’s experienced eye extends, however, well beyond the principals, for even the costumes worn by the fairies’ cavaliers who have little to do except preen and pout at the back of the stage are a delight. The sole jarring notes came with some of the characters’ make-up. One of the four princes vying for Aurora’s hand during the rose adagio actually wears blackface, which, even if they are watching a revival of a 1960s production, many 21st century viewers will find grotesquely unacceptable. Meanwhile, the whiskers painted onto the face of the white cat in the Act 3 divertissements unfortunately manage to give her an uncanny and distracting resemblance to Adolf Hitler.

When it comes to replicating Nureyev’s choreographic style, this 21st century revival also delivers what’s promised on the tin, generally steering well clear of over-elaboration in favour of dancing that’s neat and precise. Ms Semionova’s performance certainly lives up to that description and is impressive overall, even if there’s an odd second or two of apparent insecurity during the taxing rose adagio. Meanwhile, while invariably attentive as Semionova’s partner, the charismatic Timofej Andrijashenko - something of a lookalike for the 1930s Hollywood star Richard Cromwell - seizes every opportunity offered by the increased prominence that Nureyev accorded to the role of the prince (i.e. to himself). A welcome bonus is that he is more convincing than most at acting the role as well as dancing it: look at his facial expressions during the Act 2 game of blind man’s buff or as he later puzzles over why all the royal courtiers won’t wake up from their deep sleep. Another performer deserving individual mention is Beatrice Carbone who, closely supported by her pack of demonic incubi, delivers the role of wicked fairy Carabosse with immense aplomb. The other solo dancers and the corps de ballet (who deliver an attractive Act 1 waltz) also acquit themselves well, with a few of them offered opportunities to stand out in ways never considered by Marius Petipa, who preferred his supernumeraries to eschew individual identities in favour of uniform anonymity. I especially enjoyed a brief episode of such extra characterisation in the rose adagio. Whereas in most productions Aurora’s four princely suitors are blandly interchangeable, on this occasion one of them – presumably, in the heady circumstances, overcome by a testosterone rush - attempts to upstage one of his rivals, almost precipitating a bout of fisticuffs from which they have to be separated.

As well as delivering a fine production and impressive performances, this La Scala performance serves the useful purpose of giving us Nureyev’s Sleeping Beauty via the best modern technology. It thereby joins Wiener Staatsballett’s 2014 accounts of Nureyev’s revised versions of The Nutcracker (review) and Swan Lake (review). With all three Tchaikovsky ballets à la Rudi now made easily available in quality and well-filmed performances, viewers have a good opportunity to decide for themselves whether to give credit to the claims that Rudolf Nureyev deserves recognition as significantly more than a hedonistic bon viveur who was yet one of the very finest male dancers of the 20th century.

Rob Maynard

Other dancers
Catalabutte – Riccardo Massimi, Lilac fairy – Emanuela Montanari, Carabosse – Beatrice Carbone, Fairies – Martina Arduino, Alessandra Vassallo, Gaia Andreanò, Caterina Bianchi, Agnese Di Clemente, Maria Celeste Losa, Nicoletta Manni, Knights – Gabriele Corrado, Christian Fagetti, Andrea Risso, Andrea Crescenzi, Mattia Semperboni, Emanuele Cazzato, Walter Madau, Princes – Marco Agostino, Gioacchino Starace, Edoardo Caporaletti, Nicola Del Freo, Aurora’s friends – Vittoria Valerio, Alessandra Vassallo, Gaia Andreanò, Chrisatelle Cennerelli, Marta Gerani, Caterina Bianchi, Alessia Auriemma, Agnese Di Clemente, Countess – Deborah Gismondi, Dike Giuseppe Conte, Pas de cinq – Virna Toppi, Nicola Del Freo, Alessandra Vassallo, Gaia Andreanò, Caterina Bianchi, Puss in boots – Federico Fresi, White cat – Antonella Albano, Blue bird – Claudio Coviello, Princess Florine – Vittoria Valerio

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