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Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856)
Le Corsaire, ballet in a Prologue and three Acts (1856)
Choreography by Anna-Marie Holmes, after Marius Petipa and Konstantin Sergeyev
Ballet Company of Teatro alla Scala
Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala/Patrick Fournillier
rec. Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 2018
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 756304 [108 mins]

Asked to name any ballet, the man or woman in the street will almost certainly – if he or she comes up with any response at all – answer with Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty or The Nutcracker. And while, on a good day, we might find just one or two more who’ve heard of a ballet by a 20th century composer such as Prokofiev or Stravinsky, I certainly wouldn’t place a bet on anyone knowing any written earlier than Swan Lake for, with the outstanding exceptions of the ever-popular Giselle (1841) and Coppélia (1870), they are little known except to balletomanes.

Nevertheless, one other pre-Tchaikovsky ballet has recently experienced something of a popular revival. For many years, the best opportunity to see Adam’s 1856 blockbuster Le Corsaire was via one of two versions widely available on DVD – a recording of the Kirov Ballet’s 1987 production (Warner Music Vision 9031-71483-2) and another, very different one danced by American Ballet Theatre and dating from a decade later (Arthaus Musik 100 066). Since 2014, however, several new accounts have been filmed for home viewing. Choreographer Kader Belarbi’s enjoyably inventive production for Ballet de Capitole (review), was quickly followed by Anna-Marie Holmes’s much-admired version danced by English National Ballet (review). Both were, in my view, superseded by Wiener Staatsballett’s recent account (review), in spite of a serious lack of chemistry between its star dancers. Now comes a recording of a La Scala, Milan, performance that also opts for Anna-Marie Holmes’s distinctive take on the ballet.

There is, of course, no such thing as a standard version of Le Corsaire. Mid-19th century ballet was considered an ephemeral entertainment rather than an art form, so little if any effort was made to preserve an ur-text, either of the score itself or of the choreography. A production’s subsequent revivals often took its storyline in entirely novel directions, used different selections of the original score and added random music by other composers. Thus, nowadays Le Corsaire is usually billed as a hybrid composition, primarily by Adolphe Adam but with additional contributions by Cesare Pugni, Léo Delibes, Riccardo Drigo, Prince Pyotr van Oldenburg, Ludwig Minkus, Yuly Gerber, Baron Boris Fintinhof-Schell and Albert Zabel, all of whom knowingly added extra material to various productions. That list excludes, of course, those composers who were unknowingly involved, and one imagines that Frédéric Chopin, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Karl Goldmark, Antonin Dvořák and Edvard Grieg, among others, would have been somewhat disconcerted to find their utterly unrelated scores plundered from time to time to accompany Le Corsaire’s tales of yo-ho-ho, shiver-me-timbers derring-do on the high seas.

Meanwhile, that story itself – never too closely related to Lord Byron’s original poem - had also been pulled about this way and that. One of the most significant alterations over time has been the addition of a major new role, that of the slave Ali. Today he is one of Le Corsaire’s best-known characters, for his Act 2 sequence with the heroine Medora has become a popular exhibition piece. His part was, however, only introduced after the Russian Revolution when the Soviet Union’s ballet commissars insisted that the story must include a suitably heroic representative of the downtrodden proletariat. Another equally bizarre alteration occurred more recently, when the aforementioned 1987 Kirov Ballet production chose to transfer the climactic shipwreck that traditionally ends the ballet – and which audiences at the ballet’s premiere apparently considered the most stupendous stage effect that they had ever seen - to its opening.

It makes sense, therefore, to compare this new La Scala release specifically with the only other available version of Anna-Marie Holmes’s realization of Le Corsair – that by English National Ballet. Both performances share, as you might expect, a number of distinguishing characteristics. Possibly the most notable is Ms Holmes’s useful simplification of the story. In spite of what you might read elsewhere, it is worth pointing out that any possible confusion arises not so much from a complex plot (it’s actually quite straightforward) as from the multiplicity of characters on an unusually crowded stage. Let’s not forget, after all, that Le Corsair is a ballet with two heroines, both identically dressed as harem girls and consequently difficult to distinguish from each other if you’re sitting at the back of the stalls, as well as two villains who, particularly during the first Act when their characters haven’t yet acquired much in the way of individually distinctive nastiness, are equally easily confused.

In general, Ms Holmes also has a fine sense of theatre and a real knack of playing to the audience’s gut emotions. Thus, while it seems currently fashionable to give the big production number of the celebrated fantasy episode Le jardin animée (act 3, Scene 2) a diminuendo ending, she has opted for a grander percussion-heavy version that undeniably provides the audience with a thorough and very welcome emotional catharsis at that particular point of the production. I do wish, though, that the same approach had been taken to the ballet’s closing pages where, with an abbreviated and thus somewhat anticlimactic storm-and-shipwreck sequence and an inexplicable decision to eschew the return of the gorgeous lovers’ theme (which proves a particularly effective touch in, for instance, the Wiener Staatsballett performance), an effective trick has surely been missed.

Moving to direct comparison of the La Scala and English National Ballet productions, the Milan performance certainly makes a greater visual impact. It is simply more colorful than the English version, for the latter majors on dour, darker hues, often yellows or russets, that may have worked on a large theatrical stage (as it did when I saw the production some years ago at the Bristol Hippodrome) but are rather less effective on a small TV screen. I also found the video direction rather better at La Scala, where we are given a useful mixture of long-shots, medium-shots and close-ups as appropriate to the action. By contrast, the English National Ballet filmed performance has fewer close-up shots – a significant loss when, as well as adding extra detail to the visual image, they can, when judiciously applied, pack a powerful emotional punch.

Of the performances, Alina Cojocaru’s technically superb dancing for the English company is beautifully nuanced, as are her moving facial expressions, but I’m not altogether sure that a garishly-coloured, all-action piece like Le Corsaire has much to gain from too much sophistication. Indeed, it could well be argued that the heroine Medora’s main characteristic is not so much modest demureness as determined spunk, a quality that Nicoletta Manni conveys in spades in the Italian production.

Milan also gives us a more effective male lead, for the English company’s Vadim Muntagirov – virtually unrecognizable here as he sports a stick-on moustache that wouldn’t have disgraced a Village Person - has always been at his best with roles requiring introspection, diffidence and sensitivity. Spectacular leaps notwithstanding, he isn’t ideally suited to the role of Le Corsaire’s Conrad. La Scala’s Timofej Andrijashenko makes a far more convincing balletic Errol Flynn, though even he is eclipsed by Wiener Staatsballett’s Robert Gabdullin who splices a mainbrace with incomparable insouciance and piratical style. Both Cojocaru/Muntagirov and Manni/Andrijashenko form well-matched and convincing partnerships, however, which, given the absence of chemistry between Mr Gabdullin and his own Medora, Maria Yakovleva, offers some compensation.

All other roles are well danced in both the La Scala and English National Ballet performances, though I must pick out the delightfully hammy overacting of ENB’s Michael Coleman who dances (or, more accurately, waddles) through the part of the overweight pasha. Both dancers taking the part of the slave Ali do so with the immense panache that the role – a favorite party piece of Rudolf Nureyev – demands, but the Italian Mattia Semperboni deserves a special mention as it seems that he had initially stepped up from the ranks of the corps de ballet to take the role after a principal dancer had been injured. He is rightly awarded a solo bow after his Act 2 showpiece.

The remaining un-promoted members of the corps de ballet, meanwhile, do an effective job as various pirates, slave dealers, soldiers, townsfolk and odalisques (that delightful euphemism favoured by Victorian prudes, but today only ever used by art historians or ballet critics). The corsairs’ attempts to appear authentically murderous are compromised, however, by some deficient and unconvincing props, with the audience’s suspension of disbelief instantly undermined by some seriously underpowered pistol shots and wooden swords that disconcertingly clack rather than clang (presumably less hidebound by Health & Safety regulations, English National Ballet’s weaponry sounds much more like the real thing).

Meanwhile, Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala players give a good account of the jolly score under the direction of Patrick Fournillier, though it doesn’t, I think, quite match that of the Orchestra of English National Ballet, from whom Gavin Sutherland coaxes a rather rougher sound that’s an appropriate – and most attractive – match for an essentially unsophisticated piece of (once) popular entertainment.

In summary, if you haven’t yet acquired a recorded performance of Anna-Marie Holmes’s version of Le Corsaire, the new La Scala, Milan, account is just, on balance, the better option – though not necessarily, I think, a compulsory purchase if you already own the earlier version from English National Ballet.

Rob Maynard

Previous review (DVD): Raymond Walker

Medora: Nicoletta Manni
Gulnare: Martina Arduino
Conrad: Timofej Andrijashenko
Lankendem: Marco Agostino
Birbanto: Antonino Sutera
Ali: Mattia Semperboni
Zulmea: Antonella Albano
Three odalisques: Virna Toppi, Maria Celeste Losa and Alessandra Vassallo
Pasha: Alessandro Grillo
Two corsair couples: Emanuela Montanari, Mariafrancesca Garritano, Christian Fagetti and Massimo Garon

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