Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker, Marinsky Theatre [Blu-ray]
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Filmed at The Mariinsky Theatre St.Petersburg, where it was first performed in 1892, comes this adult version of the Nutcracker. Worlds away from the traditional and warm versions popular at Christmas, this unconventional production, reinterpreted by Russian emigre and world-renowned avant-garde artist Mikhail Shemiakin, is a surreal, and at times disturbing, piece. Two of the Mariinsky's young stars, Leonid Sarafanov and Irina Golub, dance the main roles, and Valery Gergiev conducts.
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The ballet establishment, which wants things to stay the way they've "always" been, has assailed Chemiakin's Nutcracker with one invective after another. These "traditionalists" sound exactly like the entrenched conservatives who lambasted Marius Petipa's original production in 1892.
"A more tedious work was never seen," the St. Petersburg Gazette declared. "Ballet is sliding downhill," the New York Times reported. "Unimaginable bad taste," pronounced Vladimir Telyakovsky, an ex-army colonel who would wrangle his way into becoming director of the Imperial Theatres in 1901 and force out the venerated octogenarian Petipa. The Nutcracker went into storage.
For a 1919 revival, choreographer Alexander Gorsky, who had been hired by Telyakovsky, altered Petipa's libretto for Act II into a dream from which Masha (the Russian diminutive of Maria) awakes and returns home. This departed significantly from the storyline that Tchaikovsky had set to music, in which the fantasy land is real and Masha remains there forever. But Gorsky's rewrite became cemented as "the way we've always done it," and The Nutcracker devolved into sentimentality.
If you look at photos of the fanciful costumes worn in the early productions, at the whimsical architecture of cathedrals in St. Petersburg and the elaborate ornamentation of Russian interior and exterior design, if you consider the lavish Imperial Easter eggs created by Peter Fabergé during the era of The Nutcracker's genesis, you can see how this staging embodies the spirit of the ballet's original conception.
On the podium, Gergiev keeps up a brisk tempo, and scenes fly by faster than everything can be taken in at first. Before long, though, Gergiev's pace sounds exactly right, and it is the slower tempo of "the way we've always done it" that sounds wrong.
More ambiguous than the avuncular figure we've grown accustomed to, Chemiakin's Drosselmeyer is a sometimes sinister, sometimes comic stage manager whose ultimate goals are mysterious. Played to the hilt by Anton Adasinsky, Drosselmeyer resembles Petipa himself, who was described in his later years as "this small, hunched but always-elegant old man with a neatly trimmed Van Dyke and a gold-rimmed pince-nez." Everything makes more sense if we see Drosselmeyer here as a representation of Petipa (who had a sort of back-and-forth, tug-of-war working relationship with Tchaikovsky during The Nutcracker's composition), directing traffic onstage and leading the action -- sometimes seemingly against his own will -- toward the ending to which the music is driving it.
Initially, the Mariinsky crowd seems skittish, but by the arrival of the Transformation Scene, the audience, like Masha, is caught up in an extraordinary adventure. The battle is ferocious, filled with the fog of war, and victory leads to a dramatic Snowstorm featuring a children's chorus onstage and Yekaterina Kondaurova as a spectacular Queen of the Snowflakes.
In Chemiakin's production, the Snowstorm is not simply a stop on the way to the Confiturenburg. It also marks a burial of Masha's previous life, an essential step on the path of her rebirth. By the time she and the Nutcracker board the conveyance that will carry them to the Prince's realm and the curtain drops on Act I, the once-skeptical Mariinsky audience erupts into shouts of "Bravo!" and resounding applause, well deserved.
Irina Golub, a delightful Masha, dances on pointe for the first time when she and her Nutcracker Prince (Leonid Sarafanov) arrive at the phantasmagoria known as the Confiturenburg. On Blu-ray, it's out of this world. In this uncut Nutcracker, all the dances of Act II are performed. Especially memorable are Kondaurova's sinuous Arabian Dance (or the Dance of the Eastern Snake-charmers) and the corps de ballet's Waltz of the Flowers, as sumptuous as you'd want it to be. Golub executes a nimble Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, and for once, the Apotheosis isn't spoiled by having Masha beat a trite retreat back to the mundane home she left behind.
Besides a booklet with helpful liner notes, the Blu-ray (but not the DVD) includes a 48-minute bonus, "The Nutcracker Story," with historical accounts and interviews that furnish valuable insight into the ballet's origin and Chemiakin's production.
I've watched this Nutcracker from start to finish six times, and on each viewing, I see something I hadn't noticed before. It's an inexhaustible source of enjoyment I will return to over and over.
Overall it's create very magical, festive ballet. Choreography is, probably, the weakest point of this production, but on occasion it is great (yes, Snowflakes, Arabian dance-coffee ).
Dancing is very, very good. I wish dancers have more choreography to work with. Gergiev conducting is on occasion rushed and glosses over intricacies of the score. Quality of recording and camera work is great. Bonus material is OK, very mildly informative.
This is an good Blu-ray for children, because it's so magical and for connoisseur es, because it's a well done new production.
Fortunately the video producer, Denis Caiozzi, does not hate ballet like the producer of the recent Swan Lake video from the same stage. What a relief to see a dancer go through a whole set of interesting maneuvers without ever being interrupted by a useless video cut. There still are more half-shots than necessary. The opening pantomimes don't require any complicated footwork, but they are still dancers and still using their feet. So what benefit do we gain from seeing them cut off at the knee? See, editor guys, it is like this: high-definition programs are going to be watched on large monitors. So people don't need closeups the way we used to. Seeing the whole stage was frustrating on the small screen, but on the large screens seeing a tiny part of the stage is such a waste. So blu-ray videos need a whole different kind of camerawork. The video resolution is good enough that the naked eye can pick out details and place them in their proper context.
I know that the great city of Saint Petersburg knows the value of the long shot, because the longest film ever comprising a single, continuous take of footage was recently filmed there, at the Hermitage Museum, on 23 December 2001. In fact, Valery Gergiev makes a cameo appearance in that film, called RUSSIAN ARK, which lasts 96 minutes on a single camera take. That kind of thing requires far more intelligence aforethought than all the mindless intercutting of camera angles that pester the life out of ballet films. My dream is to see Alexander Sokurov, the genius behind RUSSIAN ARK, do a ballet film for the Mariinsky some time.
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This Mariinsky Theatre version is brilliant, inovative, and totally...Read more
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