Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake
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Agnès Letestu, a feminine and warm Odette, and José Martinez, a convincing, pale, vulnerable prince Siegfried, are the stars of this deeply passionate, ‘dream’ version of Swan Lake. Rudolf Nureyev's interpretation of Tchaikovsky's lyrical ballet, far from being a clichéd stereotype of this celebrated masterpiece, is an exposé of astonishingly powerful and recognisable human emotions. Under the inspired and clearcut musical direction of Vello Pähn, this production of one of the jewels of the Paris Opera Ballet's repertoire brilliantly displays the meticulous precision, technical prowess and pure, unmannered style of the company's unrivalled female corps de ballet, eliciting an ethereal, intense beauty captured for DVD in High Definition video and superb surround sound.Press Reviews
"This Parisian Swan Lake offers the reworked choreography which Nureyev devised for his 1984 production of the ballet and which has remained a favoured recital ever since...Readers used to traditional views of the ballet should see this gripping newcomer." (The Penguin Guide)
"…their [Agnès Letestu & José Martinez] dancing was sensational, and Letestu in particular was magnificent. She was soft, lyrical yet aristocratic as Odette, as befits her slender, long-limbed body and her mime scene was of intense beauty...Letestu is outstanding as Odile, both in her technical prowess and artistic interpretation." (Culture Kiosque)
"Vello Pähn is quite simply one of the best dance conductors I’ve ever heard, capturing the full suavity of the waltzes, the panache of the national dances in Act III (shunted towards the beginning) and the full blazing tragedy of the final lakeside scene. " (BBC Music Magazine)Cast
Agnès Letestu (Odette)
José Martinez (Prince Siegfried)
Karl Paquette (Wolfgang / Rothbart)
Paris Opera Orchestra; Vello Pähn
Company: Paris Opera Ballet
Choreographer: Rudolf Nureyev
Catalogue Number: OABD7001D
Running Time: 145 minutes
Sound: 2.0 & 5.0 PCM
Aspect Ratio: 1080i High Definition / 16:9
Subtitles: EN, FR, DE, ES, IT
Label: Opus Arte
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On the plus side, Letestu is a plaintive, haunting, lyrical, captivating, Odette. Her Odile has a nice edge to it. Her dancing is superb. The camerawork and cutting is excellent giving depth and complexity to the performance that I enjoyed. Nureyev's extended choreography seems to have added variety and complexity to many of the corps scenes.
On the negative side, first, this is a minimalist production with mostly bare stage, little scenery, which stands in the way of my expectations for a mystical, ethereal experience. The most glaring fault, though, for me is the intrusive inclusion of the tutor/Rothbart character as a principal dancer, often competing with and interfering with the prince, making many of the dances pas de trois rather than deux. I understand that this was Nureyevs intent, his contribution and take on the ballet giving it his unique interpretation. This may work for some; it did not for me.
These questions raise central issues in our reception of the Paris Opera Ballet's 2005 Swan Lake, choreographed in 1984 by the late Rudolf Nureyev. The cover on Opus Arte's Blu-ray gives equal billing to Tchaikovsky and Nureyev. In fact, going beyond Nureyev's 1964 film Tchaikovsky - Swan Lake, his later view of Swan Lake no longer simply makes it Siegfried's ballet. It becomes Nureyev's ballet.
Nureyev employs his own variation of mid-20th century choreographer Vladimir Burmeister's opening. During the overture, the prince (José Martinez) dreams in his golden chair -- the only prop on the spacious, otherwise empty stage -- of a beautiful princess threatened by a bird of prey. The princess (longtime Paris star Agnès Letestu, who has since retired) enters upstage behind him, glances over her shoulder nervously, and exits. Wheeling in from the wings comes a figure who at this point represents Rothbart (Karl Paquette), sporting a billowing, floor-length cape under which he apparently rides a Segway, and swoops around the stage glaring daggers at Siegfried.
The princess re-enters atop the six steps of stairs that stretch across the rear of the stage and comes under attack by Rothbart, who envelopes her within the folds of his massive cape. As they drop off behind the stairway and out of sight, Siegfried's sleep grows agitated. The rising figures of Rothbart and a feathery Odette are seen on the backdrop, and the ballet proper begins.
Then ensues the most interminable Act I out of 14 or 15 Swan Lake videos I've seen. For the first time, I longed for a jester. Nureyev's choreography is boring, pointless. If you didn't already know what was supposed to be happening, you wouldn't. Overhead shots of geometrical designs formed by the corps de ballet -- which unfortunately recur throughout -- recall the Esther Williams aquamovies of the 1940s and '50s.
At this point enters Paquette, decked out in bright, multi-colored plumage that dominates over Siegfried's pale blue and gray. We have seen this fellow before, as Rothbart. Now, he has become a conflation of Wolfgang the tutor and Siegfried's friendly aide Benno. Whatever name we assign to this character, his Mephistophelian role is to manipulate Siegfried along a path of tragic self-discovery.
After the queen has given the prince a golden crossbow (which animates him for the first time) and admonishes him about his need to marry (which he clearly finds distasteful), Siegfried is led by Wolfgang/Rothbart in a short pas de deux, then eight male couples dance together before leaving the stage to Siegfried and Wolfgang/Rothbart alone. Siegfried performs a long nobody-understands-me solo before he and Wolfgang/Rothbart engage in a more extended pas de deux that leaves the prone but grateful prince at his master's command. With the crossbow placed in his hands, the prince heads to the Lake of the Swans in search of himself. And without a break, Act II begins.
The barren stage hardly resembles a lakeside. Only a distant backdrop indicates the change of locale. And we get more of Nureyev's confusing choreography. Effective camera work could invite our involvement, but besides the aquamovie shots that keep us at a distance, we are also subjected to odd closeups. Hands, for example, seem to be an obsession. Feet are often cut off -- or nothing but feet are shown. It's disorienting
Martinez and Letestu duly execute the dance moves -- Letestu especially well -- but no chemistry is evident between them. When segments of Ivanov's 1895 choreography peek through, things work better, despite the meaningless solo for Siegfried that Nureyev inserts between the Big Swans' dance and Odette's solo.
As Act III proceeds with Siegfried's rejection of prospective brides, Martinez remains so passive and disinterested that we, too, grow bored. Then a jolt of energy strikes when Odile enters, and this Odile has some character. Letestu is a Belle Dame Sans Merci, a cruel temptress who lures only to reject. Kudos to Letestu, but then this isn't her first Swan Lake rodeo.
Nureyev, however, turns the pas de deux between Siegfried and Odile into a pas de trois in which Odile becomes little more than connective tissue between Siegfried and Rothbart. In addition, Rothbart is given an unaccustomed solo to unfamiliar music, just before Odile's fouettés -- which, in this disconcerting context, seem like a desperate attempt to restore her rightful place in the course of events.
In his own way, Nureyev follows Tchaikovsky's original ending, and Act IV moves toward its impending disaster -- even if the aquamovie shots continue and even if we must have another pas de trois that ends with Rothbart flinging away Siegfried with one hand and directing Odette toward the precipice at the back of the stage with the other.
It's easy to miss what happens to Odette at the very end, because the focus is on Siegfried and Rothbart dancing together in the foreground until a spent Siegfried leaps into Rothbart's arms and the evil manipulator exults in his triumph. Anticlimactically, hidden behind Rothbart's voluminous cape, Odette steps off the short stairway and disappears. It's easy to miss that she's committed suicide until Rothbart steps off after her, and recalling the very opening scene of his capturing the princess and carrying her upward as his prey, a similar vision is projected against the backdrop, as Siegfried reaches helplessly after them.
If the disc is short on extras, the booklet is long on psychobabble to explain and justify Nureyev's Swan Lake and includes at least one egregious error. François Roussillon writes that in composing Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky was influenced by Delibes' Sylvia. Quite the opposite. Tchaikovsky said if he'd heard Sylvia's orchestral score before composing Swan Lake, he'd have been too intimidated to write it.
If you think Nureyev's Swan Lake is good, that's fine. As long as you know it's Nureyev's.
The production values are excellent -the scenery is restrained and complements the dancers without dominating them, the lighting is unobtrusive in setting mood changes and the pastel costuming is elegant and appropriate. The PO corps de ballet is (as always) highly skilled and large groupings move effortlessly around the stage - they are a pleasure in their own right. As for the Principals, I would choose words like imperious over icy,and anguished instead of impersonal for Agnes Letestu. She dances silkily with precision and manages the dual roles with convincing changes of emotion -e.g. the closeup of Odile's ominously wicked smile on her entry to meet the Prince. Martinez as her companion is less overt but his style is controlled elegance and if you are familiar with it then you will know what to expect.
Karl Paquette I liked in Paquita and he is also well cast in the tutor's role and as a suitably Machiavellian Rothbart rather than the usual openly evil characterisation - with a bonus of getting the best costuming. Overall an engaging production well worth having with one shortcoming that is still too common with video directors who do not appreciate that closeups of dancers rarely work. A notable exception is mentioned above,but there were still too many for my taste. They interfere with the flow and invariably work against the performance - you don't see them from the circle and neither should we on dvd. That apart the spread of shots from different angles (and above) was seamless and no significant moments were missed so together with a soundtrack also superb in surround sound this version of Nureyev's production is highly recommended.