I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Grigorovich’s Golden Age revived

Dmitri Shostakovich: The Golden Age
Nina Kaptsova – Rita, a young girl
Ruslan Skvortsov – Boris, a young fisherman
Mikhail Lobukhin – Yashka, a gang leader
Ekaterina Krysanova – Lyushka, Yashka’s accomplice
Vyacheslav Lopatin – Variety show compere
Artists of the Bolshoi Ballet

The Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, Pavel Klinichev
Choreography by Yuri Grigorovich.
Filmed live at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, October 2016
BelAir Classiques Blu-ray BAC443, 103 min, PCM 2.0, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

The Bolshoi in The Golden Age

The Bolshoi in The Golden Age

After a two year break the successful “Bolshoi Ballet HD Collection”, released by the Paris-based video label BelAir Classiques, is back on track again with Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Golden Age, the last ballet from long-time Bolshoi director Yuri Grigorovich. “Last” may be somewhat misleading here, since The Golden Age – or The Age of Gold, as may be more common – was premiered as long ago as 1982, but turned out to be the final original creation of the Bolshoi master. And come to think of it, the age wasn’t particularly golden at the time of the ballet’s premiere, as criticism against Grigorovich’s authoritative rule and artistic output was gradually mounting and would eventually lead to his eviction some ten years later – but that’s another story.

Fact is, most of Grigorovich’s ballets remained in the Bolshoi repertory, often resurfacing after several years in a more or less updated guise. The Golden Age is performed only by the Bolshoi and has unlike other Grigorovich’s ballets never been staged elsewhere. In Moscow it was last danced ten years ago and recently revived again in the lead-up to the 90th anniversary celebrations of the choreographer earlier this year. While undoubtedly not a masterpiece, this is the first official release of the ballet on Blu-ray and DVD and will be most welcome to all devotees of the Bolshoi and Russian ballet.

Grigorovich’s The Golden Age is itself an adaptation of the 1930 production, which like all evening-length ballets composed by Dmitri Shostakovich fell out of grace and was banned soon after the premiere. The blatant Communist rejection of so-called bourgeois decadence of the original plot, culminating in a soccer match between soviet youths and bourgeois fascists, was recycled into a love story set against the conflict between pure white-clad fishermen and a depraved black-shirted gang of thugs in some 1920’s Russian seaport. It’s the same naive black and white opposition, but the luggage is far less heavy this time. The inclusion of references to Lenin’s New Economic Policy in the rework however will be lost on most viewers today.

Seeing the ballet again, for all its simplicity, I still feel it is confusingly told, while much of Grigorovich’s stylized choreography is too crude and repetitive to survive the 100 or so minutes running time. As for the Bolshoi’s current take on it, I guess it helps if you haven’t seen the original casts in the 1980s. Today’s Ruslan Skvortsov, Nina Kaptsova, Mikhail Lobukhin and Ekaterina Krysanova are excellent dancers, yet none will ever erase memories of an Irek Mukhamedov or a Gediminas Taranda, who could transform cardboard into intensely potent characters. But that’s just how it goes with revivals: different times, different dancers, same ballets. Surprisingly perhaps for the Bolshoi, it are the quieter moments, like the love adagio’s between Kaptsova and Skvortsov, that work best here.

This new installment in the “Bolshoi Ballet HD Collection”, filmed live in October 2016 on the smaller New Stage of the Bolshoi Theatre, is visually and soundwise a real treat. As we have come to expect from the Vincent Bataillon/François Duplat team The Golden Age offers a first-rate ballet-at-home experience. Thankfully gone are the days of shoddy Soviet filming, unable to master the frequent changes from bright to dark in these productions. The full HD transfer on Blu-ray looks particularly impressive with a wealth of detail and lovely, natural colors. Camerawork is as good as it gets with a well-judged mix between longshots and close-ups.

The sonics are equally superb in the 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio mix, enhancing the impact of Shostakovich’s brilliant music. His ballet scores remain largely unknown to the general public, except perhaps in the form of suites. This is the young composer at his most confidently satirical, exemplifying in his music the capitalist depravity with a series of parodied western dance forms like polka, tango and foxtrot. Grigorovich interpolated the slow movements from Shostakovich’s Piano Concertos for the lyrical moments in his adaptation. Interestingly, they give the score which can at times sound relentless a rounder appearance. It all comes vividly alive by the Bolshoi Orchestra under Pavel Klinichev.

This release comes without any extras. Bolshoi fans won’t hesitate to purchase this title, of course, and BelAir Classiques serves them well with splendid video and audio quality. Yet the older ones won’t be entirely convinced by the Bolshoi’s current way with The Golden Age.

© 2017 Marc Haegeman. All rights reserved


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Matsuev at the Royal Concertgebouw

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Seasons, Op. 37a
Robert Schumann: Kreisleriana, Op. 16
Igor Stravinsky: Three Movements from Petrushka

Denis Matsuev, piano
EuroArts DVD 3075408 – NTSC 16:9 – PCM Stereo/Dolby Digital 5.0/DTS 5.0 – 105 mins

Denis Matsuev at the Royal Concertgebouw

Denis Matsuev at the Royal Concertgebouw

The policies of the music labels are sometimes hard to follow. Take this new release from EuroArts. A live recital from one of the top pianists of the moment in one of the world’s best concert venues is filmed in high-definition, only to be released on a DVD instead of a Blu-ray. As if to underline this aberration EuroArts uploaded a tantalizing clip on Youtube in full HD, as if to say: “This is what we could have given you, but we still preferred to give you a downgraded version in lossy sound.” Go figure.

All the more a shame because this Denis Matsuev concert is beautifully filmed, lit and edited (courtesy of Sébastien Glas and the French Idéale Audience team), taking full advantage of the magnificent Amsterdam Concertgebouw setting. I attended this recital in October 2015 and back then it was with the ravishing Tchaikovsky Seasons, not often heard in complete form in the concert-hall, that Matsuev left the strongest impression.

Revisiting the recital now from the comfort of the living room, it’s still the Tchaikovsky that’s worth the price of admission for me. Matsuev is a fabulous pianist, as we all know. Yet he isn’t always the most subtle musician. His technique allows him to tackle about everything with complete freedom. Yet it’s exactly this freedom which can get the better of his musical intelligence and poetic instinct. At his best, though, Matsuev finds a balance between his big, overwhelming sound-sculpting and the nuances of the text. When he does, he can be utterly compelling, as in most of the Tchaikovsky here. When not, he can be utterly monochrome and even cartoonish. As in Schumann’s Kreisleriana and, perhaps surprisingly, in parts of Stravinsky’s Petrushka too.

In Tchaikovsky’s Seasons Matsuev captures the character of each of the pieces with precision. He is mesmerizing when he slows down and lets the music breathe in sheer contrast to the more eruptive passages. Characteristically for Tchaikovsky, the often deceptively joyous air is balanced by a darker undercurrent, effortlessly captured by the pianist. Every month may be crafted into a miniature gem, it’s Matsuev’s sense of unity, which makes you forget Tchaikovsky composed them on a monthly basis, that is the most impressive.

I wasn’t that convinced by Matsuev’s rendition of Keisleriana and neither I am now. It’s German 19th-century romanticism in an average modern, 21st-century Russian translation. While obviously focused and articulated, Matsuev is emphatic and relentless, even aggressive, verging on the demonstrative in the more turbulent passages. His sonority turns uniformly loud and booming, lacking in contrast and color. It isn’t the recording, I had the very same impression live in the Concertgebouw where the acoustics inflated the basses even more.

Stravinsky’s Petrushka kicks off well enough, lively and well-shaped, but also loses its interest in the final Shrovetide Fair part which Matsuev turns into a steamroller of big sound (again these booming basses), rather than an attempt to bring out the harmonic and percussive possibilities of the instrument. Impressive as a knockout display of stamina and powerhouse pianism, perhaps, but hardly the stuff for repeated listening.

The recital ended with a well-constructed and well-played series of encores. From Lyadov’s Musical Snuffbox, Op. 32, over Tchaikovsky’s superb Méditation, Op. 72/5 and the rare Sibelius’ Etude in A Minor, Op. 76/2 (it’s so rare that EuroArts even forgot to list it in the booklet) to Scriabin’s turbulent Etude in D-sharp Minor, Op. 8/12 and Matsuev’s own dazzling and funny Jazz Improvisations.

Denis Matsuev fans won’t hesitate although they too will be disappointed by the lack of true HD in image and sound. Others will mainly go for the beautiful performance of a Tchaikovsky rarity.


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Farewell of an étoile

Jules Massenet: L’Histoire de Manon
Aurélie Dupont (Manon)
Roberto Bolle (Des Grieux)
Stéphane Bullion (Lescaut)
Alice Renavand (Mistress of Lescaut)
Benjamin Pech (Monsieur GM)
Karl Paquette (the Jailer)
Artists of the Paris Opera Ballet
Paris Opera Orchestra/Martin Yates
Choreography by Kenneth MacMillan, set by Karl Burnett and Gary Harris
Music by Jules Massenet arranged by Leighton Lucas, re-orchestrated by Martin Yates
Sets by Nicholas Georgiadis
BelAir Classiques BAC435, 1080i Full-HD, PCM 2.0 / DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, 125 mins (ballet) + 11 mins (bonus)

Aurelie Dupont as Manon

Aurelie Dupont as Manon

Parisian étoiles leave in style. In-house rules oblige the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet to retire at the age of 42, yet in the case of their leading dancers who bear the coveted title of “étoile” for life, the French know how to take leave of them. A festive evening is dedicated to the departing stars, a special night-out, ideally featuring a ballet of their choice. Filmed live on 18 May 2015, at the Paris Palais Garnier, this BelAir Classiques video documents the farewell performance of Aurélie Dupont, who was for more than 25 years one of the most brilliantly versatile and respected ballerinas of the company, as well as a popular artist abroad. While arguably no film could ever hope to render the nostalgia and emotion of the live event, including the particular atmosphere of the packed opera house and standing ovations that seem to go on for ages, director Cédric Klapisch at least provides a fair idea of the real thing and makes me wonder why these Parisian farewell events haven’t been released before on video.

The long opening shot which has the camera travelling from the typical straight Parisian boulevards towards and into the Palais Garnier, up the monumental staircase, across the plush auditorium and stage, and finally into the gorgeous “Foyer de la danse” where Dupont is seen rehearsing, has to be one of the most exciting intros to a ballet performance ever put on film.

Aurélie Dupont danced Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet L’Histoire de Manon for her final show. What better farewell is there than to appear one last time in an emotionally-charged role like Manon, offering passionate pas de deux and guaranteed to knock out the audience with an utterly poignant death of the heroine in the final scene? While created for London’s Royal Ballet in 1974 the French have made the ballet their own, providing an alternative approach to this eternal crowd-pleaser. A couple of older films of the Royal Ballet in Manon are still available on DVD, yet a recording of the Paris version is welcome.

For the occasion Dupont was joined by Italian star Roberto Bolle as Des Grieux. The natural elegance and sophisticated manner of both dancers upgrades the ill-fated characters in MacMillan’s graphic interpretation of Abbé Prévost’s novel considerably, especially in the last Act where they are somewhat less convincing. But overall this is a magnificent performance with a ballerina at the height of her art. Paris étoiles Stéphane Bullion, Alice Renavand, Benjamin Pech and Karl Paquette form a first-class supporting cast. Excellent support also from the Orchestra of the Paris Opera, conducted by Martin Yates who successfully gave the Massenet compilation score a new sound and life in 2011.

The picture quality in this BelAir Classiques release is unfortunately not one of the best – the monochrome, brownish designs from Nicholas Georgiadis in Acts 1 and 2 don’t fare well on screen. In longshots the spotlighting seems slightly overblown and one of the cameras has an obvious dust spot on the lens.

There are some moments where the camera seems to love Dupont a bit too much at the expense of other dancers (the evening was broadcast live in European movie theaters), but generally this is a highly recommendable ballet film. Klapisch included a short bit of the curtain calls, often more emotional than the ballet itself. However, the 11 minutes of interview with Dupont are all too short an extra. Klapisch’s 2009 documentary on the ballerina (Aurélie Dupont danse l’espace d’un instant), re-screened with the French TV broadcast of her farewell, would have been the ideal bonus for this release.

As ballet fans know, Aurélie Dupont’s farewell was far from the end of her career at the Paris Opera. In February 2016 she was appointed director of the ballet company.

Copyright © 2017 Marc Haegeman


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Aurora in Bananastan

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66
Iana Salenko (Princess Aurora)
Marian Walter (Prince Désiré)
Rishat Yulbarisov (Carabosse)
Sarah Mestrovic (Lilac Fairy)
Michael Banzhaf (King Florestan)
Beatrice Knop (The Queen)
Soloists and Corps De Ballet of the Berlin State Ballet
Orchestra of the German Opera, Berlin / Robert Reimer

BelAir Classiques BAC 131; 1080i HD, 16/9; PCM Stereo, DTS Master Audio 5.1

The Sleeping Beauty

The Sleeping Beauty

We know what the ballet The Sleeping Beauty looks like and above all what it’s worth. We know it since 1890. In case the historical productions performed by Russian and English companies to this very day aren’t proof enough, then there are still the recent reconstructions of Sergei Vikharev and Alexei Ratmansky to remind the sceptics this is a timeless creation which needs very little upgrading, least of all by the wrong hands. Why on earth contemporary dance-maker Nacho Duato was asked to make a new version of the ballet will undoubtedly puzzle future generations – provided, of course, it survives the test of time. There have been contemporary adaptations and reworkings of Beauty before, but unless they headed on a radically original course, none ever came close, let alone surpassed the original as it was conceived within the Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg by the combined talents of director Ivan Vsevolozhsky, choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Piotr Tchaikovsky.

Neither does Duato’s version. Duato created his Sleeping Beauty in 2011 during his brief stint as director of the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St. Petersburg. The brave idea allegedly was to produce a Sleeping Beauty for the 21st century. Yet that turned out to be more of a fairytale than the ballet’s subject itself. If anything the production was proof that money cannot buy everything. Duato’s Beauty still presents itself as a classical ballet, albeit one that is scuttled by a basic mistrust of text, spirit and music. The result is by and large a very unhappy wedding between classical and contemporary styles. Pointework in convulsion mode; Martha Graham as princess Aurora. Forget the multilayered complexity of the original, the fairytale atmosphere, or the enchantment.

With its truncated narrative, botched choreography and mutilated score, Duato’s staging doesn’t stand much of a chance. Tottering between hilarious (the Prologue variations, the nervous courtiers) and properly embarrassing (the scenes with that fearful Carabosse in drag), it doesn’t matter that echoes of Petipa ring through the key moments, Duato never finds his own voice. Worst of all, while this is one of the richest and most profound dance scores ever made, Duato does nothing with it. In short, a travesty of The Sleeping Beauty rather than the version for the 21st century.

The elegantly fresh sets and pastel-tinted costumes from Angelina Atlagic run away with the honors in this production. The present release from BelAir Classiques documents a performance by the Berlin State Ballet, the company Duato is heading since 2014. By all accounts the production wasn’t well received in the German capital either, which makes its release on HD video rather bizarre. Iana Salenko and Marian Walter are excellent dancers, yet in spite of their fluent partnership they never manage to crack the ice. Neither does the rest of the cast, laboring through it all with blind devotion. They deserve better than this.

Robert Reimer’s conducting is about as undramatic and bland as the activity on stage. The Orchestra of the German Opera sleepwalks through most of the score, unable to avoid some jarringly unbalanced sonorities (as in Aurora’s Variation in Act 2).

For what it’s worth, the performance is agreeably filmed by Andy Sommer. The HD cameras cope well with the sometimes harsh stage lighting of the production. The sonics are impressive and detailed, if somewhat bass heavy in the DTS Master Audio 5.1 format. This release offers no bonus materials – not that we would have been craving for any. To be shelved under forgettable.

Copyright © 2017 Marc Haegeman


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Mata Hari revived in Amsterdam

Tarik O’Regan: Mata Hari

  • Anna Tsygankova – Mata Hari / Margarethe
  • Casey Herd – Rudolph McLeod
  • Jozef Varga – General Kiepert
  • Artur Shesterikov – Vadim de Masloff
  • Young Gyu Choi – Shiva
  • Wen Ting Guan – Temple Dancer
  • Dancers of Dutch National Ballet, Students and pupils of Dutch National Ballet Academy

Music by Tarik O’Regan
Dutch Ballet Orchestra/Matthew Rowe
Choreography by Ted Brandsen
EuroArts Blu-ray 2061624 Widescreen / PCM Stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio / 95m + 26m bonus

Mata Hari by the Dutch National Ballet

Mata Hari by the Dutch National Ballet

A brand new evening-length narrative ballet with a newly commissioned score, eye-catching designs, and a rather unusual subject is a rarity today. Mata Hari is an extraordinary ballet, a real tour de force, created this year in Amsterdam for Dutch National Ballet and now available on video courtesy of EuroArts.

Women spies – or spies in general, for that matter – don’t make an obvious subject for a ballet. Yet, the Dutch Margaretha Zelle (1876-1917) aka Mata Hari, suspected of being a double agent and shot by a French army firing squad, had also been an infamous dancer in her time. On the crest of the Belle Epoque’s fascination with exoticism she became an international sensation overnight when she performed a daring Javanese temple dance in 1905 Paris. She later wanted to join Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes, but was unsuccessful. In any case, her unusual and very turbulent life from small-town petty bourgeois girl to worldly-wise femme fatale enclosed enough drama for Ted Brandsen, artistic director of Dutch National Ballet, to turn it into a remarkable ballet.

It’s remarkable that in these lean times for the arts no expenses and efforts were spared for bringing Mata Hari to the stage. Ted Brandsen took care of the choreography and assembled an international artistic team – the Dutch dramaturge and author Janine Brogt gave shape to Mata Hari’s life in the libretto, the British composer Tarik O’Regan set it to music in a 90-minute score for large orchestra, the Dutch designers duoClement & Sanôu conceived the framework of decors and lights, and the French designer François-Noël Cherpin created more than 300 costumes from key episodes in Mata Hari’s life – including late 19th-century Friesland, Dutch colonial life on Java, and Paris in the Belle Epoque.

Involving a cast of 60 dancers and an orchestra of 76 musicians, Mata Hari opened in Amsterdam’s Muziektheater on 6 February 2016, quickly becoming a box-office success. It is ballet on an epic scale and of a superhuman sweep we hardly ever see any more. Brandsen’s choreography is firmly rooted in the classical idiom, but adds formal freedom for expressive purposes. The title role was created on Dutch National’s first soloist Anna Tsygankova who gives a performance of a lifetime. She is joined by several leading dancers, including Casey Herd as Margarethe’s husband Rudolph McLeod, Jozef Varga as the German general Kiepert, and Artur Shesterikov as her final Russian lover Vadim de Masloff. With its almost continuous succession of ensembles, duets and solos, as a ballet Mata Hari is company work at its most inspired.

Filmed in the opening run by the independent Amsterdam-based production company 3 Minutes West, Mata Hari was initially broadcast live on worldwide Mezzo TV and is now available on Blu-ray and DVD, looking and sounding pretty stunning. Attractively directed by Jeff Tudor, the visuals of this release are a treat. The high-definition cameras reveal Cherpin’s brilliantly colorful costumes with startling detail. Tarik O’Regan composed in his first effort for ballet a compelling score, which shares influences of American minimalism and Benjamin Britten (his music for the ballet Prince of the Pagodas comes to mind), but finds his own voice in its complex rhythmic layering and memorable lyrical passages. It offers the ideal accompaniment for the narrative and is performed with great impact by the Dutch Ballet Orchestra. Beautifully recorded in surround sound and PCM stereo, the Blu-ray offers a highly enjoyable evening at the ballet in your home.

Mata Hari includes a useful “The Making Of” documentary (26 min.) which could well serve as a model for future new ballet releases. It accompanies the viewer through the three-year-long creative process with short but well-chosen interviews and rehearsal clips. Brandsen describes Zelle’s life as “a raging torrent” and emphasizes her uncanny talent for transformation and reinvention. In his ballet, scenes flash by in cinematographic manner, but no matter the intensity, the image of an extraordinary woman shines through, a willful character in a male dominated society, but eventually victim of her own mythomania. Her execution following her involvement with high-ranking army officers can be read as the ultimate statement of disapproval by a society not ready yet for women of her caliber. Mata Hari may be more timeless than we expect.

If ever a contemporary ballet deserved to be captured on film it had to be Dutch National’s Mata Hari. Warmly recommended.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/o/opu61624blua.php
Photography from the production: http://www.for-ballet-lovers-only.com/matahari-hnb/index.html

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The Royal Ballet’s “La fille mal gardée”

Ferdinand Hérold: La fille mal gardée (The Wayward Daughter)

  • Natalia Osipova – Lise
  • Steven McRae – Colas
  • Philip Mosley – Widow Simone
  • Christopher Saunders – Thomas
  • Paul Kay – Alain

Artists of the Royal Ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Barry Wordsworth
Choreography by Frederick Ashton
Music by Ferdinand Hérold arranged and orchestrated by John Lanchbery
Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7187D 110m (+features 14m) LPCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio

fillemalgardeeThis is the third video release from the Royal Ballet in less than two years featuring Natalia Osipova. Following Giselle (Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7151D) and Swan Lake (Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7174D), the Russian ballerina now heads a fine cast in Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée and this is by far the most successful of the three titles. Incidentally, as was the case with Swan Lake, the Royal Ballet’s La Fille mal gardée performed by Marianela Nunez and Carlos Acosta was released on video by Opus Arte not even ten years ago. The company clearly believes in the drawing power of their Russian star and suggests box-office successes are transferrable to home video.

Ashton’s 1960 La Fille mal gardée (or The Wayward Daughter ) is of course one of the evergreen gems from the Royal Ballet repertoire. Based on a much older French comedy ballet by Jean Dauberval which dated from the French Revolution, with Fille mal gardée Ashton delivered not only an irresistibly charming and jolly essay on beginning love, he also gave English ballet a face.

The current revival of the original production, with the lovely designs from Osbert Lancaster, is wholly respectful and appropriate. The ballet clearly ages well and it’s a delight to see how the company continues to enjoy and illuminate every step and action. Principals Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae are terrific and attractive dancers, relishing Ashton’s technical challenges just as much as the manifold comical situations. Temperamentally and stylistically they come from a different stock, and some scenes look just a tad too studied, but don’t let this spoil your pleasure: this is classical ballet at its most enchanting. Ballet lovers who already own the previous Fille ma gardée needn’t worry, the dancers are so much different one can easily have both.

Barry Wordsworth proves a reliable guide for the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in Ferdinand Hérold’s score, arranged and orchestrated by John Lanchbery. To make the feast complete, and another reason to own this new video, image and sound quality are topnotch in this Opus Arte release. Filmed live at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in May 2015, Ross MacGibbon delivers another expertly filmed ballet.

As has become a good habit in the Royal Opera House series from Opus Arte, some fifteen min of extras are included on the Blu-ray. The main dancers are seen chatting about their roles, and more interestingly, Lesley Collier, one of the best interpreters of the ballet of recent times and now coaching Osipova, reminisces about her own work with Frederick Ashton in the 1970’s.

Highly recommended for all old, and young, ballet lovers.

Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/o/opu07187blua.php


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In old Napoli

Edvard Helsted, H.S. Paulli, H.C. Lumbye and Louise Alenius: Napoli
Alban Lendorf – Gennaro
Alexandra Lo Sardo – Teresina
Benjamin Buza – Golfo
Lis Jeppesen – Veronica
Alba Nadal – Giovanina
Mette Bødtcher – Flora
Jean-Lucien Massot – Peppo
Artists of the Royal Danish Ballet
Det Kongelige Kapel/Graham Bond
Choreography by Sorella Englund, Nikolaj Hübbe after August Bournonville
Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7185D 105m Widescreen LPCM Stereo DTS HD Master Audio

Napoli

Napoli

Although the Royal Danish Ballet is one of the most prestigious and beloved companies worldwide, it has so far been largely overlooked by video producers. Centered around the repertoire of choreographer and ballet master August Bournonville the Danes preserve a cultural heritage unique in the world, begging to be preserved and shared on film. This new release on blu-ray and DVD by Opus Arte of the Bournonville classic Napoli carried all the promises of a step in the right direction. However, after seeing this video, I felt strongly tempted to paraphrase the old Bard, because clearly, all is not well yet in the state of Denmark.

This being more than anything the age that requires immediate social relevance for every public action and questions everything which has long been taken for granted, the hallowed 19th-century repertoire of Bournonville is now no longer safe from more or less drastic reinterpretations and interventions either. All very fine and large, yet the trouble is when tampering with a tradition that has been solidified for generations, you need to know very well what you are doing, what to change and what best to leave untouched, unless you want to end up with a caricature or a hack job, and had better start something entirely new. This new version of the romantic Bournonville ballet Napoli (originally dating from 1842) by Nikolaj Hübbe and Sorella Englund is neither, but still fails in the sense that it lacks the necessary authority and direction to fully support its claims as a theatrically viable alternative.

Originally a love story between a fisherman Gennaro and his girl Teresina set in the then beloved exotic locale of early 19th-century Naples, the ballet is brought forward to the 1950s in a Fellini-like setup – no more cute and lovely activity, but raw verismo with mafia references, bubblegum munching prostitutes and spaghetti sauce stains on the apron of the macaroni seller. For what it’s worth, this update is more amusing than really significant. Less convincing, however, is that the producers choose to erase the crucial religious element which was in Bournonville’s vision the cornerstone of the original story. Hübbe replaces it with love, but that’s not really enough. And even less convincing is that as a result of all the meddling Napoli now looks like a collection of three unrelated episodes. Crucial dramatic moments in the story (such as the drowning of Teresina and her miraculous reappearance) are confusingly staged or miss theatrical impact. Checking the synopsis in the booklet doesn’t help because you don’t see what you read. The second Act depicting Teresina in the sea was re-choreographed, with a newly commissioned score from the Danish composer Louise Alenius (° 1978) (something on which this release is bizarrely laconic, except for a brief note on the back of the slipcase) and that may well be the best novelty of the rework, even if dramatically the setup is as watery as the events it’s supposed to portray.

Elaborate new designs from Maja Ravn are visually striking and include some excellent stage effects, but often smother (at least on video) the dance. Even the famous third Act, which is by its feisty Bournonville choreography, gathering the whole company from children to principals on stage in a merry celebration of dance, a national Danish treasure (and remains thankfully largely unchanged in this production), looks boxed in by the obtrusive sets. Yet eventually it’s the filming which reduces this video to a dismal failure.

Shot on the Old Stage of the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen in March 2014 by Uffe Borgwardt and Peter Borgwardt, Napoli goes sadly down like the perfect example of how not to film a ballet. The hyperactive editing chops up bodies and lines in multiple angles, making it virtually impossible to follow the movements, let alone appreciate the larger structures of the choreography. Dancers are shown from all angles, except the right one, the cameras frequently zoom in on bystanders while the main action happens center stage. There is a particularly horrendous floor-level camera on the edge of the stage which distorts anything it captures and is very obviously in the sightline of other cameras.

Visuals are otherwise pretty impressive in the HD format (the close-ups reveal a wealth of details in faces and costumes), but the often bleached whites further hint at a lack of preparation and quality control. Sonics are fine even if they won’t blow you away, and March seems a particularly bad month for bronchial disorders in Denmark. There are no extras and the booklet only provides a synopsis and a short introduction from Hübbe.

All the more a shame because the dancers, especially the young leads Alban Lendorf and Alexandra Lo Sardo, are excellent. Characteristically joined by some of the older company artists like Lis Jeppesen, Mette Bødtcher and Poul-Erik Hesselkilde in mime roles, they all deserve far better than the Borgwardt team is able to give them.

Well performed, but fatally short on charm, clumsily told and abysmally filmed, here is hoping the next release from the Royal Danish Ballet will prove a better showcase of this wonderful company.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman
First published on Classical Net (http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/o/opu07185blua.php)