I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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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)


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Osipova in Swan Lake

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake
Natalia Osipova – Odette/Odile
Matthew Golding – Prince Siegfried
Elizabeth McGorian – The Princess
Gary Avis – An Evil Spirit (Von Rothbart)
Alastair Marriot – The Tutor
Francesca Hayward, Yuhio Choe,
Alexander Campbell – Pas de trois

Artists of the Royal Ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Boris Gruzin
Choreography by Marius Petipa & Lev Ivanov
Additional choreography by Frederick Ashton & David Bintley
Production by Anthony Dowell
Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7174D 133m (+18m features), LPCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio

Osipova and Golding in Swan Lake

Osipova and Golding in Swan Lake

London’s Royal Ballet continues to capitalize on the appeal of Natalia Osipova. This is the second video release of their production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in less than six years. The performance was recorded at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 17 March 2015 and live screened in cinemas across the world before being rushed to home video by Opus Arte. Yet, while this will undoubtedly be treasured by the legions of Osipova fans, and Swan Lake always sells, there is no denying it’s far from being her defining moment.

As will be remembered, the Russian star ballerina Natalia Osipova joined the Royal Ballet in 2013. She has been cast in a wide range of roles, some utterly successful, others less so. As for this Swan Lake, it seems the filming came far too early in her career, or perhaps the role is just not her thing. While there are undeniably moments of greatness, overall her reading remains too studied and predictable. It may be that her energy in the theatre was striking, on film it doesn’t project. And, once again, as with her Giselle with the Royal Ballet (Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7151D), you end up with the feeling she is essentially in the wrong production. If anything, more suitable productions of Swan Lake for her might be found on the banks of the Neva or the Moskva, but then again there is little chance she will ever dance this role in her homeland.

This being the 21st century wherein lasting partnerships in ballet are no longer valued, Osipova has been paired with various dancers. Here she is partnered by Matthew Golding, freshly arrived in the company from Amsterdam’s Dutch National. He is a magnificent dancer, but in this performance there is as yet, except for the standard expressions, very little chemistry between him and Osipova. There are moments of bad timing, as when Osipova almost knocks Golding off his feet at the beginning of the Pas de trois in the last Act, which should be avoided on video. In this respect, too, the filming came too soon.

The Royal Ballet performs Swan Lake in Anthony Dowell’s 1987 production, which incidentally is running its last season. While the choreographic text is first-rate, this version is disappointing by its lack of formal clarity. It is Swan Lake flattened beneath the fussy, overelaborate, Fabergé-eggs-inspired designs from Yolanda Sonnabend. Most scenes are overcrowded, anecdotal, while the dance looks, especially in the palace acts, stifled. The lakeside scenes have plenty of atmosphere – well rendered by the HD cameras – but unfortunately the swans’ tutus look like white hula dancers skirts. The decision to place the action in Tchaikovsky’s Russia instead of the traditional medieval setting doesn’t really help either.

Boris Gruzin conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in an unadventurous account of this beautiful score. This is mostly warm and cozy Tchaikovsky, polite and reserved, without any rough edges and very little heartfelt drama. For a theatrical performance it is actually quite bland.

All the more a shame, because visuals and sonics are, as we came to expect from this source, outstanding. It’s amazing what progress has been made in a few years. The 2009 Swan Lake was already pretty good but this new one wins on all fronts – contrast, dynamic range, color definition, detail, and sound fidelity. The barely lit lakeside scenes look absolutely stunning. Costumes reveal a marvel of detail. Ross MacGibbon directs with his usual skill, although he couldn’t avoid the claustrophobic feel of much of this production. The longshots reduce the stage and dancing space even more on film than in the theatre.

The sound mix, either in PCM 2.0 or DTS-HD Master Audio, is very impressive – warm, natural, detailed and with a very powerful bass.

Bonus features include some 18 minutes of studio rehearsal shots, chats with dancers Osipova, Golding, and ballet master Jonathan Cope, as well as an amusing tea with scones interview with producer Anthony Dowell by former Royal Ballet principal Darcey Bussell. Having extras on a ballet video is a great idea in itself, but then they should really become more substantial than what we are offered here, before we start to suspect that video producers think ballet audiences swallow nothing but the plain obvious.

In short, not a first choice for a Swan Lake video, but well worth trying for its superb image and sound quality.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman
First published on Classical Net (http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/o/opu07174blua.php)

Bewaren


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If love could be

Sergei Prokofieff: Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64
Musica Aeterna/Teodor Currentzis
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 15 March 2015

Ballet music is occasionally programmed in concert halls, in the form of a suite or selection of fragments. Full-length ballets are understandably much rarer, yet the ones that are able to survive the absence of stage action can in the right hands become spellbinding experiences. This is exactly what happened with a concert performance of Sergei Prokofieff’s 1935 Romeo and Juliet by Musica Aeterna under Teodor Currentzis. Offering under the title “If love could be” a fortnight of music events focused on the themes of passion and love, this year’s Klara Festival – the only annual broadcasting festival in Belgium – couldn’t overlook Shakespeare’s famous star-crossed lovers. But nonetheless to have the complete Prokofieff ballet music in the concert hall was still something of a miracle.

Teodor Currentzis (photo Sander Buyck)

Teodor Currentzis (photo Sander Buyck)

Teodor Currentzis is artistic director of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre and of the Musica Aeterna ensemble which he formed in 2004 and currently resides in Perm as the theatre’s main orchestra. The Greek-born maestro studied in Athens and completed his formation as conductor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with the famous Ilya Musin, teacher of among others Valery Gergiev and Semyon Bychkov. By all accounts a controversial personality, Currentzis has been dividing opinions as much by his conducting, as by his at times provocative statements and very Russian-styled manner of self-promotion. Be that as it may, his traversal of Prokofieff’s Romeo and Juliet at the Brussels Centre for Fine Arts was a real stunner.

To see him conduct his Musica Aeterna is already something of an experience. Anyone missing the dancers on stage? Currentzis replaced it with a bit of theatre of his own. A long lanky figure, hair in a tail, he is more rock star than maestro and you could hear people gasp the moment he entered the auditorium; a very Liszt-like persona in fact, half charmer, half demon – and by his attire, partly priest as well. Currentzis conducts without baton, but wildly waving his arms, hissing, tapping his feet, dancing and jumping, he seems to think he needs his whole body to draw the music out of his ensemble. It’s thankfully more than just cocky posturing and this performance proved amply that Currentzis not only has a complete understanding of this score, he also knows how to get exactly what he wants from his orchestra.

The 100 or so musicians of Musica Aeterna responded as one, playing as if their lives depended on it. That they were standing for the whole concert (only the cello players were seated) seemed to sharpen their focus. It was a sight to behold and you will be hard-pressed to find such collective fervor, dedication and joy at making music. Musica Aeterna boasts some excellent soloists too: all desk leaders of the string sections delivered magnificent solos, the first clarinet was outstanding, as was the first horn. The brass was as punchy and biting as you could wish for this music, and with the percussion clearly able to raise the dead. The strings proved a wonderfully flexible group, with Currentzis taking extra care of the polyphony of Prokofieff’s writing, revealing plenty of details in the orchestration hardly noticeable when played from the theatre pit.

The ballet came vividly alive with a great feel for theatricality, correct characterizations (even if Juliet seemed a very hot-tempered teenager during her first appearance), and without any fear of exaggeration. Taking no prisoners, Currentzis pushed dynamic contrasts to extremes and conjured the most improbable shades and colors from his orchestra, hijacking the listener for about two hours in an emotional rollercoaster.

The score was as good as complete. Currentzis cut the opening scene of Romeo (#2) after the Introduction, a few dances on the market in Act 2 as well as the second scene at Friar Laurence’s (#28), and replaced Juliet’s variation at the ball (#14) with the Morning Serenade (#48) – something which can only be explained by theatrical practice. Still, nothing essential was missing. It was played in two parts, with the interval occurring between Acts 2 and 3. This allowed Currentzis to treat each half as a continuous dramatic arch, building gradually in intensity and culminating each time in stark tragedy – the death of Tybalt in the first part, the suicide of the two lovers in the second. Musically as well as dramatically this made perfect sense as Prokofieff kept some of his most devastating music for these scenes – and Currentzis and his orchestra made sure we wouldn’t forget them that easily.

Played practically without any breaks between the numbers, as in a theatrical performance, the music gained tremendous sweep. Several scenes along the way knocked you out of your seat – the Dance of the Knights never sounded more threateningly arrogant and the two fortissimo chords of the Prince’s decree (repeated at the start of Act 3) were powerful enough to keep anyone mesmerized for the rest of the concert. Tempi were often on the fast side, but Currentzis knew when and how to slow down as in the beautifully played Madrigal offering a tender evocation of beginning love, or the comforting familiarity of friar Laurence depicted by warm cellos. The Balcony Scene, too, was lushly romantic and erupted in full-blooded passion, while the Bedroom duet breathed a sense of coming doom. The street brawls were particularly violent and the crowd scenes feted in vibrant colors.

Some minor slips notwithstanding (like the rhythmically blurred Dance with mandolins or the too prominent lower brass here and there) this was a mind-blowing performance which immediately shoots towards the top of the most memorable concerts I have attended in some time. And do we need better proof than this that ballet music of this caliber can stand on its own? Brilliant!

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman


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Natalia Osipova in Giselle

Adolphe Adam: Giselle
Natalia Osipova – Giselle
Carlos Acosta – Count Albrecht
Thomas Whitehead – Hilarion
Johannes Stepanek – Wilfred
Christopher Saunders – The Duke of Courland
Christina Arestis – Bathilde
Hikaru Kobayashi – Myrthe
Elizabeth Harrod – Moyna
Akane Takada – Zulme
Artists of the Royal Ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Boris Gruzin
Music revised by Joseph Horovitz
Choreography by Marius Petipa after Jean Coralli & Jules Perrot
Production & additional choreography by Peter Wright
Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7151D 113m (+features 10m) LPCM DTS-HD Master Audio

Giselle - Royal Ballet

Giselle – Royal Ballet

This is the second video release of the famous Romantic classic Giselle by the Royal Ballet in less than ten years time. Not that you will hear anybody complain as this new Opus Arte disc features Natalia Osipova in the title role, and her performance is just as treasurable as the earlier one of Alina Cojocaru. Russian Osipova is one of the most significant dancers to emerge in the last decade. She started her career at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet and is now firmly established in the international dance circuit. She took many by surprise when she decided to join London’s Royal Ballet in 2013.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Nureyev’s Swan Lake and Nutcracker in Vienna

The Nutcracker
Liudmilla Konovalova – Clara
Vladimir Shishov – Drosselmeyer/The Prince
Artists of the Vienna State Ballet
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Paul Connelly
Choreography by Rudolf Nureyev
Filmed live at the Vienna State Opera, 7 October 2012
Unitel Classica/C Major Blu-ray 718304, 102 min, LPCM Stereo / DTS-HD Master Audio

Swan Lake
Olga Esina – Odette/Odile
Vladimir Shishov – Prince Siegfried
Eno Peci – Rothbart, the Magician
Artists of the Vienna State Ballet
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Alexander Ingram
Choreography by Rudolf Nureyev after Marius Petipa & Lev Ivanov
Filmed live at the Vienna State Opera, 16 March 2014
Unitel Classica/C Major Blu-ray 717704, 132 min, LPCM Stereo / DTS-HD Master Audio

The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker

C Major released two Tchaikovsky bonbons straight from Vienna – The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. As the main classical ballet company in Austria, the Vienna State Ballet (Wiener Staatsballett) isn’t particularly over-represented on home video, so these recent performances filmed live in high-definition at the Vienna State Opera are definitely welcome. The driving force behind these releases is without doubt former Paris Opera Ballet étoile Manuel Legris, who is leading the Viennese company since 2010 and has by all accounts established himself as a blessed gift for the thus far slumbering Austrian troupe.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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Italian bandits in French style danced by Russians (and an American)

Adolphe Adam: Marco Spada, or The Bandit’s Daughter
David Hallberg – Marco Spada
Evgenia Obraztsova – Angela
Olga Smirnova – Marchesa Sampietri
Semyon Chudin – Prince Federici
Igor Tsvirko – Count Pepinelli
Artists of the Bolshoi Ballet
The Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra/Alexey Bogorad
Choreography by Pierre Lacotte
Filmed live at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, March 2014
BelAir Classiques Blu-ray BAC413 126m+23m (bonus) LPCM DTS-HD Master Audio

Marco Spada

Marco Spada

The “Bolshoi Ballet HD Collection” released by the independent Paris-based video label BelAir Classiques, has thus far been exemplary in producing ballet for home video, offering superb quality in all respects. The latest title in the series, Marco Spada, is unfortunately something of a mixed blessing. For one thing this ballet – a contemporary rewrite by French choreographer Pierre Lacotte of a lost 19th-century creation – is a true rarity. Marco Spada, or The Bandit’s Daughter set to music from Daniel Auber is a sparkling and colorful evening-length dance divertissement, a jolly romp in a sumptuously traditional setting, danced by a tremendous cast that assembles some of the most exciting dancers gracing the Bolshoi company at the moment. Yet all these goodies come with a price, a technical issue. There is some judder noticeable in the Blu-ray resulting in a slight stutter in movements or panning. (The disc was tried on two different players and TVs with the exact same result, while the problem was also mentioned on internet forums as well.) Nothing that would make the disc unwatchable, but still something that should have been avoided.
Read the full review on Classical Net


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The Nutcracker in Bergen

The Nutcracker, Op. 71
Bergen Pikekor
Bergen Guttekor
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
Chandos SACD CHSA5144 84:35 Multichannel Hybrid

The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker

Someone in the Chandos art department seems to have a fixation on sleeping women. With the release of The Nutcracker Neeme Järvi and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra completed their Tchaikovsky ballet trilogy and, curiously, each of the CD’s in this series features a reclined lady on the cover. Fair enough in the case of The Sleeping Beauty, but that floating ballerina corpse for Swan Lake was bizarre and now again we get a sleeping girl with a nutcracker doll in her arms. If this is their idea of an art form which is all about movement and energy, then somebody needs to hand these guys at Chandos a few tickets to attend a ballet performance once. In any case, these Tchaikovsky recordings have been rather peculiar in general, thinking of the oddities in the scores that were used, like these anomalous harp cadenzas in both Swan Lake and Beauty, but above all because of a maestro who seemed determined to disprove that old myth that ageing conductors have a tendency to slow down and become sentimental. Not so 77-year-old Neeme Järvi.

The Nutcracker has been done on a single CD before. With 84:35 Järvi isn’t even the fastest in the world, but as we all know it’s not merely about tempo choices, rather about what you do with them and how you balance them in the light of the score’s intent. With such brisk speeds the Overture and the opening numbers of the ballet can still pass on disc, even if the first grins might appear and some listeners will be thinking that this Christmas party isn’t one they would send their kids to. Still, the Bergen Philharmonic miraculously continues to ensure magnificent color and detail. Where Järvi lets us down, however, is in the bigger numbers, when the music suddenly becomes “serious”, starting with Act I, Scene 6 (track 7 of the CD – usually called the Departure of the guests), the ensuing Battle with the mice (track 8) and the grand transformation of the room into the winter pine forest (or when the nutcracker doll turns into a dashing prince – track 9). Here his hasty conducting smothers every sense of feeling (forget poetry and magic), and unsentimental turns into uncaring. At this point Järvi also throws in this disc’s oddity by adding a rather hilarious bim bam clock chiming ten at the beginning of the Departure of the guests, only to be followed three minutes later by the clock striking midnight. This may work on stage, but Tchaikovsky did leave that ten o’clock out of the score for a good reason. The scene of the growing Christmas tree is a speed contest, the battle is running after its own tail and the crucial transformation misses theatrical impact. It suffices to relisten to Evgeny Mravinsky and the old Leningrad Philharmonic to understand what can be found behind the notes – and he wasn’t exactly a sentimental slob either.

Järvi’s own transformation seems to take place with Act II, at least for a moment. In the opening scenes he finds warmth, orchestral splendor and an agreeable flow. The Divertissement is mostly well handled, too, again with remarkable playing, particularly from woodwinds and harp. Yet the Waltz of the Flowers is disappointing by its lack of dynamic contrast, its brisk tempo and quickly tiresome rubato. The Andante maestoso is coolly dispatched and only of passing interest compared to those who hadn’t forgotten its connection with the theatre.

An admirably responsive and often brilliant Bergen Philharmonic, superb SACD sonics and instructive liner notes from David Nice can’t conceal this Nutcracker is a pretty uneven affair, as is the whole Tchaikovsky ballet series from Bergen and Järvi. And still some continue to pretend that ballet music is easy to play.

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman
Read the full review on Classical Net