Swan Lake

Composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1875.

Title Reviewed

This is a review of a recording made by Opus Arte, using high-definition television cameras, of the ballet Swan Lakechoreographed in 1984 by Rudolf Nureyev and performed by the Paris Opera Ballet in 2005. Opus Arte first published their recording in DVD (catalog number: OA 0966 D). But this is a review of the same recording published in April 2007 by Opus Arte in HD DVD (catalog number: OA HD5001 D) and published also in June 2008 in Blu-ray (catalog number: OA BD7001 D). Although Nureyev died in 1993, I call the recording reviewed here the ``Nureyev 2007 Swan Lake.'' This review was originally published on  August 4, 2008. I updated this review on January 19, 2013 to take out discussion of the HD DVD version of this title.

I am Henry C. McFadyen, Jr.,  a novice ballet fan. I have had little opportunity in my life to see live ballet. But I remember weeping on seeing in 1960 a 35 mm film of a Bolshoi Ballet production of Swan Lake (probably the 1957 Plisetskaya/Fadeyechev version) in a Berlin Aktuelles (documentary and news theater). I long waited in vain since then to see another ballet film even remotely as impressive.

When the Nureyev 2007 Swan Lake arrived in HDVD, my wait was more than rewarded:

  • This was the first HDVD fine-art title ever published.
  • This staging of Swan Lake was choreographed by one of history's most famous ballet stars for ballet's oldest and most admired dance company. The production is pitched in every way to portray the art of ballet in its most noble and sublime form. The Paris Opera Ballet performed this 23 times over December 2005-January 2006 with seven pairs of star dancers. The show captured by the camera of Opus Arte (with Agnès Letestu and José Martinez, probably the best of the many stars) is doubtless among the finest performance of Swan Lake documented in history.
  • The quality of HDVD sound and video presentation when viewed in today's home theater surpasses that of DVDs and even commercial motion picture film. The Nureyev 2007 Swan Lake is therefore in a class by itself for now. It is the most beautiful video of Swan Lake and the most beautiful ballet video ever made.
  • Finally, the publication of the Nureyev 2007 Swan Lake may turn out to be an important event in the history of ballet as an art form.

The HD DVD version was an historic first. But about 10 months after it came out, Toshiba abandoned HD DVD. Soon after that, Opus Arte republished in Blu-ray. The Blu-ray version was an improvement over the HD DVD product. There probably are folks still watching Swan Lake on HD DVD, but that product no longer is part of the regular consumer marketplace.

Cast and Credits

Odette/Odile: Agnès Letestu

Prince Siegfried: José Martinez

Tutor/Rothbart: Karl Paquette

Choreographer--Paris Opera Ballet: Rudolf Nureyev

Conductor--Paris Opera Orchestra: Vello Pähn

Set: Ezio Frigerio

Costumes: Franca Squarciapino

Lighting: Vinicio Cheli

Story as Told by Nureyev

Act 1. The story is set long ago in a small kingdom in what is now Germany. Prince Siegfried, a sensitive-slacker type, has reached another birthday. Alas, he is eligible and must reign, marry, and beget. The exasperated widowed queen mother has arranged for a birthday party followed by a grand ball. She has invited princesses to the ball, and Siegfried must pick one of them to be his bride. Poor Siegfried, filled with foreboding, dreams of a beautiful princess, truly worthy of his love. But suddenly she is attacked by a monstrous raptor bird who raptures her into the heavens!

The birthday party begins. Wolfgang, Siegfried's tutor, preps him for the festivities and the choice he must make. (In this production the same dancer plays the role of the raptor and the tutor. These are two separate characters. However, they are linked in a manner similar to the way the Odette/Odile characters are linked, as explained below.) The queen arrives, beknights Siegfried, puts a crown on his head, and reminds him again of his duty. The birthday party is full of happy dancing, but Siegfried can think only of his dream. (The queen also gives Siegfried a cross-bow. This Cupid/phallic symbol is a vestige of other versions of the story where the prince and his friends go swan hunting, threaten to mow down the birds with flights of arrows, try to shoot the monster, etc. The cross-bow prop seems a bit confusing in our streamlined version, so you have permission to ignore it.)

Act 2. Act 2 follows without a break. The birthday party is over and night falls. Siegfried goes for a walk by the lake. He is approached by the princess of his dream, whose name is Odette. In mime, Odette explains her predicament: she has been placed under the spell of the evil sorcerer Rothbart, who took her into the heavens and entrapped her in the form of a swan. And Rothbart has enswaned dozens of other maidens!

Soon 32 swans appear. Odette explains that if the swan maidens can protect her and if a prince will prove his undying love for her, she may be able to break the spell and free herself and the maidens. This is the mission Siegfried has been looking for. He declares his love for Odette and promises eternal fidelity by raising his two fingers to the sky.

Act 3. Act 3 follows an intermission. Siegfried still must attend the ball. He enjoys the dancers from many counties. He then meets and rejects all the princesses, much to the consternation of the queen. Suddenly Rothbart arrives disguised as an ambassador. He is accompanied by his vile daughter, Odile, who has been made by magic to look like Odette. (This can be confusing if you don't know the scoop. In most productions, including this one, the same dancer plays both the victim Odette, in white tutu, and the temptress Odile in black tutu. This gives the same star opportunity to dance opposite types.) The program notes from Opus Arte call Odile the "black swan.'' But this is perhaps misleading. To the folks at the ball, Odile is not a swan, but a party crasher in a cute little black dress.)

Siegfried is taken in by Odile. Siegfried announces his decision to marry her. Rothbart and Odile, inflamed with malicious glee, immediately show Siegfried a vision of Odette treading air and flee the scene. Siegfried realizes he has broken his vow to Odette and condemned her and the maidens to live out their lives as swans. He collapses and the queen faints from bewilderment.

Act 4. There is a break before Act 4. Consumed with remorse, Siegfried languishes at the lake. The swans appear. Siegfried searches for and finds Odette to beg forgiveness. Rothbart appears, and the swans frantically try to protect the couple for a few moments. Odette forgives Siegfried, and Rothbart claims what now belongs irrevocably to him. As Rothbart and Odette ascend again into the sky, Siegfried despairs.

Character of the Nureyev 2007 Swan Lake

In 2007, ArkivMusic had 17 DVDs of Swan Lake for sale. To appreciate the place of the Nureyev 2007 Swan Lake in that firmament, you need to know a little about the history of these videos. for this, I recommend the delightful book by Robert Greskovic titled Ballet 101: a Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet. As you would expect, Greskovic covers the history of ballet, the basics of the art form, and a glossary of terms, etc. But what you would not expect are his fascinating lectures on 12 famous ballets in which he describes in near-exhaustive detail his favorite video available for each show. It is hard to over-praise this brilliant teaching device. By watching a recommended video with his book in hand, it's like you were in a theater with Greskovic whispering an explanation in your ear of everything happening on the stage.

Probably the most popular Swan Lake DVD has been a 1982 version by the The Royal Ballet of Covent Garden ("Royal Ballet'') with Natalia Makarova as Odette and Anthony Dowell as Siegfried (Kultur catalog number D1408). Greskovic recommends this title as the best available in 2005 and discusses it as his teaching example in Ballet 101. But about the same time Greskovic was finishing the 2005 edition of his book, two new videos were coming onstream:

  • In early 2005, The American Ballet Theater ("ABT'') shot its Swan Lake, with Gillian Murphy as Odette and Angel Corella as Siegfried, at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. PBS showed this in the summer of 2005 as part of its Great Performances series. It was then published in 2005 as a state-of-the-art DVD. (Image Entertainment catalog number ID1987WINDVD. I do not know if the ABT recording is good enough to present in HDVD format.)
  • Also in early 2005, Opus Arte shot our very own Nureyev production for publication in DVD form later that year. This was taken in high-definition format. Opus Arte always intended to present this in HDVD form eventually.

There are three radical differences between the Royal Ballet and the ABT versions of Swan Lake on the one hand and the Nureyev 2007 Swan Lake on the other hand:

  • The Royal Ballet and ABT productions are both presented as a fairy tales. The Nureyev 2007 version is not a fairy tail. In Nureyev's own words quoted in the Opus Arte notes, "...Swan Lake is an extended dream of Prince Siegfried. The Prince has been brought up on romantic tales that have encouraged his desire for the infinite and he thus refuses the real world of power and rejects the marriage that is being forced upon him by his tutor and his mother. In order to escape the the sombre destiny that is being prepared for him, he allows the vision of the lake to enter his life, this `elsewhere' that he seeks. An idealized love catches his imagination together with the realms that are forbidden to him. The white swan represents untouchable womanhood, whilst the black swan is her exact opposite. The Prince's reason cannot bear the strain when his dream world vanishes and it therefore shatters.'' This is Nureyev's definitive vision of Swan Lakepsychologically. Artistically he presents this as an historic tribute to the art of ballet.
  • In the Royal Ballet and ABT versions the principal dancers are, as explained by Greskovic, pages 161-162, Dionysian, i.e., fiery and explosive in nature. This befits an entertaining fairy story. In the Nureyev 2007 Swan Lake, the principals are, in contrast, Apollonian, i.e., elegant and noble. This is required for the best rendition of Nureyev's monumental concept of the work.
  • The designs for the Royal Ballet and ABT versions are full of detail and entertaining production values. This is fine when viewed from afar. But it would be much harder to pull this off before the high-definition camera with its remorseless depiction of fit and finish, especially in close-up shots. Now Nureyev and his colleagues were not thinking about high-definition cameras in 1984, but their spare and formal vision stands up relatively well to the all-revealing electronic eye. This may have been one of the reasons why this production was chosen by Opus Arte to be honored as their first HDVD project.

Let's explore various aspects of the production with these differences in mind:

  • Stage, scenery, and costumes: 
    • In the Royal Ballet and ABT productions, the elaborate stage design is highly detailed and attempts a folksy verisimilitude of a fabled, pastel-colored past. The execution of this is uneven and sometimes looks amateurish, especially in the Royal Ballet show. The costumes are quite lavish, but do not look real and sometimes seem cheesy. In the Royal Ballet version especially, many of the performers have heavy stage makeup.
    • In contrast, the stage and scenery in the Nureyev 2007 production is stripped down. All kitsch and camp is boiled off. Everything on the stage has been pared, polished, and made to look--not real--but substantial and rich even when viewed at arm's length by the HDVD camera. Costumes are simplified, but look sumptuous and well-made. Men show no signs of makeup and women are made up more or less to appear like they are going to a wedding.
  • Acting and character dancers: 
    • If you're staging a fairy story, you are competing with Walt Disney. This means you have to have acting by the principal dancers; the hero and heroine must fall in love. You must also have various character dancers. The tutor should be a bumbling. tipsy geezer and the queen an snooty dowager. Baron von Rothbart must romp around the stage flapping wings and threatening to scatter the corps of swans like chickens in the barnyard. The Royal Ballet and ABT productions have acting and characters aplenty for the delight of all. But this runs the danger of sapping the energy from the main story. And for an example of even worse, see, in the ABT production, how Rothbart played by Marcelo Gomes loots the whole show in Act III with his seduction of all the princesses and the queen mother to boot.
    • Nureyev will have none of this. His is a story of desolation. He lets nothing interfere with the psychological and emotional themes of the unfolding tragedy. To reduce the risk of distraction, he sublimates acting to the dancing line. Character dancers need not apply. There is no room for comic relief. And the most dangerous monsters are the handsome, elegant ones. So it works fine for a single dancer to take on the duties of the tutor and the monster.
  • Principal ballerina: 
    • When telling a fairy story, you need a fairy. Makarova in the Royal Ballet show is as close to that image as a human can get. She is astonishingly limber and fabulously expressive in portraying a bird-victim. When you see Makarova on stage with the female corps, you grasp the key to her style of dancing: she is tiny. Makarova is is probably the smallest woman in the entire production. She doesn't look young, but she still reminds me of the little girls who win gold medals at gymnastics. If you can't have a fairy, an ingenue will do. Murphy in the ABT role fills this slot. She is gorgeously young. And in a cohort populated with extremely thin girls, Murphy looks voluptuous.
    • That brings us to Letestu. She was doubtless one of the best-qualified stars in the world to dance Odette in 2005. But she has been criticized as "icy'' or "undemonstrative'' when compared to other famous Odette/Odiles. I reject this for several reasons. 
      • First, Letestu is not little. She is one of the tallest ballerinas in history. When on the stage with the female corps, she dominates just by being there (as do so many tall people in all walks of life). A tall woman doesn't have the physical flexibility of a tiny person like Makarova, so we should not expect demonstrations of vulnerability from Letestu. Nor does she stoop to be fetching. Rather, she is a handsome woman--exactly the exponent of elegance and nobility needed to support Nureyev's grand conception.
      • Second, in view of the commandment to tone down acting and focus attention on dancing, Letestu actually acquits herself quite well in the drama department. She has more opportunity to act than the other principals; if you pay attention, you see she takes advantage of it. Her acting in the pantomime scene, the love duets, and the parting is quite effective in supporting her classic dancing.
  • Primo: 
    • Dowell in the Royal Ballet show is a great example of the small, flexible, quick, athletic dancer. They also told him to act. This he does gamely, registering emotions and sometimes looking, sadly, like an actor in a silent movie. Corella with the ABT is more up-to-date than Dowell in his acting, and he is fun to watch. Both men hold up well in the once-upon-a-time environment.
    • But Nureyev needs an Apollo. Further, it takes a big man to handle Letestu. José Martinez is the right primo for the job: 
      • Tall and sleek, Martinez also dominates also just by showing up. Smaller men like Dowell and Corella can move more brilliantly, but the grace, poise, smoothness, and control demonstrated by Martinez is deeply satisfying. According to Greskovic, page 195, the classic male ballet star is the commanding man, "... the danseur noble...[whose] manner tends to be stalwart; his mood more grave than mischievous...a pillar of godliness...[whose] imperturbable manner and towering carriage finds universal precedent from Asia to Africa, from Japanese emperors to Ashanti chieftains.'' This describes Martinez perfectly.
      • As for acting, I think it sufficient for Martinez to look troubled when he's forced to marry for reasons of state and serene when he finds his true love. And, powerful as he is, he does manage to look slightly vulnerable, which is a plus when dancing Siegfried. When he realizes his mistake, Martinez is convincing in acting out devastation, remorse, and grief.
      • Martinez always appears unflappable. Unlike the lesser men, you never sense that he is getting set for the next difficult figure. He seems at all times to be ready for anything.
  • Supporting dancers: We have already noted that character dancers, who are important in the fairy story versions, are banished from Nureyev's sand-blasted world. This leaves only one premier danseur to discuss--Karl Paquette in the Nureyev combo role of tutor and Rothbart. Some folks have criticized Paquette for being insufficiently mysterious, or enchanting, or vile, or whatever. All this misses the point. Paquette job was  to move the story along with minimal but sensible dramatic touches that don't compete too strongly with the main theme. This he handles well, building up the role of the tutor while underplaying the villain. I especially liked the way his dancing lesson as tutor for the prince foreshadows Rothbart's combat triumph over the prince in the final scene. 
  • The ending: 
    • The Swan Lake story has different endings. In the happy ending, the Prince defeats Rothbart, Odette becomes a princess again, and the Queen gets her big wedding. Both the Royal Ballet and ABT versions end bitter-sweet. After Siegfried begs for and receives forgiveness, the reconciled lowers leap from a cliff to drown in the lake. They then are transported in a magical pink vision to heaven where they will never be separated again. This destroys the sorcerer's spell and the maidens, it seems, should be restored to their families. This is appropriate for a fairy tale. Sure, there's a moral to note, but then immediate apotheosis. (All this jumping into the waters below does bother me a bit. The last time I checked, swans were able to both fly and swim.)
    • In Nureyev's tragic version the end allows no hope. The Prince is vanquished. Odette and the maidens are doomed to remain under Rothbart's spell. Barbarians will conquer the realm, kill the young men, and enslave the women. As stated in the Opus Arte program notes, a " feeling of inescapable doom...fills Tchaikovsky's score.'' And the Paris Opera Ballet has the tool to express this sense of doom visually as well: the female corps.
  • Female corps: 
    • The female corps has two great scenes in Swan Lake: that of the honor guard in Act II when Odette meets Siegfried and the mourning dance in Act IV after Siegfried's betrayal of Odette. The image of this mass of swan maidens is the ultimate icon of dance.
    • In the Royal Ballet version, the swan corps dances the "white acts'' well. But because of equipment limitations, the camera is only fleetingly able to show the entire corps at one time. Most of the shots crop off parts of individual dancers and even whole portions of the group. The crude resolution of the photography is pitifully obsolete by HDVD standards. When shot in motion, the dancers often look like ghosts of swans superimposed on the film by trick photography.
    • The photography of the ABT swans is bright and clear; it is close to high-definition resolution and quality. The women in the corps are winsome, clean-run, and fresh--so startlingly young and beautiful! Now, every ballet dancer is a triumph of beauty over all the other forces of nature. But ballet dancing is not a beauty contest and a photogenic face is not in the job description. Still, the women of the ABT were picked for beauty and are irresistible. Alas, they are knocked out of the running by brutal cuts in the mourning dance of Act IV. The swans should be on stage for 15 minutes in Act IV, and seven minutes of this time they should be on stage alone marking out their formations of dirge and doom. But PBS had to shrink the show to fit its TV schedule. In Act IV the swans got cut to seven minutes, and much of that time is wasted with the women turning their backs to the audience or wallowing in stage smoke.
    • To experience what a female corps can do, you have to get the Nureyev 2007 Swan LakeSwan Lake is usually considered a vehicle for a superstar ballerina. But the center of gravity with Nureyev is not with the stars, as good as they are, but with the female corps. The members of the Paris Opera Ballet female corps appear to be 5 to 10 years older than the the norm. They have trained together and moved up through the ranks for years until they exhibit, in Greskovic's words, " uncanny cohesion.'' They are like the Spartan army. When each woman dances alone, she may have peers. But when they dance together, they are the best in the world. The eye is the emperor of the senses; the ear his concubine. Nureyev's vision, executed by this corps, together with Tchaikovsky's score transports the spectator by eye and ear to the high and weather-purged terrain of tragedy. Absolute beauty + absolute unattainability = absolute despair; this is the cathartic formula. After seeing this, you will think of it often and again take greater delight in whatever blessings, modest or great, you have in life.

      The female corps never breaks character. During the curtain call, they line up and take their poses. The star dancers, exhausted, manage a few wan smiles. But not the corps. They remain frozen of somber mien--the pillars of the temple and its holy friezes. And what are they thinking? Well, for sure, no more counting for tonight. They only need hold still until the final curtain call--just, please, no cramp now. Minds may safely wander. One is thinking of her dream of stardom that will never be. Others think of children never conceived. Of grueling annual competitions,  auditions, and rehearsals. Of bills and big-city inflation eating away at paychecks.  And then there are the injuries overcome and the new pain just felt--will this be the one that gets me? And as the last curtain call begins, their thoughts turn to what they live for--the next performance! And still they all pose motionless, emotionless, eternally serene--forever self-enslaved to the lash of their art.

HDVD and the Future of Ballet

The publication of the Nureyev 2007 Swan Lake may turn out to be an important event in the history of ballet as an art form. Let me explain.

Ballet is expensive to produce. Start with a symphony orchestra and chorus. Add the big house, scenery, and lighting of an opera company. Throw in costumes that will not fall apart if you jump around in them. For an opera, you need four or five great singers. For a ballet, you need 40 or 50 great dancers (who need training throughout the whole year). Music scores are a snap--money buys them. But how do the dancers know what to do? For this, find some magicians, called choreographers, who have the notation for the dance moves in their heads!

Now every dancer is herself or himself a unique work of art. So every dance has elements of improvisation blended with the tedious oral process of instruction and regimentation imposed by the choreographer. Putting all this together requires an intellectual and physical investment in training and rehearsal quite beyond that of any other performing art form. That's why it takes the resources of a great city or even a whole region or nation to support a fully-qualified ballet company.

The goal of ballet is to display the beauty of the human body in the most elegant movements known to dancing in a venue intimate enough for the spectator to see it well. Because this is so expensive to do, few people have seen an excellent ballet and even fewer have seen it very much. It's just not popular (Greskovic, Preface, page xvi), and this inhibits those who perform and watch ballet.

Videos of ballet on VHS and DVD (although eagerly collected by ballet lovers) did not popularize the art form. As explained by Greskovic (page 218), the live productions were "compromised'' by the VHS and DVD level of rendition which "collapses the space and shrinks the artistry it captures.''

HDVD changes this. First, HDVD produces a picture with far more detail, clarity, and faithfulness to the live event than was available before. Second, the widescreen format can easily show the viewer the entire stage at once. Third, with good home theater equipment, the size of the HDVD picture can be scaled up to fill the viewer's field of vision to the same degree as having a good seat in the orchestra section of a ballet theater (not on the front row, please). This immersion in the picture leads to a greater emotional involvement with the production than is expected with smaller video pictures. Finally, the cameraman can give the viewer close-up and angle shots that nobody in the theater can ever see. So HDVD can preserve the the viewer's perception of the live space involved rather than collapse it. HDVD can preserve the artistry it captures.

Ballet is designed to be seen and seen well. Ballet companies now have a way now to show their work to an audience far larger than was ever feasible in the past. This new market will not cannibalize the demand to see live ballet. The new market will provide immediate new revenues for the ballet companies. It will popularize the art form and create new demand to see live ballet. Ballet companies should strive to have their work published in HDVD format whenever possible.

August 4, 2008.