Swan Lake


[Special note dated October 7, 2016. This is a revision of the first story published on this website. I add new materal revealed by a Ballet Wonk Worksheet I just worked up on this.]

Swan Lake ballet. Music by Tchaikovsky. Book by V. P. Begitchev and Vasily Geltzer. "Tragic" choreography by Rudolf Nureyev in tradition of Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa. Directed 2005 by Brigitte Lefèvre and Patricia Ruanne at the Paris Opera Ballet (Opéra Bastille). Stars Agnès Letestu (Odette/Odile), José Martinez (Prince Siegfried), Karl Paquette (Tutor/Rothbart), Muriel Hallé (The Queen), Michel Pasternak (Master of Ceremonies), Marie-Isabelle Peracchi (Ghost of White Swan), Nolwenn Daniel, Dorothée Gilbert and Emmanuel Thibault (Pas de Trois), Dorothée Gilbert, Myriam Ould-Braham, Fanny Fiat, and Mathilde Froustey (Cygnets), Emilie Cozette, Stéphanie Romberg, Aurélia Bellet, Laurence Laffon (Big Swans), Fanny Fiat and Alessio Carbone (Czardas), Stéphanie Romberg, Nathalie Riqué, Julien Meyzindi, and Christophe Duquenne (Spanish Dance), plus Myriam Ould-Braham and Jérémie Bélingard (Neaposiatan Dance). Vello Pähn directs the Paris Opera Orchestra. Set design by Ezio Frigerio; costumes by Franca Squarciapino; lighting by Vinicio Cheli; directed for TV by François Roussillon. Released 2008, this Blu-ray disc has 5.0 PCM sound. Grade: A+

This title came out first in DVD and then in HD DVD.  Opus Arte improved the Blu-ray product over what they had achieved with the HD DVD. For example, there was considerable motion blur in the HD DVD version, but this was mostly cleaned up in the Blu-ray disc.

The "tragic" Nureyev version of Swan Lake takes maximum advantage of the psychological depth of the music. For more information, try my full review of Swan Lake. Below are screenshots to augment the full review and illustrate the wide variaty of shots (full-stage to extreme close-ups) provided by François Roussillon.

José Martinez stars as Prince Siegfried, a man who is perhaps too introspective and sensitive to be successful as King:

Karl Paquette plays both the good-guy role of Wolfgang, tutor/confidant to Siegfried, and the evil magician Baron Rothbart:

Siegfried has come of age. The Queen (apparently a widow) has decided it is time for Siegfried to take over the responsibilities of King, including marriage. The Queen arranged a festival to be attended by all the eligible girls of the realm:

Siegfried is crowned and receives a gold crossbow. But he's the one who must pick a bride. Siegfried has a girl in mind. He saw her in a dream, when she was attacked by a strange bird/man. Siegfried wants to know who the girl is, but she is not at the party:

After the party, Siegfried goes to a nearby lake to think about the girl of his dreams. There are swans about. Suddenly, Siegfried sees the girl. But she has been turned into a swan, played here by Agnès Letestu!

Soon a company of 24 swans appears. The long-range shot here lets us see every dancer on the stage very well:

Roussillon also gives us mid-range shots that reveal more detail while covering most of the stage:

Roussillon has cameras that look straight at the ranks and files:

He also has cameras that can look down on the formations from a high angle. Many ballet companies can't allow their ragged formations to be photographed from this angle. Note there is no rank of 4 dancers; this is the way to get a right-triangle formation with 24 girls:

This near shot reveals something about the secrets of the Paris Opera Ballet. In other troupes, the girls in the corps all seem to be about 24 years old. But in the Paris corps, many of the girls have been in the corps for almost 24 years. They truly know the drill:

Now 8 more girls have joined the 24 for a full company of 32. Letestu is entering the stage from the rear:

It's almost unbelievable how many formations the white corps makes in this Act 1 and in Act 2 . (In Act 4 the white corps appears again and does an similar number of completely different formations.) Here is a partial stage shot:

And now  another close-up from Roussillon. Nothing beats seeing ballet live. But close-ups like this at least partly make up for not being born in Paris:

In this production of Swan Lake, the overall theme of collapse and doom precludes dramatic or romantic acting. But all the dancers can provide whatever acting touches are directed:

The Swan Princess is Odette. She was turned into a swan by the magician Rothbart, who has also kidnapped all the other swan girls. The only way they can escape the Rothbart curse is for Odette to find a true love who will be faithful. Siegfried declares his love and promises rescue Odette and the girls:


Now we have two shots of exquisite segments where the girls all dance by taking small hops backwards. This tears me up every time:


And now for just one of several spectacular lifts:


After the love lifts, things have to come back to earth. Now's the time for the famous "baby swans" dance:

Act 3 is the grand ball where Siegfried is supposed to pick a Princess. It start with dances from many nations, here the Spanish Dance:

The six Princesses do their best to please Siegfried. They don't know he has promised his love to a swan:


The Queen is baffled when Siegfried refuses all the girls:


But suddenly, Rothbart appears disguised as a foreign ambassador. Rothbart has a problem. To keep his harem he must compromise Siegfried. To do this, he makes his evil sister look like Odette and gives her the name Odile. (Odile is usually Rothbart's daughter. But Karl Paquette isn't old enough to have a grown daughter, and I'll call Odile his sister.) Odile appears in black (but she is not a black swan---she's a woman). Poor Siegfried. He's under so much pressure from his mom. And now a girl appears who is irresistible.


Siegfried is tricked into declaring love for Odile. This is all Rothbart needs; he and the wicked sister flee the scene mocking Siegfried and the Queen, who are both devastated:


Act 4 is mostly another juggernaut performance by the white corps; here are just a couple of shots that suggest the glory of all this:


Odette and her retinue are lost forever. But they forgive Siegfried for his weakness:

And Rothbart retrieves what is now finally his for good:


The Nureyev version of Swan Lake as produced here in Paris is not a fairy tale or romantic story. This is an allegory of the decline and fall of nations and civilizations for lack of leadership. Siegfried has demonstrated his inability to be King. The Queen is now alone and defenceless. Soon she will be destroyed by internal revolt or foreign conquest and all the pretty girls at Siegfred's party will be carried off just like Rothbart carried off his harem.

I wrote the full review in August 2008, when I called this title the best ballet video ever made up to that time. Well, since then several score ballet titles have appeared in Blu-ray, including many fine A+ titles. But subject Swan Lake remains popular thanks both to the immense prowess of the Paris Opera Ballet and the technical skill demonstrated by François Roussillon and others who worked on the video.

Now fast forward to 2016. In the meantime we have learned a lot about video content (as opposed to artistic content). In general, we want our ballet titles to be made with long video clips that give us plenty of time to enjoy the show. We do not want too many individual clips. The more clips the video has, the harder the brain must work in the background to keep track of what is happening. We also want the vast majority of the clips to show the whole body of the dancers because the movement of entire bodies is what ballet is all about. Movie-like close-ups are also welcome in moderation by most viewers. Keeping these principles in mind, I just filled out a Ballet Wonk Worksheet describing the video content of this Swan Lake. I was surprised to see that this video has 1095 individual clips and that the average clip lasts only 7.5 seconds. If this were a symphony title, we would condemn it for hyperactivity and might even give it a grade of C or D!

Well, the players in a symphony sit still all the time. The dancers in a ballet are always on the move running and jumping about. So there are good reasons to have more and shorter clips in a ballet video than in a video of a symphony. Still, compared to other ballet videos I have recently analyzed, I now consider this Swan Lake to be somewhat hyperactive and dated. It was made by folks who were used to making DVDs, where the standard approach was to have a multitude of short clips and relatively few long-range, whole-stage shots.

Even with its defects, subject video remains a notable accomplishment. And thanks also to the high artistic content of this title, I'll keep the A+ grade. But I'm not going to give this our new "Flare" award. Let's hope the Paris Opera Ballet will reprise this and let Roussillon shoot it again with 4K cameras. Then the full-stage shots will look much better and Roussillon can slow down the pace with ease.