Swan Lake

 

Swan Lake ballet. Music by Tchaikovsky. Book by V. P. Begitchev and Vasily Geltzer. Tragic choreography by Rudolf Nureyev in the tradition of Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa. Directed 2014 by Manuel Legris at the Vienna State Opera. Stars Vladimir Shishov (Prince Siegfried); Olga Esina (Odette/Odile); Dagmar Kronberger (the Queen); and Eno Peci (Rothbart). Other dancers are  Alice Ferenze, Kiyoka Hashimoto, Masayu Kimoto, and Greig Matthews (the Prince's Friends); Gala Jovanovic, Oxana Kiyanenko, Laura Nistor, and Prisca Zeisel (The Big Swans); Maria Alati, Ioanna Avraam, Eszter Ledán, and Rui Tamai (The Cygnets); Oxana Kyanenko, Flavia Soares, Alexandru Tcacenco, and Andrey Teterin (Spanish Dancers); Kiyoka Hashimoto and Richard Szabó (Neapolitan Dancers); Alena Klochkova and Alexis Forabosco (Polish Dancers); Alice Firenze and Mihail Sosnovschi (Hungarian Dancers); Maria Alati, Ioanna Avraam, Eszter Ledán, Reina Sawai, Rui Tamai, and Nina Tonoli (The Young Noble Ladies); Christoph Wenzel (The Prince's Tutor); Gabor Oberegger (The Majordomo); and the Corps de ballet plus Students of the Ballet Academy of the Wiener Staatsoper. Alexander Ingram conducts the Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera. Sets and costumes designed by Luisa Spinatelli assisted by Monia Torchia; lighting by Marion Hewlett; staging by Manuel Legris, Alice Necsea, Lukas Gaudernak, and Jean Christophe Lesage; directed for TV by Michael Beyer. Released 2014, this Blu-ray disc has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound.Grade: A+

Rudolf Nureyev created his version of Swan Lake in 1964 for the Vienna State Ballet. When the folks at Vienna decided to revive and record it in 2014, they knew their HDVD would have to compete with the much-admired Swan Lake produced in 2005 by François Roussillon at the Paris Opera Ballet (starring José Martinez/Agnes Letestu). How should they meet this challenge?

First Vienna management boosted dancer morale with the decision to forgo guest stars and work solely in-house.  This helped to free up money to design and make new sets and costumes. For the dancers it had to be drill, drill, and drill.  I think director Manuel Legris and lighting designer Marion Hewlett worked early with videographer Michael Beyer to give him good access and light. Beyer responded by making an exceptionally beautiful ballet video. He begins his show with nature shots of magnificent real swans and he adds unusual images such as the statute below:

The Vienna Siegfried (Vladimir Shishov) seems to be the happy, healthy chap that any Prince should be:

But is depicting Siegfried as such a handsome hunk consistent with his fate to come? Contrast Shishov with the image of José Martinez below as Siegfried in the Paris Opera Ballet show. From the opening moments on in Paris,  you see Siegfried depicted as a troubled, even neurotic, soul headed for disaster:

Siegfried enjoys his informal birthday party with friends:

But after the party, Siegfried dances a solo piece in which he does seems to be worried about something:

The Tutor urges Siegfried to go hunting at the lake where he might find swans. Siegfried heads out with his new crossbow and is astonished to meet a beautiful Princess at the lake. She explains her predicament and how she needs a man to love her and be faithful to boot!

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Siegfried has found something to relieve him from his uncertainty---he promises undying love:

Now Rothbart, who has been away looking for more girls to enswan, arrives for a surprise inspection:

In Vienna, Rothbart is a raptor bird, possibly an owl, which would make sense in a fairy tale. But as we learn in Paris, the really bad guys don't look like birds---they look like movie stars or like Karl Paquette shown here:

Back to Vienna, where the white corps appears looking for their Princess and showing their prowess at producing perfect formations:

They are mostly young and resplendent in all those brand new tutus:

The basic formation is 24, then come 8 more swans for a total of 32 as shown here:

The Prince surrenders arms:

Five shots from Act 2 as Odette and Siegfried celebrate their love:

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It's time now for Siegfried's official birthday party where he is to pick a bride from 6 beautiful princesses from other lands. But Siegfried, thinking of Odette, turns down all the beauties the Queen invited:

Everyone is crestfallen by Siegfried's obstinacy. Suddenly, Lord Rothbart and his seductive ward, Odile, crash the party:

Two close-ups give you another look at the impressive costumes and makeup lavished on this production, all with HD video in mind. First Lord Rothbart:

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And now two characters from the Neapolitan Dance:

A near-range shot of the Hungarian Dance shows more gorgeous costumes:

Siegfried is smitten by Odile:

Well, you know the party ends badly when Siegfried breaks his promise to Odette. Her retinue goes into mourning:

Odette collapses before her sisters. I think of this scene as the apex of what I know about the art of ballet, so I show it twice. The upper image is by Beyer at Vienna. The lower image (shown before Odette arrives) is by Roussillon at Paris. In both images the dancers are in perfect position. Beyer, shooting lower and closer, has far superior light and resolution:

Roussillon shoots from a higher position and gets a more dramatic image:

Back to Beyer. The swans try to protect and comfort Odette. It's hard to imagine how this could be any better:

Siegfried seeks forgiveness. After that, Legris comes up with a fine final scene that I'll not spoil:

Beyer leaves you with no doubt that all of this was shot live and the applause you hear throughout the show is real:

This little girl doesn't know yet how lucky she is. She wants to cry, but she's brave. Her mom probably prepared her for a sad ending:

For a long time we heard little about the ballet program at the Vienna State Opera. But in 2014 they gave us two wonderful new titles, a splendid Nutcracker and this Swan Lake. If I understand correctly, the Vienna Philharmoniker, one of the best orchestras in the world, also serves as the orchestra for the opera and ballet in Vienna.  So it's a given that the music here was performed as well as possible. The music was recorded using 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling and served to us in lossless surround sound.

So how to grade this? And which Nureyev Swan Lake recording is better---Roussillon in Paris or Beyer in Vienna? In a sense, this is not a fair question because Roussillon made the 1st fine-art HDVD ever, and Beyer had 9 years thereafter to take advantage of improvements in technology. But to try to get an answer, I recently ran the numbers on both versions. I was surprised to see that Roussillon's video content was weak with a pace of only 7.5 seconds per clip. And then I was even more surprised to see that Beyer's video content was even weaker with 7 seconds per clip. And the Vienna shoot has whole bodies in only 67% of the clips shots as opposed to 77% in Paris. I find both of these video to be too fast to get a flare award.

Still, these are the two best Swan Lake recordings ever made. So I'll stick with the A+ grade for each. The Vienna version has better sets, costumes, lighting, picture quality, and sound quality. I think the star dancers are of equal quality, and I'm impressed that nobody used guest artists. But I still prefer the directing in the Paris version with Martinez as the neurotic Siegfried and Paquette as the human Rothbart. In the Paris version, I see a coherent trajectory from opening to close and I know before the end that all the good guys are going to die and why. The Vienna women in the white acts are very fine, but their sisters in Paris remain incomparable. Buy both discs. But if you can only afford one, seasoned ballet fans should go for the Paris version. Newbies and children might find the Vienna version easier to grasp.

Both of these discs show why we need Ultra HD Blu-ray. With 4K resolution, I think it will be possible to make long whole-stage shots that will be as clear in the HT as they appear to a live audience. And the new high-dynamic range feature of Ultra HD Blu-ray should allow the TV directors to make beautiful video in relatively low-light scenes that we ofter encounter on the live stage. If I'm right about this, then soon we should get a Swan Lake video that is fully worthy of this maginficent ballet.