Swan Lake


Swan Lake ballet. Music by Tchaikovsky. Recorded 2015 at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.  Libretto by Yuri Grigorovich after the scenario by Vladimir Begishev and Vasily Geltser. Choreography by Yuri Grigorovich after Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, and Alexander Gorsky. Stars Svetlana Zakharova (Odette/Odile), Denis Rodkin (Prince Siegfried), Artemy Belyakov (The Evil Genius), Yekaterina Barykina (The Princess Mother), Alexei Loparevich (The Tutor), and Igor Tsvirko (The Fool). Other dancers include: Kristina Kretova and Elizaveta Kruteleva (Friends to the Prince), Alexander Fadeyechev (Master of Ceremonies), Angelina Karpova (Hungrian Bride), Anna Rebetskaya (Russian Bride), Anna Tikhomirova (Spanish Bride), Daria Khokhlova (Neapolitan Bride), and Maria Semenyachenko (Polish Bride). The Three Swans are Angelina Karpova, Olga Marchenkova, and Ana Turazashvili; the Four Swans are Yulia Lunkina, Svetlana Pavlova, Margarita Shrainer, and Anna Voronkova; the Waltz Dancers are Karim Abdullin, Ivan Alexeyev, Dmitry Efremov, Egor Khromushin, Nelli Kobakhidze, Anna Okuneva, Yanina Parienko, and Anna Rebetskaya. Pavel Sorokin conducts the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra. Production design by Simon Virsaladze; lighting by Mikhail Sokolov; filmed by Vincent Bataillon; produced by François Duplat. Released 2015, the music was recorded with 48kHz/16-bit sound sampling, and the disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. Grade: D+

After finishing the renovation of their billion-dollar building late 2011, the Bolshoi published two stupendous A+ recordings with BelAir: a Sleeping Beauty and a Bayadère. These both starred Svetlana Zakharova and had updated mise-en-scène with mostly if not entirely new sets and costumes. I suspect that the Yuri Grigorovich Swan Lake, which goes back to 1969, was the next show up for a similar overhaul. But in January 2013,  the month the new Bayadère came out, Grigorovich attained age 86 and an infamous acid-attack scandal turned over the Bolshoi fruit basket for a couple of years. The Grigorovich Swan Lake was not updated. Instead, it was sent out on the road again as a cash cow that, among other miracles, managed to milk Lincoln Center in New York for two sold-out weeks in July 2014. Meanwhile, I suspect the folks at BelAir were grinding their teeth waiting to continue their contract to record another Bolshoi ballet. In January 2015, BelAir was trapped into filming not something new, but one of the more decrepit titles in the Bolshoi repertory.

New York newspaper critics were not kind to the Grigorovich Swan Lake in 2014, but all seemed to agree that conductor Pavel Sorokin and the Bolshoi orchestra did a sparkling job with Tchaikovsky's music. Sorokin and band also do a terrific job on subject disc, and videographer Vincent Bataillon honors them with this nice shot of the oboe player beginning the ballet with his pensive solo:

Below is the grim, dark set for Siegfried's castle and ballroom. The Bolshoi stage is big, and you can see the videographer's dilemma here. If you make extensive whole-stage shots (which many balletomanes insist is the the only correct way), then 1080 lines of resolution is not enough to let the viewer see fine detail or even identify most of the dancers. This would quickly get frustrating for all but the most fanatical ballet fans. (When 4K resolution comes along, I predict that full-stage shots in the great ballet theaters will finally be feasible.) But if the videographer moves in closer, then the crudeness of the sets becomes increasingly obvious:

Designer Virsaladze created several scrims which drop down from the fly into the middle of the stage. Below we see a scrim which stands for the Royal Family.  In this mid-range shot with Knights of the Royal Clan and the Master of Ceremonies, we see that Virsaladze's designs are  old, poorly executed, and out-of-date:

Below is Prince Siegfried (Denis Rodkin). It's hard to believe the Bolshoi would dress their lead male dancer in such a cheap-looking and ill-fitting garment. This costume probably looks acceptable to a live audience, but nobody is going to be impressed with this in a HT. There is a deep "V" on the front of Siegfied's tunic, and this design is carried over to most of the other costumes. Note also in the screenshot below the blank expressions on the faces of the spectators. Throughout the whole show the Knights and others watching the action mostly sit looking like customers in a subway station waiting for the next train:

Below are some of Siegfried's friends. The dull taupe-colored dresses worn by the girls are covered with a kind of "fishnet." Caught in the fishnet are what appear to be shards of metallic film. This may look like attractive glitter to the live audience; but in the HT, the metallic decorations just look ugly:

The Queen's costume is especially hideous:

Some of the girls consort with the Tutor, who is also drably attired:

The Russians are famous for sticking a jester or fool into the middle of the action. In true story ballets, the fool may have an actual role in the drama. But this Swan Lake is not a true story ballet. Grigorivich has here boiled off almost all the drama in the Swan Lake story. As explained by the esteemed ballet critic Alastair Macaulay in his New York Times review dated July 16, 2014, "Everything [here] is ritualized, abstracted, [and] stylised with almost no moment-by-moment narrative tension." Grigorivich doesn't tell a story; he  presents a pageant of a legend. Grigorivich doesn't ask the dancers to act, and few try to act on their own except for Igor Tsvirko as The Fool. Tsvirko is a born ham and face-maker. He is probably interesting to watch while riding on an elevator. As he bounds about the stage with astonishing physical prowess, he also threatens with his acting to become the star of the whole show. And this he does via a role that contributes zero to the libretto:

Now we see Siegfried at the lake in his first encounter with Odette. All the expected moves are there, but there is little or no attempt to act or show emotion:

A close-up of the Evil Genius (Artemy Belyakov):

New we move on to the lakeside "white act." The stage is dark with blue lights and a white spotlight for the star dancers. There is almost no hint of flesh tones in the blue light. Below are several interesting shots of asymmetric formations by the corps and from the falling-in-love pas de deux. All this is distressingly dark in the HT, but the white corps dances very well:

The stars and the corps take bows at the end of Act 1. Doesn't this neat shot show how bizarrely "blue" the stage is! I get the impression there was only a small crowd at this show. I also get the impression that there were about 20 souls in the audience who were paid to cheer and shout (an age-old ballet promoter's trick). Other than the 20 screamers, the applause seems anemic:

Now we move into Act 2 and the party where Siegfried is supposed to pick a bride. Below is the Russian Bride (Anna Rebetskaya) and her friends in a scene that's impressive because Anna is actually showing some emotion:

And what's Anna pleading for below? I guess she wants Siegfried to pick her. Or maybe she's begging for a prettier costume:


At least the set has turned from brown to blue as we watch the Spanish Bride:

But would any Spanish woman wear this dress?

Below see Zakharova as Odile. The blue images are a bit brighter on my plasma display than what you see here. But I never could get over my feeling that these images are not acceptable in a video. I assume the efficiency of the human eye made these scenes acceptable to the live audience. But if the producer knows the stage will be this dark, he should arrange to shoot the white acts at a special session with more light:

Odile has a retinue of black swans:

Finally we get more light and better pictures in the Odile/Siegfried pas de deux:


The party crashes when Siegfried abandons his oath to Odette. Below is the Act 2 white (or, rather, blue) scene. The swan girls wait nervously to learn why Odette was called away by the Evil Genius:

The girls learn they are lost:

And the Evil One is back with his black-swan Kapos. At this point you should have seen enough to know if this HDVD is for you. I'll not spoil the somewhat unususal ending. An "official" explanation of the ending is given in the keepcase booklet:

So what should I make of this haphazard presentation of a worn-out production going on 46 years of age? I think most ballet fans will be disappointed by the ugly sets, cheap-looking costumes, weak acting, feeble story, and bad lighting (especially in the white scenes). The orchestra plays well, but the 48kHz/16-bit sound recording specifications are near-obsolete. There are no extras on the disc and the keepcase booklet is flimsy.

On the other hand,  there's great dancing here by the Bolshoi stars and corps. If you are a ballet expert who has to have everything or you have a special interest in the Bolshoi style, then this disc will probably give you the information you seek. 

At this writing we have "A+" recordings of Swan Lake from the Paris Opera Ballet and the Weiner Staatsballett as well as other attractive discs. So I could not recommend subject title to anyone unless he has a special reason to see it. This results in a "D+" grade under our standards.

Here is a clip from BelAir: