Swan Lake

Swan Lake ballet. Music by Tchaikovsky. Book by V. P. Begitchev and Vasily Geltzer. Choreographed and directed by Heintz Spoerli (after Marius Petipa) at the Zurich Opera House in 2009. Stars Polina Semionova (Odette/Odile), Stanislav Jermakov (Prince Siegfried), Arsen Mehrabyan (Rothbart), Karin Pellmont (Queen). Other dancers include Galina Mihaylova, Arman Grigoryan, and Véronique Tamaccio (Pas de Trois); Sarah-Jane Brodbeck and Maria Seletskaja (Big Swans); Galina Mihaylova, Vittoria Valerio, Aliya Tanykpayeva, Jiayong Sun, and Vahe Martirosyan (Pas de Cinq);  Yen Han, Iker Murillo, Oleksandr Kirichenko, Sergiy Kirichenko, Daniel Mulligan, and Yuriy Volk (Russian Dancers). Vladimir Fedoseyev conducts the Zurich Opera Orchestra. Sets by Erich Wonder; costumes by Florence von Gerkan; lighting by Martin Gebhardt; directed for TV and video by Andy Sommer; edited by Toby Trotter; produced by François Duplat. Released 2010, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: B

In 2010, there already were 3 Swan Lake recordings in HDVDs from big ballet houses: (1) the Paris Opera Ballet (Opus Arte), the (2) Mariinsky Ballet (Decca), and the Royal Ballet (Opus Arte). So it took courage for the Zurich Opera Ballet (local market of about 2,000,000 people) to make and try to sell an HDVD against this kind of competition, especially when dancemaker Heintz Spoerli himself said that the Zurich Opera Company was almost too small to stage Swan Lake

Spoerli pulled this off with two moves. First he imported Prima Ballerina Polina Semionova to dance Odette/Odile. Second, he ruthlessly cut away at the book, music, and choreography of Swan Lake until he shaped a contemporary work (as lean as Semionova) that could be covered by his young troupe. Everybody in the company had a role, every role was vital, and you can sense do-or-die bravado in the performance. Let's just call this Swan Lite.

What had to be cut to get to Swan Lite? Here's the list: 12 swans (there are 20 on the Zurich stage v. 32 in most productions), all character dancers (no jester, etc.), 2 princesses from foreign lands (4 instead of 6), the owl suit, most ethnic costumes, the crossbow and other props (except lots of chairs), all mime scenes, Siegfried's oath to love Odette, and about 15 minutes of music (here 125 minutes v. 140 minutes in the Paris Opera Ballet performance).  You are invited to concentrate on enjoying the dancing and to not worry about whether there will be a happy or sad ending. Spoerli assumes you generally know the plot, and he doesn't sweat the details. (Don't worry---I'm not going to get into Spoerli's ending.)

At first, I resisted the Swan Lite approach, but I soon found that it was refreshing. Semionova, a movie-star-beautiful woman, beats all the other Odette/Odile dancers around in 2010.  The men stars are adequate for the Swan Lite approach. It's fun to see so many young dancers get a chance to appear in this Holy Grail ballet.

We now take excellent sound for granted in our HDVDs, and almost all of the ballet and opera orchestras sound good. But the Zurich Opera Orchestra seems to be especially lean, pungent, and provocative on this disc. The recording is very close and every instrument is heard with impressive clarity and detail. I think Fedoseyev slows much of the music down a bit, which may make things a bit easier on the dancers and gives us more time to savor the score.

On the other hand, the lighting is a big weakness in this video. This show was designed to be dark. However successful this may have been to the live audience, it made for tough shooting with the high-definition cameras. It was hard to get decent screenshots for this review. If you are using a projector in your home theater, you may find the image lacking. On my nice Samsung plasma, the images are, although always a bit hazy, pleasant to watch once I adjust to the fact that this is ballet noir.

Here's a shot from the opening birthday party. Prince Siegfried (Stanislav Jermakov) is looking at the Queen (Karin Pellmont). The tutor (Arsen Mehrabyan) looks to his right. (When Mehrabyan puts on his red leather jacket, he's Rothbart.):

Dancing at the birthday party:

In Act 2 Siegfried goes for a walk at the lake and encounters the swan-princess (Polina Semionova):

There's not much light on the stage, but the front is brighter lit than the back. Spotlights are used extensively:

Semionova is amazing in the 2nd Act pas de deux:

Everybody in the company gets a chance in Act 3 to show he or she can do. Here are the 4 princesses who are rejected by Siegfried:

Semionova as Odette:

Siegfried betrays Odette by falling for Odile:

In Act 4, the swan maidens fear the worst:

I tried to make only good screenshots, but here's an example of uneven lighting on the stage. The girls in the rear are much darker than the girls in front:

From the final pas de deux (followed by the confrontation between Siegfried and Rothbart):

To sum up, if you have no HDVD of Swan Lake, get the real-deal Paris Opera Ballet version. For a shorter modern alternative, consider the Zurich disc. I would probably have given this a "C+" grade on account of the weak lighting, the bland Act 1, and the generally stripped-down character of this production. But Semionova along yanks this up to a B-. I also admire the ability of Andy Sommer to wring a lot of beautiful images out of this dark show, so I wind up with a "B" grade.