The Sleeping Beauty


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THE SLEEPING BEAUTY

Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Based on Charles Perrault’s La Belle au bois dormant (1697)

First Produced: Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg, 1890

Original Choreography by Marius Petipa

Present Company: Royal Ballet Covent Garden, 2007

Choreographed by Marius Petipa and Frederick Ashton, Anthony Dowell, Christopher Wheeldon

Staging: Monica Mason & Christopher Newton

After Ninette de Valois & Nicholas Sergeyev

Original Set Designs: Oliver Messel

Additional Designs: Peter Farmer

Lighting: Mark Jonathan

Video Director: Ross MacGibbon

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Conductor: Valeriy Ovsyanikov


Cast

Princess Aurora: Alina Cojocaru

Prince Florimund: Federco Bonelli

Lilac Fairy: Marianela Núñez

Carabosse: Genesia Rosato

King Floristan: Christopher Saunders

His Queen: Elizabeth McGorian

Princess Florine: Sarah Lamb

Bluebird: Yohei Sasaki


Specs:

Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-50

Ballet: 40.63 GB

Bit Rate: Very High (38~42 Mbps)

PCM 5.1

PCM 2.0

Region: All

Ballet runtime: 133 minutes

Opus Arte, 2009

 

Grade:

Conception & Staging: B

Costumes: A

Casting: A

Dancing: A

Choreography: B

Orchestra: A

Music Direction: C

Video Direction: A

Image: A

Audio: A-

Extras Features: C

Recommendation: B+


 

Comment

As much as I think I know about “classical” music and to some extent, ballet, I can’t say that I have much of a clue as to who we should credit with the first ballet whose musical and stage structure is so tight as to deny an audience their usual applause reflex.  Until well into the nineteenth century, music for opera was such that soloists had an opportunity to show off their stuff and the audience would applaud their appreciation.  Perhaps it was Berlioz in Les Troyens (1856-58) who first made it really difficult for stage and audience to interact in the old way.  And perhaps this was one reason why his opera didn’t get staged until 1921. 


Wagner developed and perfected the idea of a music drama.  I suspect he was not thinking only in terms of musical structure.  The first time I saw his RING I was cautioned not to applaud until the end of the act.  The audience, I quickly learned, had all been given the same cue.  I was astonished.  What self-control, I thought!  It had always seemed to me that audience applause was as much a way for individuals to show off and get in the first clap as it was for them to release a torrent of deserved appreciation.


       


But until the end of the century ballet continued the tradition of individual numbers by one, two, or (famously in Swan Lake) four dancers, applause, and a bow.  Drove me crazy even before I had ever seen an opera sans applause.  Perhaps this was because the first ballet I ever saw staged was Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. What ballet I had seen up to that point was on television; frequent audience reaction came with the territory - like we were watching something on Ed Sullivan.  The Prokofiev was another matter entirely.  The performance - sometime about 1959 in Los Angeles and which I am pretty sure was given by the Bolshoi Ballet - was the most achingly beautiful thing I had ever seen on stage. To have interrupted such exquisite dancing, to say nothing of such dramatic passion would have been sacrilege.


       


Shortly afterward I saw the Royal Danish Ballet perform Coppélia at the Greek Theatre in Griffiths Park. Was it the outdoor venue or something about the music and staging that seemed to welcome the occasional (but hardly routine) applause?  Not sure. But I do remember that I was suitably impressed in any case.  I already knew the music pretty well from the Dorati recording, the staging was lovely, even though not quite as I imagined it.  But always lurking in the back of my mind was the private audience I had had with the Russians.  It was not until another fifteen or twenty years later that I would see a “classical” ballet staged in such a way as to keep the audience silent until the end: that would be the San Francisco Ballet under Michael Smuin.


I dwell on all this, far too long I’m sure, because of the effect on video of what strikes me as habitual, mindless applause, where the interruption, welcome or not, becomes permanent and predictable, and after the first run through can no longer be felt as spontaneous.  (It isn’t really mindless, I know, it’s just tradition - and the staging contributes to the outcome.)


       


The day after I watched this Royal Ballet production I listened to the entire ballet on LP (Dorati and the Minneapolis Symphony again) mainly to see whether or not the episodic nature of the Royal Ballet performance is inherent in the score.  I never thought it was, but then listening to music on record is a very different memory experience, and it was there I first and repeatedly knew Tchaikovsky’s music.  It seemed to me that one dance followed from another as if it could only be that way - but this might only be the result of how we come to know music if we do not play the music ourselves.  Yes, there are short pauses between dances, but they seem rightfully connected.  Still.  I guess the same is true for the second act of The Nutcracker with its characterful dances that we know so well in any number of contexts, from Fantasia to television specials, to holiday live performance.  The advantage here is that every production is so different, even as to the order of some of the numbers; and, depending on circumstances, there might not even be any audience interruption, or very little.  But enough of that for now.


       


The Sleeping Beauty is a mixed bag no matter how you look at it. It is based on a popular fairy tale that has become so ingrained in the public consciousness that it isn’t far off the mark to say it has given rise to a syndrome of sorts that commonly bears its name.  How many young girls expect to be wakened from sleep - of the innocence of childhood, no doubt - by a Prince Charming, who will take them away from their cares; and how many young men see themselves as just the knight to do it?  Socially speaking, as a species, we arrive at Tchaikovsky’s ballet today at a kind of crossroads where we are trying to liberate ourselves from just such fairytale expectations, yet venerate its beauty, simplicity and happily-ever-after ending.


       


The music is Tchaikovsky’s most relentlessly beautiful ballet score.  There’s not a single phrase that doesn’t reek with elegance. . . except, of course the music for Carabosse, the wronged fairy who takes pleasure in exacting vengeance for a perceived slight (and for our money, we can drop the “perceived.”) The problem is that, regardless of who’s staging is in question, the scenario has one too many acts - the last.  The drama is over at the end of the second act when Prince Florimund wakes Aurora , the spell is broken and the palace is revived.  The rest is just epilogue. The best that can be said for it in dramatic terms is that it is like opening one’s presents on Christmas morning - hardly a satisfying way to end a story where death is cheated by a magic spell.  Better that the entire 45-minute third act be condensed into a single number that signifies the joy of the palace at Aurora’s return to the living.  Disney felt as much.  Making matters worse for the third act is that Tchaikovsky’s music hits it high point with the gong at the end of the second act that signals the breaking of the spell.  There’s really nowhere to go after that.  On the other hand, the last act has such marvelous music and opportunity for great dancers to enjoy what they love most: soak in the applause.


       


The Sleeping Beauty is no Swan Lake.  Depending on which production you see, of its 135-160 minutes, only about a half hour or so has any dramatic action to speak of; the rest is encores in an  unrelenting series of enchanting tableaux in motion.  Damned lovely encores, some of the most , and in the present production some exceptional dancing, notably by our Aurora, Romanian Alina Cojocaru, principal dancer with the Royal Ballet since 2001, who lights up the stage from the moment she comes onto it, so full of hope and expectation, so vulnerable that even her hesitations at letting go of her partners’ hands seem to be in character.  Also excellent is the Argentinian dancer Marianela Núñez as the Lilac Fairy.  Through no fault of his own, Federco Bonelli as Prince Florimund is outpaced by Yohei Sasaki as the third act’s Bluebird.  The various fairies from the Prologue are all wonderful, especially Mara Galeazzi and Natasha Oughtred.


However you feel about the stop and go nature of the outer acts, it is Valeriy Ovsyanikov’s plodding conducting that pretty much tears it for me.  Curiously, he comes to life at Aurora’s entrance near the start of Act 1, notwithstanding the slow tempo and, for the most part, stays on top of things through the end of the second act.  From there on, the best I can say about his reading is that it gives ample room for even the most novice dancers to keep up.


       


Video

Opus Arte, who can always be counted on for a superb, trouble-free transfer, have outdone themselves here: 40 GB for a 2 ¼ hour piece, with bit rates as high as they come.  The result is a fluid, marvelously textured image, where pastels (the principal palette of the Prologue) and bold colors (the opening of the second act) are rendered as if by magic.  Video Director Ross MacGibbon’s framing and editing choices are by and large sensible.  I remain loyal to Fred Astaire’s notion that dancers should not be photographed without their legs, but MacGibbon tends to avoid the “error” except when there is little movement of the body.  After all, there is as much posing in this choreography as dancing, he said with sardonic exaggeration. Exposures are, for the most part, just about perfect, with only a couple of instances where it leans toward overexposure briefly.  And I have reservations about the lighting during much of Carabosse’s arrival at the Christening, so dark we can barely make out one rat from another.  This last niggle aside, which is no fault of the transfer in any case, a perfect score for the video.


       


Audio

The Orchestra of the Royal Ballet is not helped by its being in the pit; still, as far as it goes, the audio is a reasonable rendering.  Here you want to opt for the surround if only because the mixer neglected to add the bass to the stereo - How does one do that I wonder!  As expected under such conditions, Tchaikovsky’s delicate wind writing is inevitably a little smeared in the bigger passages, but is smartly highlighted in solos and small groups; the horns come off nicely, as does the solo violin. . . which reminds me - do my ears deceive, or is that a piano later in the ballet where I should think a harp should be?  I hadn’t noticed, until it was off that the sync with the dancers is right on its toes.  And where isn’t it, you might ask: At the start of the second act when the camera is investigating the orchestra.  It’s off - very funny.  One thing more that bothered me at a subliminal: the stage is silent, as if they are dancing on air.  In the theatre footfalls may strike us a bit loud, but not to hear them at all. . .?


       


Bonus

Not much to write home about.  If you don’t know the story in ballet form, the Illustrated Synopsis serves us well. A Cast Gallery names names - up to a point.  The enclosed booklet includes a very good essay in three languages about the history and popularity of the ballet.


Recommendation

Great image quality, good sound, marvelous dancing, sets, costumes and, for the most part, sensitive lighting.  What’s not to like?  Valeriy Ovsyanikov’s earthbound conducting for the Prologue and Aurora’s  Wedding, defintely.  The all too frequent  curtain calls and audience applause in the last act, but such is “classical ballet” generally and usually comes with the territory, perhaps more troubling here than in other productions - we have Frederik Ashton to thank for that.  I suspect most people considering The Sleeping Beauty know what they are getting into.  That said, this Blu-ray should be welcome.


       




Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

July 4, 2012



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