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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
The Golden Age, Op. 22, ballet in two acts
Libretto by Yuri Grigorovich & Isaak Glikman
Choreography by Yury Grigorovich
Rita – Nina Kaptsova
Boris – Ruslan Skvortsov
Yashka – Mikhail Lobukhin
Lyuska – Ekaterina Krysanova
Variety Show Compere – Vyacheslav Lopatin
Bolshoi Ballet
Orchestra of the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre/Pavel Klinichev
rec. Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, 2016
Region A/B/C; Full HD, 16:9; 2.0 PCM & 5.1 DTS HDMA
Reviewed in stereo & surround
Booklet with synopsis & chaptering in English, French & German
BELAIR CLASSIQUES
BAC443 Blu-ray [103 mins]

Tell a Shostakovich or ballet aficionado you’ve just watched The Golden Age on video, and you might well be asked “which one?”, or “don’t you mean The Age of Gold?”. To which you might reply, sounding like an expert on Soviet revisionism, that with the names Grigorovich and Glikman in the credits, it must be the 1982 rehash. Your other reasons might be a) the plot, b) the added music, and c) the ballet is in two acts, not its original three. The title is a more fluid matter, vagaries of translation perhaps, either variation seeming to pop up interchangeably.

To begin with, the plot. Shostakovich was by all accounts a keen football follower, reputedly calling it “the ballet of the masses”, and the action for the original 1930 production of The Golden Age revolves around the visit of a Soviet football team to a Western city at the time of an industrial exhibition. The team’s good endeavours, however, are constantly undermined by hostile administrators, decadent artistes and corrupt officials. It falls victim to match rigging, police harassment, and unjust imprisonment by the evil bourgeoisie, to be eventually freed when the local workers overthrow their capitalist overlords. The ballet climaxes with a football match between the Soviet team and the bourgeois fascists, and ends with a dance of solidarity between the footballers and the workers. Composed during the period of the New Economic Policy, which allowed some private enterprise and free expression, Shostakovich nevertheless incurred the Soviet authorities’ displeasure by including Western dance steps such as the foxtrot and tango. Other production issues saw the work performed just eighteen times, after which its name survived largely because of the short orchestral suite Shostakovich had been canny enough to prepare before the ballet’s premiere.

Then in 1982, Yuri Grigorovich and Isaak Glikman revived the ballet for the Bolshoi with a new story line, Grigorovich also integrating other Shostakovich works into the score. The action shifts to the USSR in the 1920s to a restaurant called "The Golden Age", a favourite haunt of shady operators and petty criminals. The hero is Boris the fisherman, who is also member of a satirical agitprop theatre for working youths, and the young workers' leader. He falls in love with Rita, a dancer who teams with the villain, Yashka, as the restaurant’s floorshow. Various skirmishes follow, and with Yashka and his gang finally dispatched, Rita is free, leaving the restaurant forever, and goes off with her beloved Boris to start a new life. Underlying this new plot is a fundamental shift from the original political and cultural satire to an out-and-out love story, Soviet-style.

To be complete, a third plot emerged in Shostakovich's centenary year when Noah D. Gelber created a production for the Mariinsky Theatre, based on a new libretto by the playwright Konstantin Uchitel, which was even more radical in its being set variously during 1930, 1945 and current times, where an elderly couple meet and remember their youth. It is, however, the 1982 plot that unfolds on the review disc.

On the ballet’s music and structure, both the 1982 and 2006 versions cut and substantially rearranged the score, and certainly in the former case other material was included. Most obvious are the slow movements from Shostakovich’s piano concertos which accompany the two love pas de deux between Boris and Rita, at the end of the first act, and as the penultimate scene of the second act. These insertions are quite telling, as in the midst of the music’s general rambunctiousness, they bring a quiet gravitas that underscores the plot’s new direction and meaning. In this guise, I found these pieces have never sounded quite so beautiful. It may also strike some that beginning the second act with the Tahiti Trot (Shostakovich’s arrangement of ‘Tea for Two’) isn’t kosher, and they would be partly correct. It was not in the original score, but included with slight changes to the orchestration at the request of Aleksandr Gauk, conductor of the ballet’s premiere.

It should come as no surprise then from the above that, plot-wise at least, The Golden Age is not a great ballet. Indeed, I understand it’s never been performed outside of Russia. I’ve also read criticism of Grigorovich's “stylized” choreography as being “too crude and repetitive” for a full-length production, and that the absence of a dancer such as Irek Mukhamedov, for whom Grigorovich created the role of Boris, is a substantial handicap. Musically it’s no shining masterpiece either, unless relentless satire and parody are your cup of tea. But what if a less-than-great ballet gets a simply outstanding performance and production that is ideal for home viewing? That is what we have here.

The Bolshoi staged this Golden Age in the autumn of 2016, a few months prior to Grigorovich’s 90th birthday. It was the ballet's first appearance in almost 10 years, and was recorded also for cinema release. None of the dancing is less than excellent, even by the Bolshoi’s exalted standards; virtuosity, grace and precision abound. Ruslan Skvortsov and Nina Kaptsova make a superlative Boris and Rita, the expression of sensual love in their two key pas de deux quite exquisite. Superb also is Yashka (Mikhail Lobukhin), most notably in his restaurant dance scenes with Rita, and cavorting with his female accomplice Lyuska (Ekaterina Krysanova). Emotions are tangibly acted, such as Rita’s divided feelings for Boris and Yashka, and Lyuska’s jealousy. The crowd scenes are typically dynamic and excitingly choreographed. Costumes vary from the generically colourful to more themed garb for the occasion, such as ballroom attire for the Tahiti Trot, and gatherings in “The Golden Age” where various Soviet stereotypes are scattered among the corps de ballet. Allusions to the classic ballets don’t escape notice - Rita swans around in black with the evil Yashka, and in white for her suitor Boris, while the gang-fight scenes have a decidedly R&J feel to them, again a black (Yashka’s thugs) and white (Boris’s fishermen) affair. The sets are appropriate, subtly shaded, and geometrically interesting, with tasteful clues to the time and place of each scene’s setting. The lighting cannot be faulted, and the Bolshoi orchestra under Pavel Klinichev do Shostakovich proud.

Where this production really comes to life as a home viewing experience, though, is in its audio-visual presentation. The camera-work is close to ideal, the long-shots of the stage, scenery and action immaculately framed, while close-ups are used judiciously - only perhaps the opening of the Tahiti Trot sequence suggests any indulgence. The picture is crisp and the colours deep, natural and vibrant, credit no doubt to the lighting design. The sound is also something special: the impression of a pit orchestra is uncannily real, and in DTS surround with the theatre ambience and audience around you, and the Bolshoi stage in panorama on your screen, ‘the best seat in the house’ is no exaggeration.

Even if The Golden Age is not a great ballet, and stardom is not front and centre in this performance, excellence nevertheless prevails everywhere. The Bolshoi principals and company, their orchestra and music director, and the production with additional choreography, sets, costumes, and lighting are all beyond reproach. Add to this picture and sound quality that, as best as I’ve ever experienced, take you ‘there’, and you have a perfect sum of the parts. Literally and metaphorically, nobody puts a foot wrong.

Des Hutchinson

 

 




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