The Art Of Svetlana Zakharova At The Bolshoi
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake, Op. 20 [125 mins]
Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66 [138 mins]
Ludwig MINKUS (1826-1917)
La Bayadère [126 mins]
Cesare PUGNI (1802-1870)
La Fille du Pharaon [101 mins – ballet, 29 mins – bonus]
Svetlana Zakharova, Prima Ballerina
Denis Rodkin and Artemy Belyakov, (Swan Lake), Vladislav Lantratov and Maria Alexandrova, (La Bayadère), David Hallberg and Maria Allash (The Sleeping Beauty), and Sergey Filin (La Fille du Pharaon)
Orchestra of the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre/Pavel Sorokin (Swan, Bayadère), Vassily Sinaisky (Beauty), Alexander Sotnikov (Fille)
Choreography: Yuri Grigorovich (Swan), Marius Petipa (Beauty, Bayadère), Pierre Lacotte after Petipa (Fille)
rec. Bolshoi Theatre Moscow, 2003 (La Fille du Pharaon), 2011 (The Sleeping Beauty), 2013 (La Bayadère) and 2015 (Swan Lake).
Format: NTSC, Region Code 0, Colour, 16:9 Audio 2.0 PCM & 5.1 DTS
BEL AIR CLASSIQUES BAC616 Blu-ray [4 discs: 519 mins]
Last year Bolshoi Ballet superstar Svetlana Zakharova brought her show Amore to London. As often seems to be the case with dancers closely associated with the great 19th century classics, when devising her own programme Ms Zakharova chose to focus on works by contemporary choreographers – in this case Yuri Possokhov, Patrick de Bana and Marguerite Donlon.
While a new and unfamiliar piece like Amore might have proved to be a difficult sell on DVD, producers BelAir Classiques clearly have no doubt that this newly released compendium of Zakharova’s performances in classical ballet will find a ready audience. The four recordings were made at various points in time between 2003 and 2015 and all have been previously issued individually. I will consider them briefly in the order in which they were filmed.
In 1862 the lavishly over-the-top The pharaoh’s daughter had been the first of choreographer Marius Petipa’s big successes. In her Apollo’s angels: a history of ballet (London, 2010) Jennifer Holmans vividly describes the original production as “a sprawling grand-opera-style ballet, packed with pageantry and special effects. There was a dance for eighteen couples with baskets of flowers balanced on their heads; on the final chord thirty-six children popped out of the flowers. There were camels, monkeys, and a lion, and water sprayed up from an onstage fountain… [Other features included] an opium dream, mummies come to life, a suicide, an underwater Nile ballet, plentiful balleticised national dances, and an apotheosis with a three-tiered display of Egyptian gods. It was a fantastically extravagant affair…” (op. cit. pp. 266-267).
In the succeeding century and a half, however, many of the details of The pharaoh’s daughter’s original production and choreography were lost, so that what we have on this Blu-ray disc is choreographer and ballet historian Pierre Lacotte’s reconstruction and, where necessary, reimagining. That production premiered at the Bolshoi in 2000 as a star vehicle for ballerina Nina Ananiashvili who was then at the peak of her dancing career. Five years later my colleague Paul Shoemaker reviewed this subsequent performance’s first DVD release and his comments (see here http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2005/Feb05/pugni.htm) strike, I think, just the right tone. While the ballet’s plot is, as Paul suggests, even more ludicrous than most, it undeniably possesses – in spades – a high camp charm that is well-nigh irresistible.
As Princess Aspicia, Ms Zakharova is suitably aloof and imperious. Film clips suggest that Nina Ananiashvili may have invested more overt emotion in the role while, somewhat later, Natalia Osipova added her own characteristic element of playful lightheartedness, but Zakharova’s cooler and more straightforwardly expressed sincerity provides us with an equally convincing and palatable interpretation. Her dancing, moreover, is superb. Partnered here by the accomplished Sergei Filin, she establishes in The pharaoh’s daughter the same dignified persona that we will observe in the following three filmed performances, whether she is portraying a temple dancer in La bayadère, a spellbound princess in The sleeping beauty or Swan lake’s lovelorn avian.
Ms Zakharova’s 2011 performance of The sleeping beauty was originally given a stand-alone release the following year (BelAir Classiques Blu-ray BAC478) but has never, as far as I can see, been reviewed on this website. That is something of a shame because not only is this a visually attractive, quite spectacular production that cleverly utilizes all of the Bolshoi’s enormous stage but the performances are also quite special. Once again, Zakharova benefits from having an accomplished partner at her side. This time it is the long-legged David Hallberg, famously the first American ever to be appointed a principal dancer at the Bolshoi.
In fact, however, it was watching Mr Hallberg’s interaction on stage with Ms Zakharova that made me begin to identify something of a consistent trend. When she dances a solo, Zakharova seems peculiarly detached. She defaults to a somewhat cold and detached persona, loses something in the way of spontaneity and appears reluctant to engage fully with her audience. However, when partnered with a male dancer – especially one with some particular charisma of his own - she lowers her reserve and actually appears to enjoy herself rather more. In this Sleeping beauty David Hallberg manages to bring such a transformation about. Though not as impossibly handsome as Swan lake’s Roberto Bolle, he certainly knows how to win an audience over. If you watch his expressive eyes whenever he acknowledges the applause after some particularly spectacular feat, you will see how he almost appears to invite the theatre audience to be complicit with him in some private joke about how he’s actually done it. Here he accomplishes the rare achievement of luring one’s eyes off Ms Zakharova at her finest.
This compilation’s Swan lake is another typically lavish Bolshoi production. Regarded by the Russian government as a prestigious cultural icon, the Moscow company is allocated larger than usual budgets so that, with all else being equal, it often mounts more generously appointed productions than those of its international rivals. It can, for instance, call upon many more dancers to fill its enormous stage – a particularly important consideration in classical ballet where size very often does matter. In recent years, too, several of its most attractively mounted performances have benefited from advances in film technology and this Swan lake, which, like the Bolshoi Sleeping beauty, is already a visual feast when watched live on stage, now looks spectacularly good in its Blu-ray incarnation.
Of course, it goes without saying that big budgets and the latest technology can never be enough on their own to guarantee artistic success and the most significant contribution to that outcome will always be made by the dancers themselves. A few years ago I reviewed another Zakharova performance as Odette/Odile. That one was recorded at La Scala, Milan, in 2004 and the Italian company’s superstar soloist Roberto Bolle took the role of the prince (see here http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2014/Dec14/Tchaikovsky_ballets_107544.htm). On that occasion, although I once again identified an occasional degree of “icy reserve”, I nevertheless thought Ms Zakharova’s overall performance characteristically accomplished and enjoyable. Comparing the recordings made in Milan in 2004 and Moscow in 2015, I’d be hard put to say that one is superior to the other. In fact, it’s something of a case of swings and roundabouts as, while I discern more of a touchingly genuine vulnerability to the Italian Odette, the Russian Odile commands the stage with unrivalled authority. If, on balance, I tend to give the final nod to the Moscow performance that’s included in this compilation, ultimately it might only be because of the pin-sharp quality of the filming.
We come, then, to this compilation’s final performance. Just like Minkus’s other masterpiece Don Quixote, if not quite to the same extent, La bayadère has been increasingly seen in live performances in recent years, often in Natalia Makarova’s revision (review ~ review) that notably included a reconstruction of the ballet’s lost fourth Act while simultaneously scaling down the action so as to make it easier for western companies to mount – by, for instance, cutting the number of corps de ballet dancers in the Kingdom of the shades scene from 32 to 24. Interestingly enough, Svetlana Zakharova has herself danced that revised version and may be seen doing so in a filmed performance from La Scala, Milan, in which she is once again partnered by Roberto Bolle (TDK DVWW-BLLBSC). Neverthless, the performance included in this newly-released compendium derives like its fellows from a Bolshoi performance, meaning in practice that, while entirely eschewing any attempt to restore Act 4, it deploys the full complement of 32 shades and thus emerges as a significantly grander affair altogether.
This performance – previously issued as a stand-alone release on BelAir Classiques Blu-ray BAC501 - is, in fact, much the best of the versions that omit the fourth Act, a practice followed not only by the Bolshoi but by their domestic rivals at the Mariinsky (as may be seen in a vintage performance on Kultur DVD D1113) and, in the west, by the Paris Opera Ballet (Warner Music Vision DVD 4509-96851-2). Ms Zakharova plays, on this occasion, not a princess (Aspicia, Aurora) or even a quasi-princess (Odette) but a humble temple dancer. While that character isn’t a natural fit with her default demeanour of regal condescension, the viewer’s admiration of her superlative technique quickly and decisively overcomes any other reservations.
As in all four Bolshoi proctions in this release, Ms Zakharova’s performance is accorded a lavish setting – though this one quite outdoes even the other three, with its succession of royal garden parties, elaborately marshalled courtiers’ processions and elegant ghostly gatherings, all beautifully costumed and stunningly mounted among the dramatic splendour of some of the most skillfully constructed and often eye-boggling sets you can imagine. The corps de ballet is quite outstanding, never more so than in an exquisitely precise rendition of The kingdom of the shades. That particular scene – often regarded as the most sheerly beautiful of all Marius Petipa’s creations - also offers on this occasion a demonstration-quality example of how classical ballet should be filmed, with the technical and artistic teams clearly working hand in hand to obtain the finest possible visual effects.
All in all, then, this is an excellent collection of superbly performed classical ballets. I need only point out two reservations. The first – an entirely practical one - is that the release comes with no booklet or any other form of documentation at all. As a result, someone unfamiliar with any of the ballets might want to bone up on them elsewhere beforehand, in order to make the most of the viewing experience. I can only describe my second reservation as an ideological one. The Bolshoi, utterly impervious to Political Correctness, still maintains the disconcerting – and, to many, downright offensive - tradition of putting white dancers into black make-up for some of the roles. That occurs in both The pharaoh’s daughter and La bayadère and there will, as a result, be some people who will find those productions unacceptable. Whatever your own opinion on the issue, it is, I think, a useful reminder that, even though we like to think that the Arts cross international boundaries, there are many significant cultural differences that still – and these days perhaps even increasingly - separate the world’s peoples.
Even if, however, such a reservation meant that you only were to watch only two of these four productions, you would still be left in no doubt that Svetlana Zakharova is one of the great dancers of our time. A short documentary film about her was entitled Svetlana Zakharova: tsarina of dance and that, for her multitude of admirers, is exactly what she is, even if, as already noted, her emotional reserve makes her something of an ice queen.
Of course, even a chilly persona can have an appeal of its own to creative artists. Film director Alfred Hitchcock, for one, often cast so-called “cool blondes” as his leading ladies so as to break their characters’ emotional reserves down over the course of a movie and, as he liked to think, reveal the passionate, sensual women underneath. That, however, was 20th century film-making. Nineteenth century ballets, on the other hand, generally don’t do that sort of thing. They don’t question their era’s expectations of reserved and rigidly circumscribed womanly behaviour; indeed, they frequently punish those who defy such expectations – if only after they have been given ample opportunity to demonstrate their wantonness to the titillated audience.
Bearing that in mind, the emotionally detached style that Ms Zakharova often chooses to adopt in the classical repertoire becomes, I think, more explicable and acceptable. And perhaps that’s why, as in Amore, she seems to take so much pleasure nowadays in exploring new, freewheeling choreography that’s far more reflective of life as she, along with the rest of us, lives it today.
Previous review (DVD): Roy Westbrook