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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908) The Snow Queen, ballet (1882)
From a story by Hans Christian Andersen (1844)
Choreographed by Christopher Hampson
Constance Devernay (The Snow Queen); Bethany Kingsley-Garner (Gerda);
Andrew Peasgood (Kai); Kayla-Maree Tarantolo (The Summer Princess/Lexi);
Bruno Micchiardi (Ringmaster); Gillian Risi (Begona, the Musician)
Scottish Ballet Orchestra/Jean-Claude Picard
rec. 13 December 2019, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh OPUS ARTE OA1329DDVD [87 mins]
Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Snow Queen was first turned into a play, then became a ballet, then three, short, animated, Soviet films (1957,1967,1986), a Finnish film (1986), a British film (1995), and, most recently in 2012, a Russian/American animated feature film — such has been the popularity of the story and one can see why Scottish Opera decided to turn it into a new stage production.
Its premiere as a ballet was as The Snow Maiden 163 years earlier at the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg; in it, Rimsky-Korsakov makes use of seasonal Russian folk songs and ceremonial dances. It was revised in 1898 into the form we know today. This performance under the original title took place as a Christmas show in 2019 at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, before the onset of Covid.
A prologue, ‘The Enchanted Mirror’, introduces us to the Snow Queen and her sister, the Summer Princess, who longs to leave their ice palace. The Princess sees herself in the mirror embracing a stranger many years later and leaves the palace to follow her destiny. Realising that the Princess has fled, the Queen decides to bring her back. In her fury, she breaks the Enchanted Mirror, cleverly achieved here with an animated, slow-motion effect of broken glass pieces.
Act I opens in a busy Marketplace on a crisp winter’s morning where a crowd and the Summer Princess, (now a pick-pocket Lexi) all mingle. The arrival of a circus brings colour and bustling activity to the scene. Its Ringmaster organises the crowd into an audience. Amongst them, young Kai (Andrew Peasgood) proposes to his childhood friend, Gerda (Bethany Kingsley-Garner), but Lexi realises that Kai is the handsome stranger she saw in the Ice Palace mirror and so intervenes. The Snow Queen attempts to make her sister return (in an effective frozen animation sequence) and when she refuses, meanly throws splinters of glass from the magic mirror into Kai’s eyes, causing him to see everything that is beautiful as ugly and the splinters work their way into his heart, turning it to ice.
Act II has three linked scenes, the first of which opens with the Princess leading Kai’s betrothed Gerda into the forest to meet a fortune teller, who tells them that the Queen has bewitched and stolen Kai’s heart. Here, the plot provides the opportunity for the effective transformations so much in vogue in the late 19th Century, where the Snow Queen blocks Gerda’s path to the palace. This scene allows the introduction of Jack Frost, snowflakes and snow wolves. In the ice palace, Gerda finds Kai in a dreamlike state, now bewitched and unable to recognise her. The Queen attacks Gerda, placing a mirror splinter in her eye and hand. The sisters fight and unintentionally fall through the enchanted mirror, which breaks the spell and the power of the splinters.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s music is more heavily orchestrated than Delibes’ or Tchaikovsky’s and pleasant enough. The listener will recognise two numbers used in the ballet: ‘The Flight of the Bumble Bee’, originally written as an interpolated orchestral interlude for the Gypsy Encampment scene in Act III of Rimsky Korsakov’s opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1900), makes an appearance in the circus when the Snow Queen throws dust in Kai’s eyes.
Chris Hampson’s production makes good use attractive settings and lighting effects. He tells us that he was aiming for something spectacular and dressed at the turn of the 20th century. This may be true of the flat-capped and top-hatted crowd, but I am not convinced by the plain-looking 1960s dress for the lovers, Kai and Gerda, showing trousers with braces, and a floral skirt with a red jacket; costumes from the earlier Edwardian or Victorian period would have seemed more in keeping.
This magic staging by the Scottish Ballet does not disappoint. Lez Brotherston’s stage design for Act II provides an impressive, exaggerated forest perspective where one looks up at the tree canopies. Realistically moving tree trunks are projected as Lexi leads Gerda through the forest’s undergrowth. An animated breaking of the Enchanted Mirror in the Prologue, the projected tree movement on cut cloths and the falling snow of different types in three scenes make this production memorable. The dancing is of the usual high standard expected of the Scottish Ballet and the quality of the costumes for the circus entertainers, snowflakes and wolves is superb.
Ross MacGibbon’s video is technically excellent with good shot composition throughout. The exposure necessary to capture the special effects is spot on and, unlike some recent ballet videos, there is no burnt-out facial detail. The orchestra is well recorded on the soundtrack (Dolby and Surround Sound) and the scenes are usefully indexed. Subtitles, for the 10-minute extra features are provided in English, French, German, Korean and Japanese. The make-up interlude extra is disappointing because it is really an advertisement for the make-up company. Many will think that one might achieve similar results in half the time with Leichner 2½, 9 and two greasepaint liners in place of the fifteen items used. I’m not sure why this UK video is NTSC mastered to slant to the American market when the majority of the world uses the PAL TV format. There is no difficulty in playing this on our PAL European DVD players, however.
Opus Arte provides unnecessarily small typesetting in their booklet; space wasted on photographs could have been usefully employed instead. The fact that the graphic designer chose not to give the composer’s name on the front cover is a mistake, as one finds it hidden amongst a list of credits where the design and lighting personnel are shown above the composer’s name.