The Firebird and Les Noces, two disparate ballets by Igor Stravinsky, are skillfully danced by The Royal Ballet of Covent Garden on this DVD recorded in 2001. The Firebird is a revival of the original Mikhail Fokine choreography. Bronislava Nijinska's Les Noces (The Wedding) is also faithfully reproduced. The scenery and costumes of The Firebird are striking and lavish, while they are plain and austere for Les Noces.
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, under the able direction of John Carewe, beautifully performs the unabridged score of The Firebird. Before the curtain rises, an on-screen plot synopsis accompanies the first few minutes of music. From start to finish, the well-mannered British audience (as opposed to the typically clap-happy American audience) does not needlessly interrupt the dancing with inappropriate, annoying applause. In the opening scene, Leanne Benjamin, the Firebird, flits across the stage with bird-like jumps. Prince Ivan, Jonathan Cope, appears next, hopping down from the wall that encloses the enchanted garden of the immortal and evil sorcerer Kotschei. Ivan hides, lying in wait to catch the Firebird and seizes her after she steals an apple from the magic tree. What ensues is a captivating performance by Ms Benjamin. Her acting is first-rate but her dancing is inspired, arms waving and hands fluttering. She is the firebird. Her leg work, turns, and jumps (developpes, chaines, and jetes) are marvelously executed. Jonathan Cope's partnering shows sensitivity and deftness. He and Benjamin dance as one, his lifting very silky and effortless. Cope's facial expressions and body language demonstrate fine acting. David Drew as Kotschei is deliciously grotesque: long fingernails, black skeleton costume, flowing cape, humped back, and scraggly beard. His grotesqueness, however, is tinged with humor. Genesia Rosato, the beautiful Tsarevna, is suitably demure. She and her 12 princesses play catch with apples taken from the enchanted tree (not great dancing, but an interesting diversion). Watching these attractive women in their long nightgowns prancing around the stage provides pleasure. The finale, full of pomp and circumstance, is emotionally and visually satisfying, intensified by a succession of full orchestral chords.
In Les Noces, the two principals--Zenaida Yanowsky as the bride and David Pickering her groom--are nice to look at, but they do little dancing. The real stars in this dance-cantata are the men and women (especially the women) of the corps de ballet. Because this is a tricky ballet, full of changing beats and irregular tempos, dancers can easily lose count and make errors. Fortunately, they never do. Nijinska's choreography is just as fresh and modern today as it was when it was first performed in 1923. But the music (composed for four pianos, percussion, small chorus, and four soloists) is what makes this ballet-cantata a masterpiece.
These two performances are emotionally and intellectually stimulating. Anyone who appreciates Stravinsky will be rewarded with the purchase of this DVD.