This is the second Swan Lake by the Paris Opera Ballet appearing on DVD. A few years ago Bel Air brought us the Vladimir Bourmeister version, filmed in 1992, with Marie-Claude Pietragalla and Patrick Dupond. Interesting from a choreographic point of view, the production was betrayed by its ungainly designs.
The present DVD released by Opus Arte documents Rudolf Nureyev's production of Swan Lake, created for the Paris Opera in 1984 - twenty years after his first staging of the ballet for the Vienna Opera Ballet, which is also available on DVD in the famous film with Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn.
The current Parisian version of Tchaikovsky's most popular ballet has the Nureyev touch all over. Prince Siegfried and his tutor Wolfgang are promoted to central characters and the story is re-told from a Freudian angle: the whole ballet is conceived as a product of the prince's dreams and imagination. One may have mixed feelings about this approach, yet we have to grant Nureyev that he always kept faith in the possibilities of classical dance itself and no matter the personal sidetracks, his Swan Lake remains recognizable as a lyric tragedy.
The staging is dramatically effective. The costumes by Franca Squarciapino inspired by 15th-century frescoes and the grand neo-gothic sets by Ezio Frigerio are tasteful, sober and unobtrusive, letting the choreography ample space to speak for itself. Nureyev followed the dramatic structure of the canonical Petipa/Ivanov version from 1895, left the pantomime intact and kept parts of the choreography (notably the 2nd Act, the pas de trois and most of the Black Swan pas de deux). For the rest he devised his own, being most successful in the final Act where he preserved the original music, only interpolating an extra farewell duet set to the music of the omitted Act 3 pas de six. Less attractive are a rather long-winded Waltz in Act 1 and the tedious national dances in Act 3. The Prince and Rothbart get extra solos.
Directed for TV by François Roussillon, the performance was filmed live at the Opéra Bastille in Paris in 2005. The DVD captures the production beautifully, the image quality is outstanding. The editing convincingly mixes longshots from the top of the house, showing the choreographic patterns, with generally well-chosen close-ups of the soloists. Sound (LPCM stereo or 5.1 DTS) is first-rate.
The main issue with this Swan Lake, however, is the casting of the leading roles, étoiles Agnès Letestu and José Martinez. Not everybody will warm for Agnès Letestu straight-faced rendering of Odette. Her dancing is clean and poised, but she seems to appear from a lake of ice, while her confident persona and stiff-backed plastique enhance an image of remoteness and invulnerability. José Martinez, noble, slim and very tall, isn't the most emotional of dancers either and never succeeds in breaking the ice. The close-ups only emphasize how little interest he seems to find in the role. Like Letestu his dancing is assured and neat, but eventually rather pale. His too reserved personality is at odds with the essentially romantic character devised by Nureyev. Letestu is undoubtedly preferable as Odile. The Black Swan pas de deux demonstrates some superbly controlled dancing, but even here the overall impression is rather one of cold calculation. Premier danseur Karl Paquette isn't the ideal choice either for the dual role of Wolfgang/Rothbart, lacking authority as well as mystery.
The pas de trois in Act 1 is danced well by Emmanuel Thibault, Nolwenn Daniel, and especially a remarkable Dorothée Gilbert. Company dancing is excellent overall, as can be expected from the Paris Opera. Vello Pähn conducts the Paris Opera Orchestra.
An illustrated synopsis and a meagre "cast gallery" are the only bonus features on the DVD. Included is a 28-page booklet with excellent photos from the production and liner notes by François Roussillon, covering the creation and subsequent performance history of Swan Lake as well as Nureyev's lifelong fascination with the ballet and its music. Not everyone will agree with Roussillon's - otherwise anything but original - conviction that Swan Lake and its theme of impossible love is a reflection on Tchaikovsky's own homosexual life. Others will also note that the cast list in the booklet is far from faultless (the on-screen credits only mention the leading dancers): the second soloist in the pas de trois is not Mélanie Hurel but Dorothée Gilbert; while in the Czardas Fanny Fiat and not Dorothée Gilbert performs the female lead.