The last Swan Lake on video to come from the Kirov Ballet dated from 1990 (Now available on DVD as well). Among its assets were the intriguing, beautifully talented Yulia Makhalina, the young and brilliant Igor Zelensky, still on his way to become one of the greatest Russian dancers of his generation; it had magnificently pure soloists like Larissa Lezhnina and Veronika Ivanova in the supporting cast; it also had the incomparable Viktor Fedotov playing the score with authority and understanding like only he could; and the whole production was offered with a genuine sense of artistic direction.
Now, the Kirov is long since called the Mariinsky again, and the new Swan Lake released by Decca and filmed by the BBC in St Petersburg in 2006 is a very different affair. The production (now with different sets) is still the same old one by Konstantin Sergeyev from 1950, based on the definitive 1895 Petipa/Ivanov staging, and remains one of the most exemplary, straightforward readings of the ballet around.
The current leads are danced by Uliana Lopatkina and Danila Korsuntsev. Lopatkina is adulated in Russia and abroad, and her many fans will undoubtedly welcome this release featuring the ballerina in one of her few signature roles. For my money, the filming came too late and might have been a treasurable addition to any ballet collection some ten years earlier, when Lopatkina's performances still had freshness and spontaneity. In this recording she takes the role of Odette-Odile in her now characteristic uncompromising, towering manner, with every inch and feather calculated and controlled. Her plastique is gorgeous but studied in the extreme. Her plight is long-winded and frozen, hard and unmoving by its insistence on a certain spiritual quality which unfortunately doesn't stick to film. This is an Odette locked in her own world, relating to nobody else on stage, least of all the cardboard prince of Danila Korsuntsev. Her Odile is more attractive but again very measured and lacking in excitement as well as in seductive power.
In such presence Danila Korsuntsev doesn't stand a chance. He may be an adequate porteur with great physical qualities but his prince is a cipher who dances his few bits in the Black Swan pas de deux without any distinction or interest. That the Mariinsky considers a weak performance like this sufficient to be preserved for posterity, is a only sad reminder of the current lack of artistic direction.
The pas de trois as danced by Irina Golub, Ekaterina Osmolkina and Anton Korsakov is clean and very lightweight. Here too, there isn't a personality in sight, and everything is delivered without much purpose or concern. Andrei Ivanov's jester is obnoxious and anything but virtuosic. The only one who stands out is Ilya Kuznetsov portraying the evil Rothbart with panache and a genuine sense of drama.
The true star of this DVD remains the Mariinsky corps de ballet, immaculate in its lines and turning the lakeside scenes, beautifully rendered in this film into a miracle of plastical beauty, stylistic coherence and spatial grandeur. Likewise, the national dances in the ballroom Act still look totally right.
Curiously, this might be the first ballet DVD release which bills the conductor higher than any of the dancers. Decca doesn't leave any opportunity unused to remind us that this performance of Swan Lake is conducted by "the great Russian maestro Valery Gergiev" (it's always wonderful that the labels emphasize how brilliant their artists are). A great conductor he may be, but it's still a fact that accompanying a ballet performance is far from his defining moment. The characteristic Gergiev mannerisms can be found here aplenty (the attention to orchestral detail, if sometimes at the expense of the overall line, the unnecessary long final chords etc), yet, worse, his reading lacks all sense of theatricality and spirit, which is with Gergiev's opera background rather surprising. Even Tchaikovsky's big finale sounds rather understated. As could be expected, the booklet features a full-page portrait photo of Gergiev (except for the cover shot of the DVD-case and some thumbnail-shots in the booklet there is nothing comparable of Lopatkina or Korsuntsev) and again in the otherwise learned liner notes by Giannandrea Poesio about the genesis of the ballet we are reminded of how well Gergiev is supposed to understand Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Some words about the dancers might have been appropriate, although Decca clearly doesn't consider them important enough. Be that is it may, Gergiev might have been better served with a studio recording of the full-length Tchaikovsky score, without the constrictions of accompanying a live performance.
The image quality (16:9 anamorphic widescreen) is excellent, although as a film of a ballet performance this will never go down as a model. There are too many cameras angles slicing up movements and bodies, too many close-ups and frames from the waist up, the central camera providing the overall stage view cuts off the feet, while the crane shots sweeping during the lakeside scenes among the swans are more annoying than revealing. The sound quality (PCM Stereo or DTS 5.1 surround) is first-rate although balance-wise the timpani and percussion should ideally have been more forward. Unfortunately, the editing has been too hasty (Irina Golub tripping in the Dance of the Little Swans, some wobbly endings of solos, Lopatkina floating in all directions during the fouettés, the model swans appearing a second time while in fact only the swan queen is appearing etc. could easily have been edited.)
Admirers of Lopatkina needn't hesitate, but to see a better focused Mariinsky Ballet and Swan Lake the older performance with Makhalina and Zelensky remains a clear first choice.