STRAVINSKY: The Firebird Ballet. Le sacre du printemps Ballet
OFFENBACH: Ritter Blaubart (Opera Bouffe in Three Acts)
(Walter Felsenstein production including his film)
Bel Air's DVD of two of Stravinsky's great ballets is of uncommon interest. Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Ballet in the complete Firebird and Sacre du Printemps ballets. Serge Diaghilev requested Anatole Liadov to write music for a fantastic ballet about a magic glowing bird, and as Liadov never got around to it, Diaghilev asked the young Stravinsky to compose it. How fortunate for the ballet world, not to mention Stravinsky! The Firdbird, with choreography by Michel Fokine and sets and costumes by Alexandre Golovine, was premiered by Ballet Russes in Paris June 25, 1910 and created a sensation. The Rite of Spring was conceived by Stravinsky, choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky and the painter Nicolas Roerich who created the costumes. The incredibly difficult score required 120 rehearsals, and the premiere, at the Théatre des Champs-Élysees May 29, 1913 with Pierre Monteux on the podium, was a scandalous riot. The ballet was withdrawn after 8 performances, and 70 years later, after much research by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, the forgotten choreography was reconstructed. This DVD contains, basically, the original reconstructed versions of both ballets in superlative performances by the Mariinsky Orchestra and Ballet. These are stunning in every way and essential for lovers of ballet. Actually, choreography for the exciting final dance of The Rite is rather tame—just watch the late Pina Bausch's interpretation on You-Tube. Both of these were taped in high definition at the St. Petersburg Theatre in June 2008. Denis Caiozzi's video direction is often too close-up; in ballet is so important to view the entire figures, not just parts of them. Audio is superb, and super-clear, although it seems some of the low percussion bass is slightly limited. The considerable Blu-Ray bonus is a documentary on the Ballets Russes and interview with Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer who reconstructed The Rite. A quality issue!
Viennese-born Walter Felsenstein (1901-1975) was a renowned opera director, particularly at Komische Oper Berlin which he founded and directed for many years. His opera productions were praised for their imagination and imagery, and seven of them were filmed with the cooperation of East German Television in the late sixties and early seventies: The Cunning Little Vixen, Othello, The Tales of Hoffmann, Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, Fidelio, and the one listed above, Ritter Blaubart (Bluebeard). With total cooperation from the Felsenstein Estate, all of these have been restored as much as possible using the latest digital techniques. Time had taken its toll on the original films and much had to be done to provide greater contrast, reduce graininess, and correct edits. Audio was improved to eliminate background noise, hiss and provide "stereo" sound from original monophonic recordings. A major problem during filming was coordination of the pre-recorded sound track with stage action. Offenbach's operetta is a frothy affair that does lose some of its charm when sung in German. The barbaric elements of the original French fairy tale, so effectively conveyed in Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle, are absent here where the tale begins with a comic Felsenstein touch: a backstage scene where preparations are being made for the performance. The performance is a fine one and this is a handsomely restored relic of early filmed opera. The second DVD includes videos of script segments, sketches and drafts, and excerpts from a 1964 Komische Oper performance, interviews with Felenstein on the production and filming of Ritter Blaubart and a picture gallery.
The St. Petersburg Gala Concert of June 1, 2003 has already been mentioned on this site (REVIEW). Now, for those who might be interested in it in higher definition, here is the Blu-Ray version of the same performance. It is rather a hodgepodge of a program that seems tossed together, but the audience was highly responsive.
R.E.B. (November 2009)