I've had the great pleasure of seeing Cirque du Soleil live several times and it is an experience everyone should have at least once in their lifetime. The amazing multi-media onslaught of trance inducing music with impressive sets and costumes, not to mention the mind-boggling acrobatic and athletic prowess constantly on display, makes Cirque one of the most unique entertainment franchises in the world. That said, I have always been disappointed with the various video releases of Cirque shows, and I'm sad to say that that trend continues with Cirque's first Blu-Ray release, Corteo. While the show itself is somewhat to blame in this particular instance, there are also some really poor directorial choices which keep this high-def presentation from being all it could be.
If you've never seen a Cirque du Soleil show, there's probably no way they can really be adequately described. Combining elements of music theater, Commedia dell'Arte, more traditional clowning, as well as a truly awe inspiring array of various flying, jumping and contortion acts, each Cirque show tends to be knit around a sort of amorphous concept, often with multilingual chant-inspired lyrics accompanying the eclectic underscores, which typically draw on everything from Gypsy rhapsodies to smooth jazz to tribal world beats. I'll never forget the first Cirque show I took my then three year old son to. We were sitting in the front row and as the show began and a group of contortionist-acrobats took the stage, my son loudly proclaimed for the entire audience to hear, "Dad, why are those people climbing on each other's heads?" That sort of wide-eyed wonder is more than likely to be visited even upon jaded elders when they watch a Cirque presentation, and Corteo does not disappoint in that regard. Whether it's quasi-trapeze artists doing an artful flying dance while hanging from huge chandeliers, or an amazing display of a man within a huge rotating wheel, somewhat reminiscent of da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, Corteo provides a lot of absolute "wow" moments that any lover of Cirque, or even anyone new to the Cirque world, is going to love.
Unfortunately, Corteo is, by design, one of the more literal of the Cirque shows, and that is to its detriment. The show is ostensibly a funereal dream of a clown who is witnessing his own death knell, and that kind of puts the kibosh of frivolity right there. The show has more narration and dialogue than usual, and even the songs have actual comprehensible lyrics, something not that typical of the Cirque universe. Part of the majesty and mystery of the early Cirque shows (one of them aptly named Mystere) was the inability to latch on to a "rational" plotline, leaving one to bask in the incredible array of acrobatic visions being presented. Add to that a sort of Esperanto typically in use by early Cirque composers René Dupéré and Benoit Jutras, and you were subject to both a visual and aural experience that defied easy analysis, bypassing the rational and conscious side of things to literally get right to the heart of the matter.
The literalness of the show is hampered by a visual presentation on the Blu-Ray which is haphazard at best, maddening at worst. All of the many VHS and, later, DVD presentations of Cirque shows have had a hard time keeping up with the immersive quality of the shows--there's only so much even a reasonably competent director can capture when there are four or five things (sometimes more) happening simultaneously on stage. While there's some good coverage here (though my hunch is some of the close-ups were done later--there doesn't seem to be an audience in attendance for those), there are frequent cutaways, sometimes for absurd lengths, to the audience. Do we really need to see some gum-chomping fool smiling like an idiot for several seconds? It may not seem like a long time, but it feels like an eternity, and the sad fact is it happens over and over and over again. We know the audience is there, we can hear them enjoying the show, we certainly don't need to be hoisted out of the extravaganza on stage to watch an admittedly adorable child nestle her face into her father's shoulder.
While a cogent case could probably be made about some of the editing choices due to the amount of stage activity needing to be covered, there is still an appalling lack of anything longer than a 4-5 second shot throughout this entire production (sometimes much shorter than that--I counted scores of 1-2 second shots), something the MTV generation will probably love, but which I found totally frustrating as I attempted to envelope myself in the stagecraft. The score of Corteo, by Philippe Leduc and Maria Bonzanigo, is one of the weakest for a Cirque production in recent memory, with little of Dupéré's or Jutras' melodic sense and rhythmic ingenuity.
On the plus side, the physical production, as with all Cirque shows, is mind blowing at times, with sets and costumes that easily evoke a centuries old circus. The ingenuity behind the uses of many of the sets, from fourposter beds that become trampolines to a sort of traveling fireplace that becomes a mini stage for some small people, as well as the round stage itself made to resemble an ancient labyrinth, are truly amazing and will keep most viewers visually engaged.
The Blu-Ray Disc
This was kind of an odd choice for Cirque du Soleil's first Blu-Ray release. The directorial choices include frequent overlays of fabric, especially early in the show, leaving the image crosshatched and/or blurry. There is also at least occasional use of scrims, through which the image must shine to be seen. The show, as might be suspected, is performed largely in the dark, so the chance for stunning high definition images is somewhat limited. Light diffusion also lends a grainy aspect to some of the show, especially (again) in the opening moments. That said, black levels are solid and consistent and colors are bright and vivid. Detail is sharp, with excellent clarity even in the fast motion sequences with such props as flying discs. I think one of Cirque's "lighter, brighter" shows might better show off the Blu-Ray possibilities, however.
The Dolby True HD English soundtrack (the only one available) is largely magnificent, with brilliant fidelity and some thoughtful separation. There isn't a lot of use of lower ranges, but directionality is well handled throughout the piece, with an especially immersive use of the underscore (it looked to me like the band was broken up into various elements surrounding the round stage, and the sound design certainly seems to back that up). Subtitles are available in English (necessary for some of the extras), Chinese, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish and Thai.
The best extra is the 45 minute "Through the Curtain," providing some fascinating behind the scenes footage of the show being designed, built and rehearsed. Three shorter featurettes are also offered: "A Day in the Life of Corteo Artists," following a couple who met on "Saltimbanco" and have been together for 17 years, "Teatro Intimo," focusing on the little people vignette in the show, and "Filming Corteo," which highlights (literally) the peculiar decision to light the audience for filming. I personally would have preferred them to stay in the dark so that I could concentrate on the show. There's also a photo gallery and a BD Live option to connect to the Cirque website.
Everyone should see at least one Cirque du Soleil production sometime in their life. But Cirque is a medium (actually media) that really has never translated well to home video, and unfortunately Corteo is no exception. If you've never seen a Cirque show, this is at least worth a rental for the opportunity to see some amazing performers doing incredible things. As a Blu-Ray, it falls short and probably will be of little interest to collectors. Rent It.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet