George Balanchine was a titan of 20th century ballet, a master who was able to incorporate modern trends while simultaneously managing not to completely eschew classical tradition. These two seemingly irreconcilable artistic methods are on excellent display in one of Balanchine's most celebrated, if least performed, ballets, Jewels, a triptych first performed in the late 1960s by Balanchine's own New York City troupe, and here resurrected by the ballet and orchestra of the Paris Opera.
Jewels is an interesting triumvirate of styles and attitudes that is broken into three "movements," Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds. Emeralds, set to the soothing and melodic post-Impressionism of Gabriel Faure, seeks to espouse the classical French dancing style. Rubies, the most forward-thinking piece in this set, is a wonderfully quirkly examination of American styles, including some fun jazz moves, set to Stravinsky's strident Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. The most classically redolent piece, Diamonds, set to Tchaikovsky, will probably be the most easily accessible to those brought up on other Tchaikovsky ballets like Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty, and seeks to incorporate a Russian dance ethos.
As a ballet, Jewels is a showcase for Balanchine's clean and geometrical thinking, something probably born out of ruminations on the qualities of gems themselves. While Emeralds and Diamonds both have brilliantly classical moments, with the entire company of ballerinas either en pointe or engaged in petit pas, it's the more revolutionary Rubies that really stands out as the showstopper. You know you're in for something exceptional right off the bat when the company starts doing completely bizarre hip movements mixed with an angular and disjointed array of arms that may remind some of such Broadway choreographers as Bob Fosse.
As a Blu-ray, I have to wonder again why Opus Arte is going back to product like this to ostenstibly showcase this new home video medium. Balanchine championed a lean, clean production style, with either nonexistent or at most very minimal set design (which in fact in this production amounts to simply colored backdrops meant to evoke the individual gemstones). There's simply not much to see here, frankly, at least nothing that shows off what high definition can mean, visually. Aurally the orchestra sounds incredible, but being cramped (and evidently mic'd) in a small pit, there's similarly not a lot of potential for mindblowing 5.1 effects in the orchestral soundtrack.
All of this said, this is a great opportunity to experience an unusual, if tangentially related, "holiday" ballet, especially if you're sick of seeing The Nutcracker every single year. Jewels stands as a balletic encyclopedia of sorts of not only Balanchine's particular genius, but also three disparate traditions of dance.
The 1080i 1.78:1 transfer is fine for what it is, but, as noted above, there's simply not a lot to look at here. With virtually no set to speak of, and enjoyable, if again minimalist, costumes, one hsa to wonder why a Blu-ray is necessary. The image, such as it is, is sharp and well detailed with good color and contrast throughout.
Both the PCM 2.0 and 5.1 mixes are excellent, though, again, the 5.1 doesn't offer enough of an upgrade over the 2.0 to mean much of anything. The orchestra sounds superb, however, with brilliant fidelity and pristine reproduction. In fact, you can even hear score pages being turned occasionally. Obviously subtitles are not needed for the main ballet, but English, French, Spanish, German and Italian subtitles are available for the extra documentary.
I was frankly a little disappointed with the bonus documentary, which I thought might be a nice biography of Balanchine. Instead we get a lot of talking heads of those who knew and worked with him (like Balanchine Foundation head Barbara Horgan), interspersed with those involved in the current production. While it's certainly a fine piece, it really doesn't give a newcomer enough background information on Balanchine to educate them sufficiently as to why Jewels is such an outstandingly creative piece.
Jewels, the ballet, is a modern masterpiece. Jewels, the Blu-ray, leaves me scratching my head more than a little bit. If you're a ballet fan, especially of Balanchine's work, you're most likely going to like this, but I recommend you Rent It first before spending $45.98 to make it part of your permanent collection.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet