If you were a child in the '60s and '70s, art was as much a part of your schooling as science. You took life drawing as well as English, music along with mathematics. Somewhere, someone thought that history had to be augmented with an appreciation for all things aesthetic. Today, budget cuts and PC-protests have removed most of these ancillary educational devices, rendering the post-modern experience a combination of memorization and rote test regurgitation. We bring this up because for many born after the end of disco, something like Peter and the Wolf will be nothing more than a shoulder shrug. The 'songs' will sound familiar, but for the most part, few will have seen the actual ballet or heard the score in pure symphonic bliss. We straggling boomers can remember when it was a ritual, a puppet show or local dance company presentation put on so that the elementary school kiddies could appreciate the classics. Now, the Royal Opera House and England's Royal Ballet offer up this student-supported presentation, complete with an audience of agog wee ones. One minor issue aside, it's a terrific reminder of the power inherent in the material...and the medium.
Everyone knows the story of Peter and the Wolf...or they should. In 1936, composer Sergei Prokofiev was commissioned by the Central Children's Theatre in Moscow to create a piece specifically for the under-age set. He quickly came up with the idea for the basic story, as well as the novel decision to use specific instruments to represent the various characters. Peter, our hero (the string section), is scolded by his Grandfather (the bassoon) about playing in the meadow outside their gated home. It is the realm of the deadly wolf (French horns) and can be quite dangerous. Peter's friend the duck (oboe) agrees. Rounding out the cast are a cat (clarinet), and a tiny know-it-all bird (flute) which torments our characters. Eventually, the wolf is confronted and Peter proves his mantle to everyone considered.
There is only one problem with this HD version of the symphonic classic. No, it's not the image or the sound. No, it's not the paltry amount of bonus content or the lack of significant supplements. No, the biggest issue surrounding this release can best be described as value for the format dollar. Peter and the Wolf was written for the already established short attention span of the intended audience and is only 27 minutes in length. Even with advanced choreography and ad libbing from the mandated onstage narrator (the story is told in both words and music), you're looking at a half hour of performance, tops. So to go out and spend good money on something that barely offers 30 minutes of meaningful art seems specious. Distributor Opus Arte should have found a way to flesh out this release, adding other selections from Prokofiev's catalog or additional elements from the Royal companies involved. Of course, if none of this matters to you, money-wise, than this caveat is completely unnecessary.
Indeed, with the level of artistic accomplishment here, the cost complaint is more or less rendered moot. The Royal Ballet does a brilliant job of bringing this show to life, the various dancers decked out in costumes that are both engaging and slightly experimental. The camera often pans to the kids in the crowd and they are mesmerized by what they see. Since there are few variables with regards to the actual segments of the storyline, the performance is pretty routine. But because the dancing is so viable, because the spirit of the spectacle is so palpable, we don't mind the similarities. As a matter of fact, this is the perfect vehicle for reintroducing the piece to an entire generation left hanging by State Budgets and preoccupied politicians. Because of its simplistic form, because of how Prokofiev presented the narrative (the instrumental link is a brilliant move), it transcends its turn of the century antiquity to become some new and novel.
Besides, there is a nutty nostalgia that comes along with the piece that is priceless. Yours truly can remember seeing Peter and the Wolf as a marionette extravaganza, as part of a traveling theater company, as a presentation from a local dance studio, and as a big budget Chicago revue. Along with unusual performances of specific symphonic pieces (we used to have orchestras set up in our grade school gym and play things like the entire classical score from 2001) and the annual pre-kid vid rendering of something by the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson, this was the school experience circa the late '60s/early '70s. It's like time travel with a tempo. Of course, those without such a cultured frame of reference will be experiencing this all for the first time, and for all its innovation, Peter and the Wolf as a piece is rather dated. Still, when offered in such a sunny, splashy manner, it's not hard to fall in love with all over again.
Opus Arte delivers Peter and the Wolf in an AVC encoded 1080i transfer. The 1.78:1. widescreen presentation preserves the direct to digital video recording of the performance, as well as the professional lighting and direction of the Royal Opera House. The images are colorful and detailed, with lots of depth and considered contrast. There are some minor quibbles with the production itself (the stage is very sparse, and the sole set-piece - a tree trunk - is a bit too dark in comparison to some of the costumes) and we do catch a bit of HD interference during the bigger dance numbers. Still, for an HD presentation, this is pretty and polished.
As for sonic options, Opus provides two. The first is a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. There is also a LCPM 2.0 stereo track. The former features a lot of spatial ambience and crowd to concert reactivity. We can feel the actual logistics of the staging and the set-up. As for the latter, it's more compact and closed in. For the kiddies, this may be the better option, since it gives them everything they need without having to worry about the back speakers of the side channels. Overall, the music is mesmerizing, wonderfully played and evocatively conducted.
Sadly, there's little here to warrant commercial consideration. We get an eight minute rehearsal featurette which intersperses interviews with members of the adult cast with shots of visiting school kids looking gobsmacked. There is also a brief character/cast gallery. That's it.
Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, there is only one aspect of this release that one has to legitimately consider. If you don't mind spending a premium price for 30 minutes of material, then by all means, pick up this copy of Peter and the Wolf and let your children experience the magic of music and motion done right. If, on the other hand, you think retail is too high a price to pay for something so sparse in actual content, then a Rent It may be the better choice. In either case, be prepared for something both familiar and fresh. For those of us who are at a certain stage of life, Peter and the Wolf is a warm, welcome old friend. Today, for reasons that have nothing to do with its viability or artistry, it will seem unnecessarily new.