Swan Lake (Royal Ballet, 2009)
BBC Worldwide // Unrated // $45.98 // October 27, 2009
Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted December 18, 2009
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Graphical Version
The Performance:

Images in this review from OpusArte.com
By way of conductor Valeriy Ovsyanikov's wand and Anthony Dowell as stage director, the Royal Ballet's rendition of Swan Lake takes a traditional, emotion-heavy turn down the oft-told Russian folk tale. It matches Tchaikovsky's writing with the long-established four act structure, keeping the settings firmly latched onto its roots throughout the tale. And, with wonderful production design and a dazzling performance from Marianela Nuņez as both Odette and Odile, it's also a proficient and beautiful interpretation. Opus Arte's Blu-ray captures the beauty of their performance in striking fashion, editing together high-definition footage from two performances in March, 2009 at the Royal Opera House in London.

Swan Lake tells the story of Prince Siegfried, played here by Thiago Soares, as he celebrates his 21st birthday. He's informed by his mother that he'll soon need to arrange a marriage, which spooks the young man. In a fit of excitement about seizing the day before he gets too old, he grabs his crossbow and flees to the woods with his hunting buddies -- only to discover the most beautiful swan he's seen, certainly not a beast for him to shoot. As dusk approaches and his friends disappear, the swan transforms into a beautiful woman, Odette (Nuņez), who tells him about the spell that an evil spirit (Christopher Saunders) has placed on her,and several other girls, that transforms her into her alternate form during the day. Another important part of the legend comes in the description of the lake where they reside, which has been made of the tears shed by the transformed swans' parents.

That encapsulates the first act and a large chunk of the second act, most of which is a whirlwind of costume / set design lavishness and cordiality litmus testing with the prince. It's incredible to see just how much detail is placed within these garments for Swan Lake, especially when looking this close at the construction behind them. Unlike many concert or performance tapings that splice together wild editing and a barrage of way-too-close facial zooms, this one largely stays very stable and properly distanced from the stage. As we're taken through the process of watching the prince's party, the maypole dance, and the frolicking hunt sequence, it fluctuates from midrange close-ups and pulled-back shots. Yet, none of them lose sight of the exquisiteness of the backdrop's design or the splendid costume work, which culminates into an experience that'll take you aback with its similarity to the live experience.

As it eases towards the midway point, Swan Lake begins to emphasize the relationship between the prince and his swan -- along with the eclipsing presence of the evil spirit. That's the bread and butter of the performance, and the dynamic created between Marianela Nuņez and Thiago Soares is pleasing. There seems to be a slight lack of chemistry between the two though, where the distance of affection steps beyond that of the material's aims; however, the duo are astoundingly proficient in their technical prowess, matched well with Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov's choreography. Soares is charmingly austere, supporting his swan gallantly throughout the production. Several sequences where he carries her through graceful bird-like movements hark to an incredible sense of fluidity, clearly only achieved by a level of both trust and slaved-over conditioning. Nuņez, on the other hand, is a radiant star. Her poise, polish, and slack-jaw flexibility are something truly magical to behold, especially as she eases into her "alternate" persona as the anti-Odette, Odile, following the charms and allures of the evil spirit's magic.

Then, The Royal Ballet's production eases through its celebratory third act -- a romp through festive dances from around the globe that are mostly a smokescreen between the prince and his swan -- into an absolutely stunning climactic fourth, which is marvelous. It strips down a large chunk of the elaborate design work and places beautiful emphasis on the flock of swans as they stir near the brooding evil spirit, who boils to a stunning head with his bewitching demeanor at this point. Christopher Saunders deserve commendation for his presence as the source of evil in Swan Lake, offering a stiff and commanding projection as the spirit once the activity simmers in this 11th hour. The composure of lighting, subtle design, and delicate yet impressive choreography builds into an exquisite rendering of the fabled tragic conclusion to the story, opting for a slightly interpretive take instead of something more bluntly bleak. Gathering together art nouveau and classic influences for its glitzy, colorful climax, it left me wholly satisfied with the experience in a very grand fashion.

The Blu-ray:

Opus Arte have brought the Royal Ballet's 2009 performance of Swan Lake home four our enjoyment in a standard Blu-ray case, sporting attractive artwork that showcases the production's dazzling fourth act. Inside, a beefy Booklet is available that contains a Chapter Listing, Credits, and a historical rundown of Tchaikovsky and the evolution of Swan Lake throughout the years. The historical discussion is available in English, French, and Spanish texts. Subtitles are available in optional French, English, German, and Italian languages.

NOTE: Though the OpusArte website and the coverart list the runtime for this production at 180 minutes, the actual length is 2:05:32 -- or 125 minutes. It follows through each of the acts with a musical entr'acte or intermission where applicable.

Video and Audio:

Aside from the disc carrying a 1080i AVC encode and suffering from a bit of the downfalls of that restriction -- a discernible lack of sharpness when on larger screens, as well as minor ghosting and mild blurring during movement -- Opus Arte's rendering of this recorded footage impresses with its level of high-definition potency. Intricate costume work showcases an enormous level of detail, from shimmering trim to delicate textures. The set design's complexity also looks marvelous, oftentimes replicating the twisted wood of tree branches and minutiae within faux iron work with inspiring clarity. Deep blues and even deeper maroons offer a velvet-like sumptuousness, whiel contrast is mostly rendered with appropriate black levels (though a few sequences get a bit noisier than we'd like). Overall, along with the very competent eye of the camera crew and the editor behind the footage, this is a great way to view Tchaikovsky's time-weathered classic.

Audio comes in two uncompressed PCM options, one a 5.1 rendering and the other a simple 2.0 track. Emphasis falls on delicateness of the sound effects from the stage intermingling with the rapturous score, and the two find an exquisite balance in this high-definition audio option. Clarity from the orchestral pit remains divine, yet reserved to such a degree that the pitter-patter of the ballet slippers can be heard over the fluttering notes. Some of the musical activity reaches to the rear, along with clapping, which creates a crystal clear and immersive track that never feels artificial or dissatisfying.

Special Features:

Along with a appropriately detailed Illustrated Synopsis (5:18, HD) and a Cast Gallery, two interviews are included: one, with Anthony Dowell (16:04, AVC HD) discusses the bones, bits, and pieces of this rendition. From his personal experience with Swan Lake to where the influence came from in constructing his vision, this interview remains enjoyable and insightful from start to finish. The other features an interview with Four Swan Queens (32:46, AVC HD), which drops Marianela Nuņez in a conversation with three former Prima Ballerinas -- Beryl Gray, Monica Mason, and Lesley Collier. Topics mostly gravitate to their experiences with the production itself, which grow very reflective and enjoyable as each one discusses their prince, not wanting the music to stop at home, and other things like mentorship. It starts tog et a bit repetitive and the conversation loses momentum about 2/3 the way through, but mostly this is a very earnest and smile-inducing conversation among four world-classes dancers.

Final Thoughts:

Swan Lake's one of those age-worn ballets that's accessible because of its streamlined narrative and innate beauty, along with a fantastical premise that's easy to appreciate. The Royal Ballet's performance of Tchaikovsky's work retains much of the age-worn classic essence of the story, with both lavish costume work and stunning set design that have an eye for precise, atmospheric immersion. On top of that, the familiar music underneath Valeriy Ovsyanikov's conduction and the technically mesmerizing turns from its leads, especially Marianela Nuņez as the lead, build this particular set of performances into a grandly sweeping take on the tale that's as reminiscent of its roots as it is delightfully up to snuff with modern design. Opus Arte's Blu-ray presentation supports these qualities well, including a visual tightness that comes close to making you forget that it's only 1080i at most points during the ballet. Recommended.

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