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It’s so nice to actually watch a well-known ballet performance, as
opposed to merely listening to the score, or watching the music
performed during an orchestral concert. Unfortunately, I’ve seen
precious few ballets in their full glory, either “live” or on video/DVD.
Of course, I don’t regret just focusing on the music, since so much
of it is great, in its own right!

Keeping all of this in mind, it was very rewarding to view “The
Firebird & Les Noces,”
a 108-minute DVD released in 2002 on
the Opus Arte label, in conjunction with the BBC. These two ballets
by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) were given as a “double-bill” 2001
performance by the The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden in London.

“The Firebird” is the far better-known ballet of the two, dating from
1910, when it was first performed in Paris. It is not only Stravinsky’s
first well-known composition, and the first of his collaborations with
Russian impresario, Serge Diaghilev. It is also Stravinsky’s first
masterpiece, albeit one where his individual style was still in the
formative stages.

I once played this music under a conductor who referred to the score
as “Debussy at his best,” and there are many fine Impressionistic
touches in the music. The influence of Stravinsky’s professor,
composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), is also present.
“The Firebird” is not a long ballet, and this performance lasted only
48 minutes. The story of the ballet is based upon a Russian fairy tale
involving an immortal sorcerer, a magic firebird and a prince, who
eventually marries a princess.

In this production, the role of “The Firebird” is stunningly performed
by Leanne Benjamin, who spends much of her time onstage dancing
“on point.” Jonathan Cope portrays Prince Ivan, and his love interest,
The Beautiful Tsarevna, is danced by Genesia Rosato. David Drew
performs the sorcerer’s role, as the Immortal Kostchei. As a
neophyte ballet spectator, I don’t feel as comfortable discussing
the choreography, but overall, I was impressed. Of course, it was
difficult for me to keep from focusing on Stravinsky’s amazing
music, emanating from the orchestra pit. Under the direction of
John Carewe, the Royal Opera Orchestra gave a stellar performance.

“Les Noces” is a work from Stravinsky’s neo-classical period, dating
from 1923. It also premiered in Paris, and was radically different
from “The Firebird,” particularly with regard to its scoring. Instead of
the large orchestra required for “The Firebird,” “Les Noces” is scored
for four pianos, percussion, solo singers and chorus. It represents
the different stages of a Russian wedding, combining pagan and
Christian elements, in a ritualistic scenario. It is harmonically stark,
and rhythmically recalls the complexities of Stravinsky’s “Rite of
Spring.” Stravinsky wrote the words to “Les Noces” himself, and
this four-part ballet performance lasted a mere 25 minutes. The Bride
was performed by Zenaida Yanowsky, and the Bridegroom was
danced by David Pickering. The rest of the corps de ballet gave
fabulous performances. I did find it odd that none of the solo
singers or chorus members were mentioned in the accompanying
booklet, although they were named in the closing credits.

The two bonus features are both worth viewing, and include a
14-minute interview with David Drew, who recalled his experiences
working with famed choreographer, Bronislava Nijinska, during
the 1960’s. Her choreography was used in this production of
“Les Noces.” The remaining bonus feature contained 11 minutes
of rehearsal footage for the aforementioned ballets. The dancers
were filmed going through their paces, and were also interviewed.
The interview with the dance notator was particularly interesting
to me, as she demonstrated her system of writing out the actual
choreography on music paper. I’d never seen this done before.

“The Firebird & Les Noces” is worthwhile viewing for anyone who
is interested in this music or in the ballets. I look forward to actually
watching more ballets DANCED on stage!

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