Three good ballet performances marred mainly by the camera work
Have always been a fan of ballet from seeing 'Swan Lake' at six years old, and while not among my favourites, like the three Tchaikovsky ballets, 'Giselle', 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'Coppelia', 'The Firebird', 'Petrushka' and 'Scheherazade' are all worthy of repeat viewings and listens.
'The Firebird', even though the choreography for the Firebird has its difficulties with the jumps and the sheer athleticism it requires, is not just perhaps the most accessible of his ballets, especially musically with the finale and the "Princess' Round Dance" being two of Stravinsky's most famous themes, but also one of his most accessible works overall. There may be some bias, as it was my first introduction to Stravinsky.
'Petrushka' (which like 'Rite of Spring' has achieved success in concert) is also excellent, with a story that humanises puppets and allows the audience to fully sympathise with them, the music every bit as electric as with 'The Firebird'. Am more familiar with Rimsky Korsakov's 'Scheherazade' as a concert suite, but it is exotic and exciting in ballet form too, and Rimsky Korsakov's music is some of the composer's most justifiably famous.
It was always going to be a big and brave task on take on three ballets for one performance with the original sets and choreography, and largely 'Return of the Firebird' succeeds. It is marred however by some poor, and at times amateurish, camera work, especially in 'The Firebird'. There could have been less close ups of faces and more focus on whole bodies and more expansive use of the stage, while parts felt chaotic or self-indulgent and some of the editing in the transitions is clumsy and gimmicky. 'Petrushka' is hindered also by a common problem with a production/film of anything with proper outdoor settings, a lot of background and outdoor noise interpolation which distracts from the music.
Visually, 'The Firebird' comes off the least, looking more like a 50s horror film with somewhat cheap effects and cluttered props, though there are elements of genuine spookiness, particularly with demonic Kastchei. Despite problems with noise, 'Petrushka' is much more successful visually, the outdoor settings are beautiful and also really give a sense of occasion. Even better is the richly extravagant, richly coloured and gorgeously lavish 'Scheherazade'. The picture quality is crystal clear on the DVD, and the sound is excellent in 'The Firebird' and 'Scheherazade', not quite so much 'Petrushka'.
Musically, there is little to fault, with vibrant and intense playing from the orchestra (one huge shout out to the other-worldly solo playing from the solo violin in 'Scheherazade') and sympathetic and alert conducting, even if the more urgent parts of 'Petrushka' could have been slightly more urgent. The choreography is scintillating in all three ballets, sure 'Scheherazade' has a lot of changes to the story but the spirit of the story is not lost at all, with 'The Firebird' exuding grace and passion, 'Petrushka' doing so much to allow one to care for the characters even though puppets (the love story still resonating even when heavy in action) and 'Scheherazade' doesn't make the mistake of putting spectacle and gimmicks over quality of movement.
Of the near-unanimously superb performances, the only one to disappoint is the performance of the Eunuch, as well as being physically over-parted the comic shenanigans with the character are overdone to overkill effect here, yes the character is a mischievous comic one but also one with an psychological element which didn't come through at all here. Although having very little to do as the Sultan other than mope, Andris Liepa is magnetic as Ivan and in the title role of Petrushka. Nina Ananiashvili radiates in grace, humour and charisma as the Firebird, and Ekaterina Liepa is a charming Princess. Victor Yaremenko's Golden Slave dazzles, while coming very close to stealing the show is Ilze Liepa's sensual and moving Zabeida.
All in all, the camera work is poor and, apart from reservations with the production values of 'The Firebird', one performance that doesn't work and outdoor interference with 'Petrushka', all three performances forming part of 'Return of the Firebird' are good and definitely recommended, and not just for historical perspective. 7/10 Bethany Cox
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