The successful live HD broadcasts from the great opera houses in movie theatres worldwide are bearing their fruits for the home video collector as well. The ballet performances filmed at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre over the last three or four years are gradually appearing on Blu-ray and DVD. La Bayadère is the latest title in the "Bolshoi Ballet HD Collection", managed by the independent Paris-based video label BelAir Classiques, a series which has been growing from strength to strength with every new release.
La Bayadère or The Temple Dancer (1877) is one of the great ballets from the Russian Imperial Ballet era remaining to this day with its timeless choreography by Marius Petipa yardstick stuff for every self-respecting company around the world. Set in one of the exotic locales savored by 19th century audiences, in this case an imagined India in olden times, a love triangle goes haywire when one of the ladies, princess Gamzatti kills her rival, Nikiya the temple dancer, only to reappear as a ghost in the dream of her grieved lover, the warrior Solor. Petipa as the master of opulence and pageantry spiced with academic dance needed just that to create one of his grand spectacles and even if by all accounts what we see today is merely a shadow of the original extravaganza, it's still quite an impressive thing to behold, especially on the vast Bolshoi stage. The Bolshoi troupe not only boasts the theatrical tradition to make this ancient dance-drama look fresh and engaging, it also has the multitude of dancers to impersonate temple dancers, princesses, warriors, Brahmins, servants and even ghosts with equal assurance.
The leading roles in this performance could hardly be bettered. Svetlana Zakharova is one of the world's most gifted ballerinas, Nikiya is a signature role of hers – and you see her why. Gamzatti has always been one of Maria Alexandrova's strongest incarnations, while Vladislav Lantratov as the warrior Solor proves he is by all means a very promising new talent. Lesser roles are all superbly cast and the Bolshoi corps de ballet grabs its hour of glory in the famous "Kingdom of the Shades" scene, indeed one of the unforgettable moments of classical ballet, with incomparable skill.
La Bayadère is definitely one of the best titles so far in the series. Both video and audio are of the highest order. Filmed by Vincent Bataillon and produced by François Duplat at the historic Bolshoi Theatre in January 2013, visuals offer jaw-dropping color and detail. Whether it is the dimly lit opening forest scene, the lush, warm tones inside the Rajah's palace, or even the cold nocturnal shades' scene, everything pulls you right into the action. The old Yuri Grigorovich production, just recently revamped at the time of filming, becomes a continuous feast for the eye with a succession of sumptuous sets, colorful backdrops and exotic costumes (partly based on sketches from the 1877 designs). Most importantly, Bataillon offers a fine balance between longshots (sometimes taken from the highest level of the theatre) and close-ups, without these annoying virtuosic camera sweeps that started to afflict many recent dance films. One can actually enjoy the steps as much as the bigger choreographic structures.
The sonics are no less impressive in this release and add considerably to the theatre-in-your-home experience. The Blu-ray version arrives with a 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio mix that places you right in an expensive parterre seat in the middle of the Bolshoi Theatre. The front speakers reproduce the Bolshoi Orchestra with superb presence, while the rear channels are mainly used for hall ambience effects. The Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra under Pavel Sorokin knows how to play Ludwig Minkus's unpretentious but utterly delightful score and thanks to a judicious orchestral balance and excellent fidelity throughout all frequencies every nuance and shade can be heard. The thundering percussion in the Drum dance in Act 2 is reproduced with thrilling impact (but also the little bells on the costumes can be clearly heard in the mix) and the beautiful instrumental solos are all rendered with great accuracy.
Nothing can replace the live experience in the theatre, yet a HD release like this La Bayadère comes pretty close and should find a place in any serious ballet video collection. Eventually, quality releases like this remind us why the Bolshoi Ballet is still one of the great companies in the world – not for the sorry scandals that repeatedly made the headlines this year, but simply for what it does best, and indeed still better than most: to dance.
More of that, please.
Copyright © 2013, Marc Haegeman