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Nerina, Helpmann, Fonteyn, Nureyev

Delibes / Nerina / Helpmann / Pao / Dods
Release Date: 09/25/2012 
Label:  Ica Classics   Catalog #: 5058  
Composer:  Frédéric ChopinLéo DelibesAdolphe Adam
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

CHOPIN Les Sylphides. 1 DÉLIBES Coppélia. 2 ADAM Giselle: act 2 pas de deux 3 1 Julia Farron, 1,2 Nadia Nerina, 1 Philip Chatfield, 2 Donald Read more Britton, 2 Robert Helpmann, 3 Margot Fonteyn, 3 Rudolf Nureyev, dancers; 1 Robert Irving, cond; 2 John Lanchberry, cond; 3 Marcus Dods, cond; 1 Philharmonia O. 2 London SO. 3 Pro Arte O ICA CLASSICS 5058, mono (DVD: 99:46)

Here are three productions—well, actually two and a quarter—performed by stars of the Royal Ballet in the BBC studios between 1956 ( Les Sylphides ) and 1962 (the Giselle pas de deux), but the quality of both the productions and the dancing are quite variable. Due to its rough condition—grainy picture, too dark lighting, and muffled, distorted sound—the Sylphides has fared the worst. Moreover, and this may have been exacerbated by the lighting, the costumes worn by the ballerinas are too full in both the skirting and the bust (there’s too much tulle in the former), which makes them look both bottom and top-heavy (which they are not). Also, for whatever reason, the dancing is not very good. Julia Farron, in the Prelude, is out of synch with the corps when they are together and shockingly clumsy in her solo turn, and Nadia Nerina looks a bit lumpy as well as reserved. Moreover, as dark as the lighting of this production was, it didn’t help that the choreography had her dance off-camera towards stage right! Only Philip Chatfield comes across well, but his dancing is only barely good, at least what you can see in the horrible lighting that looks like most of the stage lights went out! Unless you recall seeing this production either on TV when you were a child, or better yet in person, and want to see it again, it just isn’t worth watching.

But then we get to Coppélia, an entirely different ball of wax. Nerina dances here, too, this time as Swanilda, and it’s an understatement to say that she is better in this production. You almost can’t believe your eyes that this is the same dancer who just barely got through her turn in Sylphides. She is not only technically superior here, but far more exuberant and full of life. In her scene as the “fake” Olympia, her dancing is simply spellbinding; her entrechats are superb, she achieves wonderful elevation, and the overall grace of her dancing almost leads one to think she is soaring. But everyone is excellent in this production, from Robert Helpmann’s magnificent Coppelius to Donald Britton’s Franz to the corps either in whole or part. I was particularly thrilled by the choreography of the first-act mazurka, and small wonder: the Royal Ballet brought in a Polish dance ensemble to help them out in this scene! But best of all is the way the entire company actually looks as if they’re having a ball dancing this piece and the exceptional TV direction of Margaret Dale. Just to give you an idea of how highly I thought of this production, not only from the perspective of the dancing but as a theatrical presentation, it had the look of a truly exceptional silent film—and that is the highest compliment I can pay to it. Of course, anyone who has seen Helpmann’s impersonation of Coppelius in the classic 1951 film version of Tales of Hoffmann will know how good he was in this role, whether doing the opera or the ballet, but it’s a high compliment to the entire company that, here at least, his work complements but does not overshadow the others.

I’ve never been a fan of Giselle and never will be: to me, it’s an extraordinarily boring, silly ballet, full of banalities in both the music and the plot, which even the greatest dancers never seem to overcome, and here we have arguably the two greatest dancers of their time performing its pas de deux. Nureyev was just one year removed from his Royal Ballet debut as Duke Albrecht, and of course Fonteyn was his partner in that production as well. Here she is just a shade less perfect than usual—her arm, and then her leg, actually move a bit while holding a pose—but when you watch them together, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They complemented each other so flawlessly that, watching his poses when she is going into an extension and then observing both together, it almost creates the illusion of one four-legged dancer in perfect synchronization. You also tend to forget just how strong Nureyev was: he lifts her so effortlessly that it looks as if she is floating on a wire and not just being supported by him, and her friezes are so perfect that it looks as if she was a mannequin in his arms. It almost beggars belief that Fonteyn was about 44 years old at the time, an age at which most ballerinas are long retired. Re-watching her, one realizes that it was the charm of her presence and the perfection of form that drew such adulation from audiences and critics; certainly, Fonteyn never could create a really exuberant or humorous character onstage. Sometimes you wonder how great she would have been in more modern ballets, or choreographies, where abstraction is the goal, for she was the perfect Dancing Machine (possibly a pas de deux de machina? ).

Highly recommended for the Coppélia, which is the greatest production of it I’ve ever seen, and for those spectacular moments in the Giselle scene. As for the Sylphides, if you can watch it more than once and derive pleasure from it, you’re stronger than I am.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Les Sylphides by Frédéric Chopin
Period: Romantic 
Date of Recording: 04/06/1956 
Coppélia by Léo Delibes
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1870; France 
Date of Recording: 10/27/1957 
Giselle by Adolphe Adam
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1841; France 
Date of Recording: 06/02/1962 

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