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Tchaikovsky Ballet Masterpieces / Margot Fonteyn, Michael Somes

Tchaikovsky / Fonteyn / Rpo / Lanchbery
Release Date: 11/15/2011 
Label:  Ica Classics   Catalog #: 5050  
Composer:  Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Conductor:  John LanchberyRobert IrvingHugo Rignold
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Opera House Covent Garden OrchestraLondon Philharmonic OrchestraRoyal Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Mono 
Low Stock: Currently 3 or fewer in stock. Usually ships in 24 hours, unless stock becomes depleted.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

TCHAIKOVSKY Excerpts from: Sleeping Beauty 1; Swan Lake 2; The Nutcracker 3 Margot Fonteyn, Michael Somes (dancers); 1 John Lanchbery, 2 Robert Irving, 3 Hugo Rignold, cond; 1 Royal Op O, Read more Covent Garden; 2 London PO; 3 Royal PO ICA 5050, mono (DVD: 72:00)

Naturally, this DVD is going to appeal to Margot Fonteyn fans, of which there are millions. As the liner notes indicate, she was not the flashiest ballerina of her time, a fact that actually scared her when she debuted in New York with the Royal Ballet in 1949, but she was personable, created a real character onstage, and was usually technically perfect. So many of us born after World War II remember Fonteyn primarily as the partner of Rudolf Nureyev that we tend to ignore or forget her previous stage partner, Michael Somes.

This is a mistake, because in many ways Somes was the male Fonteyn, a technically perfect, occasionally flashy dancer who created a likeable character onstage. Indeed, in several scenes in this video, particularly in Sleeping Beauty, Fonteyn and Somes look like carbon copies of the same dancer, so perfectly in tune are they with each other.

Somes, two years older than Fonteyn, was the first male dancer awarded a scholarship by the Royal Ballet (then known as the Vic-Wells Ballet). In 1938, he and Fonteyn were partnered for the first time as they created the principal roles in Frederick Ashton and Constant Lambert’s ballet Horoscope. Somes was praised as “potentially the finest British male dancer of the half century,” yet he was gently nudged aside as the flashier Robert Helpmann (who can be seen as the villains in the 1951 British film of Tales of Hoffmann ) became Fonteyn’s principal partner through 1951. Then, at last, Somes got his chance, and these three BBC telecasts are evidence of his excellence as both a solo dancer and as a partner, but it only lasted 11 years. Along came Nureyev, and Somes was again gently nudged aside, this time into character roles (such as Lord Capulet in Romeo and Juliet ), though Ashton liked him enough to make him assistant director of the company between 1963 and 1970. Somes’s last appearance with Fonteyn was in a 1966 film version of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

As great as Somes and Fonteyn were, it was indeed a bit of luxury casting to get her as the Sugar Plum Fairy to his Nutcracker, but that’s what an abridged TV production can do for you. Fonteyn is superb in the role, which isn’t terribly surprising, and although this is the film in which Somes has a bobble going on his back leg when in an arabesque, he is also quite spectacular, especially in his leaps. The Nutcracker is also the only ballet on which one sees a British name alongside a Russian one as choreographer, in this case Peter Wright, who also rechoreographed Ivanov’s Nutcracker in 1985 (a superb production filmed and released on DVD in 2010). Here, there is one curious moment that doesn’t really work, the “Dance of the Reed Pipes” (or Mirlitons), where the dancers seem to clutter in small uneven groups on the stage and subsequently the space of the stage is not covered well. (They do dance well, however; in fact, this was one of the golden ages of the Royal Ballet company.) Wright also brings in the Russian and Chinese dancers to work out with the “Waltz of the Flowers,” an odd choice, but in this case it works very well, and was probably done because the production ended with the “Waltz of the Flowers” and this way every dancer could take their final bows.

Visually, Sleeping Beauty is in the most consistently good condition, but from a viewing standpoint the most interesting of the three ballets is Swan Lake, a production that evokes the German impressionist film style of the late 1910s and 1920s.

The rather odd liner notes by Ernie Gilbert tend to downplay Fonteyn’s strengths, saying that her “extensions were modest, her leaps graceful rather than athletic, and her balances held just long enough to make their choreographic point.” This almost makes her sound like a routine ballerina rather than the standard-bearer who could still make younger dancers jealous of her perfection a decade hence, though it’s true that she was consistently solid, seldom spectacular. On the other hand, Gilbert does mention her “geniality of spirit that spread far beyond the footlights,” and this is certainly true. You always got the impression with Fonteyn that, no matter how hard the work she put into it and the tremendous effort she gave onstage, she was always having fun, and so you, the viewer, had fun too. This is especially true in the coda of act III of the Swan Lake : She smiles widely through some of the hardest technical movements as Odile.

The technical restoration is pretty good throughout, though the Nutcracker has the most instances of whited-out images and one moment where the sound breaks up, though overall the music track here is the most modern and spacious. I am also delighted to catch a glimpse, in the Swan Lake highlights, of Robert Irving conducting, just before George Balanchine stole him away from the Royal Ballet for his New York company. Many of those born after 1960 may not have any idea how high Irving’s reputation as a ballet conductor was in those years. He was esteemed by dancers and audiences alike for his rare combination of exciting interpretations with perfectly danceable tempos. On the other hand, there is little to complain of in the conducting of Lanchbery or Rignold, house conductors of the time who did fine, solid work for many years.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley


Tchaikovsky Ballet Masterpieces

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky:
Sleeping Beauty (excerpts)
Swan Lake (excerpts)
The Nutcracker: Act II

Margot Fonteyn, dancer
Michael Somes, dancer

Sleeping Beauty
choreography after Marius Petipa
Royal Opera House Orchestra
John Lanchbery, conductor
Broadcast: 20 December 1959

Swan Lake
choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Robert Irving, conductor
Broadcast: 9 June 1954

The Nutcracker
choreography by Peter Wright after Lev Ivanov
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Hugo Rignold, conductor
Broadcast: 21 December 1958

Picture format: NTSC 4:3
Sound format: LPCM Mono
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Menu language: English
Booklet notes: English, French, German
Running time: 72 mins
No. of DVDs: 1 Read less

Works on This Recording

Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66: Excerpt(s) by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Conductor:  John Lanchbery
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1888-1889; Russia 
Swan Lake, Op. 20: Excerpt(s) by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Conductor:  Robert Irving
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1875-1876; Russia 
Nutcracker, Op. 71: Excerpt(s) by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Conductor:  Hugo Rignold
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1891-1892; Russia 

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