04 Feb 2006


This 2005 release was filmed at a performance in La Scala’s temporary home, Milan’s Teatro degli Arcimboldi, in April 2004. It is based on the Burmeister version of the ballet of some 50 years ago, first introduced in the West by the Paris Opera.

Burmeister, while returning to Tchaikovsky’s original score and dance sequences, also injected his own dramatic interpretation, showing Rothbart’s transformation of Odette into a swan during the Prologue, and then using her re-transformation to human form as the springboard for an unambiguously happy ending as the lovers are thus reunited. Rothbart also figures more prominently in Act III during the national dance sequence, and the jester too has a greater role to play here as Siegfried’s friend and ally. While some could quibble with such “tampering” — and who hasn’t tampered with Swan Lake over the years? — the Burmeister version has maintained its popularity with a variety of companies for over half a century, and it is preserved well in this handsome production.

Visually stunning, the staging of the La Scala Swan provides a realistically effective and supportive backdrop for the dancers throughout. The ethereal scenes with the swans, the Corps de ballet, are particularly well-served in this regard, and their exquisite coordination of form and movement are one of the highlights of this DVD. As one would expect, of course, the real highlight is the chance to see the remarkable Svetlana Zakharova in her dual role as Odette/Odile. Her graceful athleticism and her careful and quite apparent dramatic contrast between her two characters (which the camera work helps emphasize) make it clear why her interpretation has become so well known — its preservation here is certainly to be applauded.

Zakharova’s supporting cast should not be overlooked in considering this recorded version among its competitors. Robert Bolle is a perfectly matched Siegfried, and both Gianni Ghisleni as Rothbart and Antonino Sutera as the jester carry off their acting and dancing roles with distinction. Sutera is particularly entertaining to watch; even if one finds his expanded role in the ballet a bit intrusive at times, Sutera projects Burmeister’s conception wonderfully.

As to Tchaikovsky’s marvelous score, the La Scala orchestra provides a uniformly competent if not always fully committed reading. Worthy of particular mention is the Act III divertissement, where the players bring out all the verve and brilliance the various dances require. Conductor James Tuggle does a largely creditable job with the always difficult task of coordinating phrasing, cadences, and the like with the dancers’ subtle poses and gestures. Here and there the brass may seem a bit lacking in focus and blend; however, the many important and prominent woodwind and violin solos are beautifully and characteristically played. It is curious that, while the dancers unfold the story with suitably high drama throughout, the dramatic climaxes in the orchestra occasionally do not reach quite the same heights, particularly in the second act. On the other hand, the Act III Pas de deux is another matter entirely in this regard, as the thrilling dancing is matched perfectly by the orchestra beginning to end. On balance, relatively minor caveats aside, the music comes across with the energy, romantic sweep, and rhythmic flexibility that have made it so popular with ballet and concert audiences alike over the years.

The recorded sound, available in Stereo, Digital and Digital Surround, is superb in tone and presence, with careful microphone placement for the solo instruments that brings the score clarity without disturbing overall balance. The wide-screen format reveals color that is rich and highly contrasted, aided in part by the skillful stage lighting. The numerous camera angles employed allow viewers to see interesting acting nuances that would not be as visible to a live audience. On occasion, the shot selections do seem a bit strange, as the focus moves to parts of the stage where little is happening, almost as if to prove that there were a variety of close-ups available rather than using that capability to highlight the action or the more important dancing taking place at the time.

As an added bonus on a DVD that already has so much to recommend it, there is a brief film, “The Rehearsal,” which features an interview with director Frédéric Olivieri alternating with random shots of dancers rehearsing for the production. Oliveri’s remarks (subtitled in a variety of languages) help clarify both his overall conception and the unique aspects of the Burmeister version used as the basis for it.

Roy J. Guenther
The George Washington University