Two very different Stravinsky ballets are here presented by The Royal Ballet: the traditional, colourful designs perfectly suit the opulence of The Firebird
, contrasting with the later, more austere, ritualistic scoring and choreography of Les Noces
("The Wedding"). Firebird
is a traditional fairytale: the Prince gets his girl (a princess, naturally), with a little help from a magical Firebird, by defeating the evil Kostchei, who's holding the Princess and her fellow maidens captive. The devil notoriously gets all the best tunes, and with the riveting presence of David Drew's Kostchei it's apparent that baddies get the best moves in dance, too. Leanne Benjamin is an immensely athletic Firebird and Jonathan Cope, as the Prince, dances with style and personality.
Les Noces is, by contrast, a genuine ensemble piece, with the principals (the bride and groom) being almost less important than the corps de ballet itself. There are a few moments of less-than-perfect ensemble here, but these pale into insignificance in the face of the raw power of Stravinsky's angular music (scored for four pianos, percussion and chorus with solo voices). A third item finds Stravinsky conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in his own Firebird Suite. The date was 1965 and he was a frail 83 at the time, but the concentration of the reading is compelling, as is his own stern visage, only breaking into a smile at the very end of the performance. This is an excellent filler for a first-rate ballet release.
On the DVD: The Firebird & Les Noces on this disc are presented with terrific technical values, both visually and in sound quality (the Stravinsky archive performance is in mono, however, but it's perfectly respectable). This is a real feast for the eye, backed up by solid documentation in the booklet and excellent additional features--David Drew's arch and entertaining "Nijinska's World" and behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage--that will appeal to both seasoned ballet fans and those who are new to the art form. --Harriet Smith