Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Swan Lake...step aside, there's a
Todd Nolan | Seattle, WA USA | 12/30/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This beautiful Balanchine-choreographed story ballet doesn't get performed as much as it should because the heirs and executors of the Balanchine Trust will only grant permission to those ballet companies that are willing to keep true to Balanchine's steps as he created them. If I'm not mistaken, distribution rights to the original 1967 ballet-film with Suzanne Farrell have never been sold. In the mid-1990s, the Trust gave permission to Pacific Northwest Ballet to perform it since co-director Francia Russell was not only a former NY City Ballet dancer under Balanchine, but was adept enough at dance notation and had always been trusted with other Balanchine pieces when she took over the helm at the Seattle-based company in the '80s with her co-director, husband and fellow NY City Ballet alumnus Kent Stowell. Since Russell & Stowell had put PNB on the national and (by the early 90's) international map as "a Balanchine company", the Trust had been granting permission to them to put on Balanchine works because 1) they would be done well, with dancers trained in that style; and 2) they would be performed faithfully to the original choreography---liberties wouldn't be taken, calling it Balanchine, but morphing it into something of their own.
PNB took this ballet on an international tour and got sterling reviews everywhere they went. One of the performances of this tour was recorded for DVD and received additional raves from Amazon reviewers (take a look when you can). I saw 6 performances myself in Seattle when they first put it on in '97 or '98, and 8 more performances when they did it again in 2002/2003 (my dates may be wrong).
This production by Scala Milan and their star Alessandra Ferri is also very good. Actually, I don't think a ballet company, amateur or professional could ruin this masterpiece, even if they went with modern costumes and set it inside a hockey rink instead of Shakespeare's magical forest. While Giselle and Swan Lake IMO have sections of music that aren't all that inspiring, Midsummer has no "filler"; besides Mendelssohn's 35-40 minute Dream score, Balanchine chose the perfect Mendelssohn compositions that best match Shakespeare's story and the wonderful choreography: Fair Melusina, Son & Stranger, Walpurgsnacht, Athalia and for that heavenly divertissement in Act 2, the 9th string symphony. To my mind, only Sleeping Beauty has the same cornucopia of endless gems, one after another, beginning to end. (And PNB's production of Beauty with Ronald & Ann Hynd's staging was better than anything London, Paris, New York, Toronto or Winnipeg has done).
As good as this production is, the Pacific Northwest Ballet version would be my higher recommendation if you are new to it. The costumes are more colorful, and the sets are much more brilliant and eye-catching. Much of the background that's supposed to be the forest in the Milan production is so dark and lifeless that it betrays the spirit of the play. You'd think this was MacBeth they were staging. I know that its supposed to be a forest at night, but PNB made it look enchanting, with mysterious trees, cobwebs, giant mushrooms & night-flowers. For the dancing, Ferri is beautiful to look at and her dancing matches for the most part, but its no shame to come in second to Patricia Barker. I watched Barker for the last 8 years of her career and I think only Suzanne Farrell could dance more beautifully. The rest of the Milan ensemble are more than proficient, it appears their hearts were in this. But again, PNB's Seth Belliston is more Puckish than Milan's Riccardo Massimi, Arianna Lallone is a more spectacular Hippolyta than Sabrina Brazzo, and Louise Nadeau is the brighter jewel in the Act 2 divertissement, although Marta Romagna is wonderful as well. Kaori Nakamura deserves to be mentioned for her role as the main Butterfly. With Nakamura, Noelani Pantastico, Maria Chapman and Louise Nadeau, PNB has a quartet of young ladies that could each be the #1 gold-cast ballerina for any of the major companies in Europe or North America.
Ballet fans will want both because each is a treasure to have, to see over and over again. If you had to choose one, Pacific Northwest Ballet should be it. They may not have the international reputation that Teatro alla Scala has, and Patricia Barker & Louise Nadeau haven't done videos with Sting or appeared in films with Barishnykov as Ferri has; but the poor step-sister has it over her sibling with all facets: dancing, costumes, staging. I'm giving this 5 stars more for the ballet itself (which I'd like to see programmed more by ballet companies since we've seen Swan Lake & Giselle in every possible style and twist, as good as they are) than for the Milan team. Again, they are wonderful and I'm grateful this is available on DVD. It just takes a slight back-seat to the Francia Russell/Patricia Barker production which cannot be bettered.
PS - This Balanchine Trust work was staged by yet another couple of former NY City Ballet dancers, Patricia Neary and Sara Leland. They deserve a standing ovation for doing the Balanchine estate proud and giving us fans another glimpse of this undervalued ballet."