Delibes & Minkus: La Source / Kessels, Paris National Opera Ballet & Orchestra

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At last! While we have plenty of filmed productions of Coppélia to watch and enjoy – whether vintagebang up to date or downright wacky – and a very good one of Sylvia, this new release finally brings the first of Delibes’s three ballets, La source, to a wide audience via Blu-ray and DVD.

The usual explanation for La source’s historical neglect has been that the contribution of Delibes’s co-composer Ludwig Minkus diminished the overall quality of the score. But that suggestion isn’t an adequate one – or even necessarily accurate. In the first place, we need to be clear that “co-composers” doesn’t mean that each of the score’s individual numbers was a sort of high-quality-Delibes-watered-down-by-workmanlike-Minkus hybrid. In fact, the way in which the collaborative process worked was a very practical one – even if we have no idea why it was adopted – with each man allocated responsibility for different parts of the score. Minkus was entrusted with Act 1 and the second scene of Act 3, while Delibes was responsible for Act 2 and Act 3’s first scene. That turned out, in practice, to be a pretty even split, for Minkus ended up providing about 45 minutes worth of music and Delibes penned about 44[.]

It is certainly true that there are differences between the two men’s scores. To some extent, those derive from the mundanely practical point that each composer was writing music for very different sections of the story. Minkus’s focus in Act 1 was on establishing the ballet’s various characters and generally setting the scene, while the finale to Act 3 offered few opportunities as it gave him only six minutes to wrap up the whole drama. Delibes, on the other hand, was tasked with creating the music underpinning the more glamorous jollifications at the khan’s court, which allowed him to concentrate on writing livelier material that was characterised by far more colour, glitter and exotic sensuality.

There is, however, a second and somewhat more fundamental explanation for the perceived contrasts between the two composers’ scores, for Minkus and Delibes had rather different conceptions of what writing music for the ballet actually meant. The former was a composer of the old school who, as Ivor Guest wrote in his booklet essay for the aforementioned Bonynge CD, “specialised in composing music for the ballet, a field not highly regarded in musical circles but which nonetheless demanded a special gift to satisfy the ballet-master’s requirements – to produce melodious numbers for the dances and suitably descriptive passages for the action, and above all to deliver to a deadline”. That has led some critics to perceive Minkus as little more than a hack journeyman who churned out unmemorable material on demand, even though audiences who have come to appreciate the manner in which his skilfully-wrought scores underpin such popular ballets as Don Quixote and La bayadère might beg to differ. In reality, his music was in no way “inferior” to that of the next generation of ballet composers: it simply aimed to achieve a very different - but certainly no less legitimate – musical and dramatic purpose. The first embodiment of that subsequent generation, Delibes himself, was, on the other hand, a composer whose conception of ballet was developing into something rather more ambitious. No less a figure than Tchaikovsky, the originator of the modern “symphonic” style of ballet score, regarded Sylvia as “the first ballet in which the music constitutes not just the main, but the sole interest. What charm, what grace, what melodic, rhythmic and harmonic richness. I was ashamed. If I had known this music earlier, then of course I would not have written Swan Lake”.

It is far too easy, in fact, to assert glibly that any contrasts between the two composers’ contributions are necessarily qualitative in nature. Indeed, when listened to blind and without foreknowledge of who actually composed what, the score of La source – skilfully edited and occasionally augmented here by Marc-Olivier Dupin - actually emerges as a pretty seamless whole.

In reality, there were two other much more significant causes of the ballet’s failure to maintain a long-term place in the repertoire. In the first case, its plot was undeniably involved, and it is notable that the production under consideration omits several of its complicating plotlines. Moreover, the fact that there are no less than three central female figures and that easily confused names were selected for some of the central characters (Naïla/Nouredda, Djémil/Dadjé) does not help. The inconsistency of some of the participants’ on-stage motivations can also be puzzling from time to time – though, in the absence of any other modern production with which to compare it, that may be a feature unique to this particular one.

The second legitimate reason for La source’s relatively rapid descent into obscurity is simply accidental. It successfully maintained its place in the repertoire for a decade and there is no reason to doubt that regular revivals might subsequently have been mounted. However, a disastrous fire in 1873 destroyed the drawings, models and plans on which the original production had been based and, rather than recreate them from scratch, it no doubt seemed easier to ballet impresarios at the time to move on to different projects.

This new Blu-ray/DVD release preserves a new production of the ballet dating from almost 150 years after its premiere. Conservatively choreographed by Jean-Guillaume Bart for the Paris Opera Ballet, it follows the original story’s broad outlines and uses much of the Minkus/Delibes score. Booklet notes author Laure Guilbert is nevertheless at pains to stress that this production is in no way a “reconstruction” of the original but instead has a character and identity of its own. Those last words might be enough to strike fear in the heart of traditionalist ballet fans, but in reality the French choreographer (gushingly described by Ms. Guilbert as a man who “fervently cultivates his attachment to the classical universe… a lover of dance who has transformed [it] into an odyssey throughout the near- and far-flung realms of the art”) is owed a real debt of gratitude for his achievement in returning La source to the stage. There are, it’s true, a few significant problem areas that would have benefited from attention. In the case of the plot, Nouredda’s motivation and reactions as she experiences her character’s trials and tribulations can be somewhat opaque or even downright puzzling. In addition, the stage production itself is visually rather disconcerting. There is, to my own eyes at least, a jarring mismatch between Christian Lacroix’s detailed and often gorgeously elaborate costumes and Éric Ruf’s essentially impressionistic set designs. The latter are highly imaginative and attractive in their own right (especially a set of prominent and exquisitely lit ropes, lowered over the stage from the flies, that represent trees) but they are clearly not intended as any sort of realistic depiction of the settings and that doesn’t gel with the detailed, elaborate and convincingly “realistic” clothing sported by the dancers. Neither element can be described as wrong in itself, but another producer might have chosen to integrate them more effectively.

The quality of the dancing, meanwhile, is generally high, with the women, in particular, demonstrating confident assurance in their own technical skills. Ludmila Pagliero as Naïla performs with delicacy and an appropriate sense of otherworldliness; she presumably impressed not only the theatre audience but the company’s management, too, as within a year of this performance she had been promoted to the top rank of danseuse étoile. Meanwhile, the nature of her role as the princess Nouredda means that the other leading female dancer, Isabelle Ciaravola, tends to spend a disproportionate amount of time on stage looking depressed and generally mopey – although there are also moments, as already noted, when she looks bizarrely happy even though her circumstances are at their worst. If her acting is somewhat questionable, the same cannot be said, however, of Ms. Ciaravola’s dancing which is, invariably, both sensitively and often rather beautifully delivered. Of the men, Karl Paquette combines sheer energy with attention to detail in a winning performance that suffers only from an uncharacteristically drab and featureless costume, little suited, in my opinion, to the hero of a classical ballet. The role of Nouredda’s brother Mozdock, concerned about her only as far as she serves his own political ambitions, is taken by Christophe Duquenne who delivers an effectively villainous turn while leading his energetic and well-drilled soldiers in several lively numbers. Dancing as the elf Zaël, Mathias Heymann is the audience’s favourite as he leaps his way enthusiastically and repeatedly across the stage, creating a genuine character out of his role. The dancer portraying the libidinous khan, Alexis Renaud, makes the most of his opportunities but does not create as much of an impression as the other men. The rest of the company make a very positive contribution, to the extent that I thought that the numbers in which the primary focus was on the corps de ballet were among the most effectively delivered in the whole performance.

On the technical side, I was particularly impressed by the effectively realised stage lighting which has been very well captured on film. The sound, as relayed on this recording, is also more than merely acceptable and allows us to appreciate plenty of felicitous detail from the orchestra, led on this occasion by Koen Kessels who will be known to many as music director of the Royal Ballet. Meanwhile, the experienced François Roussillon’s film direction focuses our attention to everything that we need to see while not distracting us unnecessarily or drawing undue attention to itself.

This is an important release for balletomanes. It is, I think, unlikely that there will be an alternative version of La source any time soon...I repeat, therefore, my original reaction to the release of this new and well-produced Blu-ray disc – at last!
Rob Maynard

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: NBD0145V

  • UPC: 730099014564

  • Label: Naxos AV

  • Number of Discs: 1