Why did the swan cross the lake?

19th December 1997 at 00:00
FAIRY TALE BALLETS: SWAN LAKE; THE NUTCRACKER; ROMEO AND JULIET; SLEEPING BEAUTY; GISELLE; COPPELIA from BMG Conifer Records, CDs plus booklet, Pounds 9.99 each, available from all leading record stores

As Christmas moves ever closer to commercial meltdown, it is reassuring to know you can still find a little traditional magic. Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker is usually being performed somewhere over the Christmas season and is readily accessible to all age groups, not just hardy balletomanes.

But the same cannot be said of the rest of the classical ballet repertoire. Although many people could recognise snatches of the top tunes (the Dying Swan, perhaps, and the stately Montagues and Capulets Dance from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet) the stories that go with them can easily remain a mystery until you rush through your programme just before the house lights go down.

Enter Classic FM presenter Tony Scotland and the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, who have together created a potted guide to six favourite ballets to introduce the music and story to younger listeners. Each comes with a tape on which Scotland narrates his own version of the stories, with a selection of highlights from the music together with a booklet describing the history of the work and information about the composer, choreographer, producer and dancers.

Apart from providing an introduction to an unfamiliar work, the recordings will be of best use prior to a school visit to the chosen ballet and will familiarise children with the music in the same way that an overture to an opera implants dramatic melody into the mind.

Some of the ballets may well already be familiar territory, such as Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. But although Swan Lake has some of the most ravishing ballet music ever written, not everyone is acquainted with its plot. Likewise, the thrilling score of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet which reaches heights of dramatic excitement and pathos could even be used to enlarge upon Shakespeare's classic love story for those who are studying the text.

Delibe's Coppelia is another staple of the classical ballet repertoire. It is a simple comedy involving a doll who is so realistic she inspires love in one young suitor, and jealousy in a rival for his affections. It was an instant success when it opened in the Paris Opera in 1870 before Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie.

The tragic melodrama Giselle has heart-rending music by Adolphe Adam, which perfectly compliments this most romantic of ballets. In this story, a peasant girl meets and falls in love with Albrecht, a young count who is masquerading as a peasant. Their love is wrecked when he is unmasked and found to be affianced to a noblewoman. The shock drives Giselle to suicide. She is buried in a moonlit glade in which the Wilis and their queen - all spirits of jilted girls - exact revenge by causing feckless lovers to dance to their deaths. Albrecht nearly meets his but for Giselle, who manages to keep him alive until dawn, when the Wilis turn to dust.

Not quite a happy ending but in the grand tradition of classical ballet, pretty much par for the course.


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