The Magic of Swan Lake

Sunday, January 21, 2007 by

Tonight’s television was a bonanza for lovers of the extravagantly beautiful. Now there’s something rarely said about terrestrial TV, but it was (mostly) true. Musical, artistic, physical, the lot. It also exposed the dialectic of philistinism and integrity fighting for the soul of arts coverage on the box. Over the next month the BBC goes Tchaikovsky-bonkers, splurging the Russian’s music on radio and telly. Given classical music’s negligible profile on TV, the results will make intriguing viewing.

First up, on Sunday, was The Magic of Swan Lake, prefiguring a performance of the ballet itself. So far so populist, one might say. Pierre Boulez famously said of Tchaik that his “whole output” was “abominable”. Tchaikovsky’s soaring melodies are the very essence of emotional manipulation, that mainstay of mainstream modern TV. Swan Lake is a camp, cringingly sub-Grimm melodrama of doomed love, played with more archness than anyone can measure. But The Magic of Swan Lake was, despite the hideous title, a slow-burning belter. It may have included as a pundit Katharine Holabird, the authoress of the sweet but slight Angelina Ballerina series of children’s books, but it also featured eminent conductor Valery Gergiev, the Guardian’s stern dance critic Judith Mackrell and didn’t shy from lots of foreign words (fouettés, jetées and the whole balletomane’s French argot) or the Nordic origins of the mythology of the swan in European literature.

Gergiev talked about the remote key of F sharp. The chief choreographers of what we now know as Swan Lake, Petipa and Ivanov, were namechecked. There was also some superb archive footage of Michael Somes and Margot Fonteyn dancing the lead roles of Siegfried and Odette/Odile in 1954. It was the sort of didactic television that turned people on to serious music, dance etc and which one felt, with The Magic of Swan Lake, was being re-enacted here.

Fonteyn’s hips were much bigger than her contemporary photographs suggest, but she was still outlandishly desirable; almost as much as the contrastingly slender Darcey Bussell, who, apart from being so beautiful that she must hail from a planet a fair way beyond Betelgeuse, made a surprisingly self-effacing job of presenting. Her giggly flub while rehearsing the famous 32 fouetté turns in Act 3 made for endearing TV even if the little aspirant-Darceys around her at the White Lodge in Richmond, the Royal Ballet’s academy, looked disturbingly as if they all needed a good meal or 11 inside them.

As attested by a recent Fonteyn biography, ballet has always had an immensely sexual element, and anyone who says they aren’t watching it for arousal at all are liars, which brings us to Swan Lake itself. Certainly the indecently pert-bottomed Ulyana Lopatkina, the Odette/Odile of the Mariinsky production that followed Bussell’s programme, had legs as long as the Trans-Siberian Railway. This didn’t distract (much) from the astounding athleticism of Ilya Kuznetsov as the ballet’s uber-baddie Rothbart, a role so overtly gay that even Freddie Mercury might have found it vulgar, but it was hard to think of anything but Ms Lopatkina’s pins long after the final curtain. Fonteyn, Darcey and now this. Oo-er.

Sadly, the transmission of the Mariinsky production looked hacked-about. There was a pervasive sense that the music had been recorded quite apart from the dance. Swan Lake, like most ballets, has been attenuated, extended and generally mucked around with since its 1877 premiere. The big tunes were all present and correct; but this seemed a cop-out, cheap, after the fine work that had preceded it. Even in edited form, it usually lasts at least two hours, not 88 minutes. One knew that the producers had fought for even this much to be preserved.

The conductor Leopold Stokowski, brilliant as he was, notoriously cut long or difficult works to pander to his conservative mid-Western American audiences and US broadcasters, and this had the same feel. A masterpiece remains a masterpiece; but when it’s been adulterated, as here, there’s a sour taste in the mouth.

Nonetheless, these two programmes were two hours that struck a blow, be it ever so feeble, for high culture in TV. One awaits the rest of the Tchaikovsky Experience with interest. Will the BBC show the incandescent performance of the Fourth Symphony conducted by Sir Georg Solti at the RFH in 1985? Will they raid the archive for performances by the likes of pianist Sviatoslav Richter or conductor Evgeny Mravinsky? Will they apply to French, Czech, Russian, German broadcasters for footage of great performers? Don’t bet on it, but you never know.

They could always try, and, given the quality of The Magic of Swan Lake, they may just try. Usually broadcasters are surprised when they get sackloads of mail from people praising them for putting on high culture. The mantra that nobody listens to classical music is a self-fulfilling prophecy fulfilled largely by telly. There has been a fair bit of ink spilled on classical’s decline in audience share in all media, but this entirely matches its marginalisation by TV almost everywhere, but particularly in the UK, the most congenitally unmusical of all nations.

As recently as 1984, the BBC showed an excellent series of near-academic essays on symphonic form, presented by the onetime face of classical, Andre Previn – ironically, Tchaikovsky’s Sixth was among the works programmed. Howard Goodall’s 1997 series on the history of the organ (Channel 4) was spectacularly incongruous. Audiences for both were excellent. Goodall still gets the odd commission, and good for him.

There is a valid argument that TV doesn’t – can’t – do classical well. How many angles can you shoot a bassoonist from (or as the old joke goes, you can shoot a viola player from as many angles as you want) …? But as anyone who has been to gigs of any kind will assent, it doesn’t do rock that well either. The Jam and Joy Division on Something Else in 1979 were two of the most compelling rock performances I have ever heard or seen, but then again nobody who ever saw John Ogdon playing the joanna on the box is likely to forget it. Even so, in every case, something actual and immediate is lacking. Cliché it may be, but there is really nothing like being there – no matter what the genre of music.

Magnificence of execution is partly the rub when it comes to music, or any artistic endeavour, on the telly – TV doesn’t want excellence. It wants inclusivity. It has become a medium obsessed with Blairite buzzwords and marketing mantras. It assumes that if people see and/or hear something that makes them think. “I could never do that” – like, say, Gil Shaham playing the Bartok First Violin Concerto – they aren’t going to bother trying. Hence European classical music, with its 700 years of history and almost inconceivable technical and emotional range is well outside the pale.

This approach, of course, doesn’t quite square with the influence that concert-hall exposure to so many great conductors had on the young barrow-boy John Barbirolli, or countless stories like his. Toscanini’s NBC broadcasts in America are still legendary. The young composer Roxanna Panufnik once said of seeing the violinist Ida Haendel on the telly, “I said to my mum – I was four – ‘I want a box like that and a stick to make it sing’”. This was inspirational TV at its best. Ken Russell’s dramatised Elgar and Delius shows remain two of the finest programmes ever made anywhere, even if you excise the sublime music. Brian Large’s presentation of Patrice Chéreau’s unsurpassable “centenary” 1976 production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, shown on BBC2 in soap form with one act every Sunday night in autumn 1982 was, and remains, some of the most emotionally captivating TV this reviewer has ever seen. It was modernist, audacious, gorgeous. No broadcaster would touch it today. I’ll never sing at Bayreuth or conduct those glorious operas, but I don’t give a shit, quite frankly – my life has been massively richer for having seen that Ring and I want to do something for, or to, music. TV is giving fewer and fewer people the chance to feel that.

The audience is out there, and they’re not all grey-beards. Hilary and Jackie, about the life of cellist Jacqueline Du Pré, did OK business at the box office (the sex probably helped). No fewer people watched the Christmas Day concerts from Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw than watch the pallid and vapid substitutes of today. Everyone expected a Christmas ballet, even if it was The Nutcracker. Again.

Once again, sex counts. Every lover of art music knows this and only in the last 30 or so years have they begun to admit it. It’s quite wrong that looks predominate over musical or artistic talent, but they contribute a part which TV plays up, sometimes shamelessly and usually for the Japanese market. Despite her undoubted talent, there is little doubt that violinist Nicola Benedetti won the 2004 BBC Young Musician of the Year award because her face and figure would, in Woody Allen’s memorable phrase, “induce lycanthropy in a boy scout” – and get people tuning in. We now await classical’s next male pretty boy. And yet … and yet … people will be inspired, not only to reach for a box of Kleenex, but for a violin bow. This must be important, for music, and for TV.

It is not ideal, though, and The Magic of Swan Lake – sorry, but I hate that title – seemed to be grasping back in time for this lost world, and the fact that it at least touched it is to be celebrated. Tchaik may be as populist as modern TV, yes, but if this is the way the BBC are kicking off celebrating his life and work, then he may be a little more relevant, thank God, to shaping the present day – and maybe, if culturally-minded folk are lucky, our TV future.


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