The Art of Vadim Muntagirov
rec. live, 2016-19, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, London
OPUS ARTE DVD OA1359BD [4 DVDs: 527]
British prima-ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn (1919-1991) once said, ‘Dancers are both athletes and artists’. Naturally this applies to all ballet dancers but to some more than others and none more so than Royal Ballet’s Principal Vadim Muntagirov. Just look at the perfect line of his arabesques, the excellence and lightness of his jumps, his superb landings and impeccable pirouettes. His dancing is as exciting as it is graceful and beautiful. In my opinion, Muntagirov is one of the greatest ballet dancers of his generation and how lucky we are that he is based in London with the Royal Ballet.
According to his biography on the Royal Opera House’s website, Vadim Muntagirov was born in Chelyabinsk, the son of two dancers. He trained at Perm Ballet School, in Russia, before moving to The Royal Ballet Upper School, graduating into the English National Ballet in 2009. He was promoted to first soloist in 2010, principal in 2011 and lead principal in 2012. He joined the Royal Ballet as a Principal in March 2014. Muntagirov has danced the lead male roles in countless classic, romantic and contemporary ballets, both narrative and non-narrative ballet. He is also an award winning dancer, counting the 2011 Outstanding Male Performance (Classical), 2015 and 2018 Best Male Dancer at the Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards, the 2013 and 2018 Benois de la danse and the 2021 Dance Europe Outstanding Dancer Award. He also frequently dances as a guest artist with such companies as Paris Opera Ballet, Mariinsky and American Ballet Theatre, National Ballet of Japan, Bavarian State Ballet, Mikhailovsky and Cape Town City Ballet.
This box set of four ballets to showcase Muntagirov’s artistry was long due. It effectively demonstrates the quality of his dancing and acting in a range of famous ballets – the classicism of The Sleeping Beauty; the romanticism of Giselle; the fun cheekiness of Coppélia and the dramatic, romantic tragedy of Manon. All four ballets are a joy to watch from beginning to end, clearly representing Muntagirov’s technical prowess as well as his delicate artistry and acting talent.
In three out of the four ballets featured, Muntagirov partners with the astonishing Argentinian prima ballerina, also a Royal Ballet principal, Marianela Nuñez. It is a phenomenal dancing partnership. There is great harmony in their dancing together. It is almost as if one anticipates the other’s movements and they draw sheer brilliance from each other, giving the impression that they have been dancing together since they were born. Muntagirov has the ability to adapt to the ballerina’s own style and effortlessly make her shine, without fading into the background, as it can sometimes happen to male dancers in classical ballet. Chemistry flows, it’s palpable between them. They complement each other so perfectly on stage I occasionally thought they must be a couple off stage. They are not. They appear to be good friends, understanding each other well and enjoying to dance together. In a documentary I watched on BBC4 some time ago – Men at the Barre – she affectionately calls him “Vadream” (a cute twist on Vadim, his first name) because, as she puts it, he’s a dream to dance with. This togetherness, this dancing in perfect tune shows in all their performances, especially when they execute celebrated, virtuoso pas de deux in some of the world’s most famous ballets.
The box set begins with Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty. It is not one of my favourite ballets and the plot is weak in the sense that Prince Florimund (who awakens Princess Aurora with a kiss) has little to do. The hero of the piece is the Lilac Fairy. I tend to prefer Disney’s interpretation in his animated film of 1959 Sleeping Beauty where the Prince has to fight the evil fairy to obtain his happily-ever-after with Aurora. This is a personal opinion and it takes nothing off the merits of this production. The staging is splendid and the costumes simply gorgeous. Tchaikovsky composed music for three of the most enduring classical narrative ballets in the repertoire of any quality ballet company: Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. The scores in all three contain some of the finest, most beautiful music ever written for ballet. The choreography created by Marius Petipa for Princess Aurora, the sleeping beauty of the title, is very intricate, demanding and technically extremely difficult. Needless to say that Nuñez negotiates it effortlessly, displaying her considerable virtuosity. As mentioned, Muntagirov as Prince Florimund is less time on stage and doesn’t have as much to do as Aurora. However when he finally appears in Act II, we immediately get a glimpse of the purity of his classical line and of what he can really do. His moment of glory comes in Act III during the wedding festivities of Florimund and Aurora. Their grand pas de deux is flawlessly and charmingly executed. Muntagirov’s understated elegance, precision and almost feline agility to his jumps illuminate the stage and set the audience on fire. Taller than most ballet dancers (approximately 1.83 m or 6’ 1’’) he displays a natural grace and lightness of step that are seldom seen. Personally I think his height gives him a special kind of elegance when he is dancing with a partner or executing breathtaking solos though it possibly means that he has to work twice as hard.
The other two ballets where Muntagirov dances with Marianela Nuñez are Coppélia, with music by Léo Delibes, and Giselle, with a score by Adolphe Adam. Like in The Sleeping Beauty in Coppélia, dancing the role of Franz, Muntagirov does not have an awful lot to do, spending most of Act II ‘asleep’ after having drunk the drug that Dr Coppélius gives him. But he comes into his own in Act III. Again the pas de deux between him and Marianela Nuñez is nothing short of memorable. They are magnificent together and Muntagirov dazzles in Franz’s variations, his superbly executed solo. The applause is deafening at the end and very well deserved. Additionally to being an exceptional, marvellous dancer, Muntagirov is a talented actor. His flair for comedy shows favourably in Coppélia, adding to Nuñez cheekiness, resulting in one of the best, most effective and fun “Coppélias” I have ever seen. But it is in Giselle and later in Manon that one begins to fully grasp the extent of Muntagirov’s talent, artistry and exceptional technical skill.
In Giselle, the quintessential romantic ballet, Muntagirov dances the part of Count Albrecht and Marianela Nuñez the title role. As before, the chemistry between them is immediately patent the moment he turns up on stage in front of her, making the love story between Albrecht and Giselle appear real and his betrayal all the more shameful. Muntagirov brings an aristocratic quality to Albrecht. He looks noble, sophisticated and is every inch the count even when disguised as a peasant in Act I. The second act in this production is a thing of sheer beauty. Nuñez’s poignant, divided Giselle (conflicting between her Wili duty of dancing to lure Albrecht to his death and the power of her love for him) is extraordinary. On the other hand, Muntagirov’s portrayal of Albrecht is exquisite, revealing his pain for having lost Giselle through his own betrayal and expressing his regret because in reality Giselle was the woman he loved. His elegant depiction of the character in Act II is not just beautiful and supremely danced, it is heartfelt and deeply moving. The emotion is palpable, at times almost visceral. Nuñez and Muntagirov’s duets are passionate, touching, unimaginably difficult but performed with such grace and dignity it seems their refined steps and figures are the way they naturally move every hour of the day rather than a performance. Giselle refuses to retaliate against Albrecht, to seek revenge for his betrayal and through her indestructible love beyond the grave, Albrecht redeems himself, lives but has to face life alone and without the woman he truly loved. The final moments of the ballet when Giselle returns to her grave at dawn and Albrecht remains alive and alone are harrowing. Muntagirov expresses Albrecht’s pain and the immensity of his loss with restrained virtuosity, style and heart-breaking poignancy. Giselle touched people’s hearts from the moment it was premiered and is still one of today’s most performed ballets. I think it will continue to do so as long as there are dancers of Nuñez’s and Muntagirov’s calibre performing it.
The final ballet in this set of four is Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, choreographed to music by Jules Massenet and based on the 18th century novel Histoire du Chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost (1697-1763). In his relatively short life (he died in 1992 at the age of 62) MacMillan created a wide variety of full length narrative ballets and a series of shorter ones. Out of his impressive body of work, three ballets emerge as masterpieces with true greatness: Romeo and Juliet (1965) to Prokofiev gorgeous score, Manon (1974) to music from various operas by Massenet and Mayerling (1978) to orchestral and piano works by Liszt, based on the true story of Crown Prince Rudolf (son of the famous Empress Sissi) and the baroness Maria Vetsera, which ended in tragedy at Mayerling when the prince killed his lover and then shot himself. Vadim Muntagirov has tackled all three roles. I saw him as Romeo, alongside Yasmine Naghdi’s Juliet, in October 2021. It was one of the best renditions I’ve seen of this ballet. Muntagirov made for a playful, carefree, at times hot-headed Romeo, full of energy and exuberance. He is intense, passionate and one senses how Juliet would have easily fallen for such a Romeo. In the same way his pain when he thinks Juliet is dead feels genuine and sincere, making the audience experience it with him. More recently, October this year, I had the privilege of seeing him debuting as Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling. It is possibly one of the most demanding, most fiendishly difficult ballet roles for a male dancer both at a physical and an emotional level. Muntagirov mastered it. His performance was extraordinary. Rudolf’s anguish, disturbing self was patent but somehow he managed to simultaneously portray the character sensitively, making him sympathetic to the audience. His technical brilliance and virtuosity showed through every step of the way, no hesitation, no minor mishap. In the end when receiving the well-deserved applause, it was obvious Muntagirov was exhausted and had dedicated himself with body and soul to the part. Simply supreme.
Returning to Manon, the final ballet in this box set, Muntagirov’s performance as the Chevalier des Grieux is outstanding. Of the four ballets presented here it is the one where his artistry, acting talent and technical excellence can be best admired and appreciated. Although des Grieux is a central character, he is also the one whose personality is less defined by MacMillan. While the choreography created for him, especially in the love scene in his lodgings, is sophisticated, challenging and beautiful, it does not come across as “specific” to des Grieux. We could be watching another lover from a different story. Nevertheless Manon is a wonderful ballet and one of MacMillan’s most popular. In this live recording from 2018, Muntagirov partners with Royal Ballet principal Sarah Lamb. Her Manon is adorable, bringing across the vulnerable, loving side of the character effectively. Less persuasive is her portrayal of Manon’s dark side and how she is dazzled by riches, allowing her despicable brother (brilliantly danced here by Royal Ballet principal Ryoichi Hirano) to corrupt her and sell her to wealthy men. Muntagirov’s delicate, poignant and perceptive portrayal of des Grieux is the standout performance and was an inspired piece of casting.
The box set I reviewed was formed of four DVDs but the set is also available in Blu-ray format. It is well worth spending the extra money on the Blu-rays for better image and sound quality if one has the relevant equipment, otherwise the DVDs do very well indeed too. Each DVD comes with a booklet about the ballet and its synopsis but the languages vary. Manon and Coppélia are in English only while The Sleeping Beauty and Giselle booklets appear in English, French and German.
The four DVDs are packed in an attractive box with a photograph of Muntagirov as Franz in Coppélia executing one of his exquisitely elegant, technically perfect arabesques. You may wish to frame it!
To summarise, I think this compilation is worthy and very enjoyable, admirably showcasing the technical quality and most of all, the impressive artistry of Vadim Muntagirov – one of the greatest ballet dancers of our time. If you love ballet this collection is a must but, even if you don’t and simply wish to understand the athleticism and artistry involved in ballet, I still strongly recommend spending the money on it. You will seldom find better, more compelling or beautiful performances than the ones recorded here.
(Margarida writes more than just reviews, check it online at https://www.flowingprose.com/)
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Picture formats: All Regions 16:9
Sound format: LPCM 2.0 / DTS digital surround
Booklets in English only or English, French and German
The Sleeping Beauty (ballet in three acts)
Music – Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky
Choreography – Marius Petipa
Additional choreography – Frederick Ashton, Anthony Dowell, Christopher Wheeldon
Production – Monica Mason and Christopher Newton after Ninette de Valois and Nicholas Sergeyev
Original Designs – Oliver Messel
Additional designs – Peter Farmer
Lighting – Mark Jonathan
Staging – Christopher Carr
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Koen Kessels
TV director – Ross MacGibbon
Producer – James Whitbourn
Princess Aurora – Marianela Nuñez
Prince Florimund – Vadim Muntagirov
Carabosse – Kristen McNally
Lilac Fairy – Claire Calvert
Artists and Soloists of The Royal Ballet and Students of The Royal Ballet School
rec. live 28 February 2017
Manon (ballet in three acts)
Music – Jules Massenet
Orchestration – Martin Yates originally compiled by Leighton Lucas with the collaboration of Hilda Gaunt
Choreography – Kenneth MacMillan
Design – Nicholas Georgiadis
Lighting – William Bundy
Revival lighting – John B. Read
Revival staging – Julie Lincoln, Christopher Saunders
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Martin Yates
Screen director – Ross MacGibbon
Producer – James Whitbourn
Manon – Sarah Lamb
Des Grieux – Vadim Muntagirov
Lescaut – Ryoichi Hirano
Monsieur G. M. – Gary Avis
Lescaut’s mistress – Itziar Medizabal
Madame – Kristen McNally
The Gaoler – Thomas Whitehead
Beggar chief – James Hay
Courtesans – Fumi Kaneko, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Olivia Cowley, Mayara Magri
Three young gentlemen – Matthew Ball, William Bracewell, Marcelino Sambé
Artists of the Royal Ballet
rec. live 26 April and 3 May 2018
Coppélia (ballet in three acts)
Music – Léo Delibes
Choreography and production – Ninette de Valois after Lev Ivanov and Enrico Cecchetti
Scenario – Charles Nuitter and Arthus Saint-Léon after E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann
Designer – Osbert Lancaster
Lighting – John B. Read
Staging – Christopher Carr
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Barry Wordsworth
Screen director – Ross MacGibbon
Swanilda – Marianela Nuñez
Franz – Vadim Muntagirov
Dr Coppélius – Gary Avis
Coppélia – Ashley Dean
The Burgomaster – Christopher Saunders
The Innkeeper – Erico Montes
Peasant girl – Mayara Magri
Swanilda’s friends – Mica Bradbury, Isabella Gasparini, Hannah Grennell, Meaghan Grace Hinkis, Romany Pajdak, Leticia Stock
Artists of the Royal Ballet and Students of the Royal Ballet School
rec. live 29 November and 10 December 2019
Giselle (ballet in two acts)
Music – Adolphe Adam, revised by Joseph Horovitz
Choreography – Marius Petipa after Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot
Scenario – Théophile Gautier after Heinrich Heine
Production and additional choreography – Peter Wright
Designer – John Macfarlane
Original lighting – Jennifer Tipton, recreated by David Finn
Staging – Samantha Raine
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Barry Wordsworth
Screen director – Ross MacGibbon
Giselle – Marianela Nuñez
Count Albrecht – Vadim Muntagirov
Hilarion (a forester) – Bennet Gartside
Wilfred (Albrecht’s squire) – Johannes Stepanek
Berthe (Giselle’s mother) – Elizabeth McGorian
The Duke of Courland – Gary Avis
Bathilde (his daughter) – Christina Arestis
Leader of the hunt – Jonathan Howells
Myrtha (queen of the Wilis) – Itziar Mendizabal
Moyna (Myrtha’s attendant) – Olivia Cowley
Zulme (Myrtha’s attendant) – Beatriz Stix-Brunell
Pas de six – Yuhui Choe, Alexander Campbell, Francesca Hayward, Luca Acri, Yasmine Naghdi, Marcelino Sambé
Artists of the Royal Ballet
rec. live, 6 April 2016
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