Gillian Murphy and Angel Corella are among the most glorious couples I've ever seen in ''Swan Lake," and that alone makes tonight's televised version of American Ballet Theatre's current production a must-watch.
The show, tonight at 9 on WGBH (Channel 2), marks the 30th anniversary of Public Broadcasting's ''Great Performances: Dance in America" series. It's not the first time the great classic has appeared on PBS. In 1998, ''Great Performances" presented choreographer Matthew Bourne's radical revision of the classic, with bare-chested men replacing the usual corps of fragile maidens transformed by a sorcerer into birds.
ABT's ''Swan" is the traditional sort. Recorded earlier this year at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where it had room to spread its wings on an opera house stage, it's undeniably magnificent even when confined to a TV screen. And Ballet Theatre fans nostalgic for the days when the likes of Cynthia Gregory and Fernando Bujones appeared in the company's productions of the beloved classic will have a hard time finding fault with Murphy's and Corella's dazzling dancing. Their ardor, their ability to linger in the moment rather than rushing through it, tell the story with heartbreaking poignancy. Corella's solos are so much more than virtuoso steps: They tell of his malaise, his triumph in thinking he's found his true love, and his demise after discovering he's been duped into mistaking the evil Odile for the virtuous Odette.
As for Murphy, rarely does a ballerina shine equally in the dual role of Odette/Odile: She is better in the former than the latter.
Clocking in at two hours -- to fit a medium that will stay the course for a football game but not for a ballet -- this ''Swan" is streamlined. Precious dance time is lost to Caroline Kennedy's stiff delivery of the hero-rescues-heroine plot that hardly needs spelling out, to ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie's equally unnecessary remarks on how tough the choreography is to perform, and, worst of all, to Murphy's and Corella's views on the ballet. In this context, presenting them as nice young people, obviously some functionary's idea rather than their own, detracts from the magic when they resume their fairy tale roles.
Another problem: Busy camerawork that jumps from close-ups of the dancers' faces to more complete views of what they're doing. Faces vs. feet in ballet is a problem as old as recording devices themselves; in dance, the cameras ought to favor the latter automatically.
The elision of the third and fourth acts, without intermission, would be still another problem except that it eliminates another chance for those color commentators to pronounce the obvious, in this case, ''Now they die."
Thank goodness they do die. Soviet-style happy endings kill the meaning of Tchaikovsky's music and the 19th-century choreography by Petipa and Ivanov. The selfless double suicide of Murphy and Corella, on the other hand, kills the villain instead, and liberates the sisterhood he has ensnared.