I’ve seen (and reviewed) a fair few Swan Lakes – Birmingham Royal Ballet’s, the Bolshoi’s, English National Ballet’s (both in the round at the Royal Albert Hall and at a conventional theatre), Teaċ Daṁsa’s unconventional take as part of Week 53 and of course the Royal Ballet’s production by Sir Anthony Dowell.
At 30 years of age, this version was starting to look rather fussy and old-fashioned, so I was overjoyed when I found out that Liam Scarlett had been charged with creating a new production for the company. And what a stunner it is – the best Swan Lake I’ve ever seen.
Scarlett has trimmed away all the unnecessary bumpf and focussed everything on the central story: Prince Siegfried’s doomed love for Odette, a young woman who has been cursed by an evil magician to turn into a swan every night, and can only be freed by a pledge of true love. Scarlett makes use of the beautiful introduction music by adding a short scene that depicts the innocent princess being caught and put under Rothbart’s spell.
Rothbart has a presence throughout the ballet, appearing in the palace acts disguised as adviser to the queen – her order that Siegfried must choose a wife originates with him – and clearly marked as the antagonist. Bennet Gartside is excellent in this role, striding about the stage in a long black coat and glowering at the prince through red-rimmed eyes.
Scarlett’s commitment to telling the story is most obvious in a transformed Act 3, which was my highlight of the whole work. Siegfried rushes in late to his own birthday party, cued by one of the fanfare flourishes in Tchaikovsky’s score, and the national dances are no longer extraneous divertissements, but showpieces accompanying each of the invited princesses.
The lead roles are danced to utter perfection by Marianela Nunez and Vadim Muntagirov, who are currently one of the best partnerships in the company. As Odette, Nunez’s every move is a longing sigh, the sweep of a feathery wing; Muntagirov is every inch the elegant prince, pairing superhuman height in his jumps and tours en l’air with noiseless landings. Together, their new Act IV duet – to an unused, mournful piece from Act I – is a heartbreaking struggle between forgiveness and despair, and their bravura Black Swan pas de deux is bring-the-house-down spectacular.
Alexander Campbell is on fine dramatic form as Benno, Siegfried’s friend, whether searching worriedly for the prince at the ball or reacting pitifully to being dismissed from Siegfried’s side in Act II. It’s a treat to see him dancing alongside Francesca Hayward in Act I, in a sparkling pas de trois with Akane Takada; this classic Petipa set piece has been reassigned from nameless peasants to the newly created characters of Siegfried’s younger sisters. The new pas de trois for them in Act III that mirrors this is equally enjoyable.
John MacFarlane’s set designs are stunning, from the tree-lined park in Act I to the atmospheric moonlit swan acts, with a jagged rocky promontory and an abstract, moody backdrop worthy of an art gallery. The standout though is Act III’s gold and marble ballroom, a set so spectacularly lavish and realistic that it elicits gasps from the audience when the curtain rises. A centre stage flight of stairs creates the opportunity for impressive entrances (none more so than Odile’s.)
Costumes are equally sumptuous, from the War and Peace-esque uniforms and bustled dresses in Act I, to the full-skirted sequinned draperies of the queen and her ladies-in-waiting. The most obvious aesthetic change by MacFarlane is the swan’s tutus, which have reverted to a classical shape from the long romantic skirts.
One of my pet hates about the old production was the ending, with Siegfried and Odette’s joint suicide by flopping off the edge of a rock part way through the finale music. Luckily, Scarlett has altered this to something far more poignant – Odette kills herself (still by jumping from a rock, but it looks better) and Siegfried, who has been temporarily overpowered by Rothbart, is left to retrieve her lifeless body from the lake. Unlike the old production, there is no uplifting apotheosis that depicts the lovers together in the afterlife.
The Royal Ballet’s new Swan Lake is a fantastic, faithful reworking of the classic that makes sense of the story whilst creating a strong visual impact. It seamlessly weaves together Petipa’s original choreography, Scarlett’s new steps, McFarlane’s designs and Tchaikovsky’s genius score to make a magical, memorable production that deserves to remain in the repertoire and enchant audiences for the next 30 years.