Swan Lake will always sell tickets, and the public’s enthusiasm for the work resulted in a packed house at the Coliseum on Thursday for the opening performance of the run of St Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s production. The appeal of the wonderful Tchaikovsky score and the great classical set pieces from the 19th century master choreographers Petipa and Ivanov are a huge draw. The company’s star ballerina, Irina Kolesnikova, is appearing no less than seven times in nine days in the testing dual role of the doomed swan queen Odette and the evil Odile.
There are many different productions of this most cherished work. This version is from 1996 by Yuri Gumba, the company’s ballet master. Frequent ballet-goers will probably already have their own preferences and criteria for what makes a successful production of Swan Lake, as there are many choices to make. Should the ending be tragic or happy? Should the enchanted Odette be more of a swan or more of a woman? Should there be a jester to enliven the court scenes with virtuoso dancing, or do you regard him rather like a wasp at a picnic?
Yuri Gumba’s choices are along similar lines to many other Russian productions. Rothbart, the evil magician is not a character role but has some virtuoso dancing to do. The ending is a happy one with Siegfried destroying Rothbart and releasing Odette from the spell. There is a jester, bounding about in a relentlessly perky manner. There is no mime and not much attempt at getting the details of the story across. It is as if audiences are expected to be so familiar with the narrative already that there is no need to underline the plot points.
So for example, although the synopsis tells us that the Queen tells Siegfried he must find a bride in scene 1, it is very hard to spot this on stage, and Siegfried does not show any reaction. Likewise the instruction from the Queen to her son in Act 3 to choose a bride from the princesses is done right at the back of the stage, obscured by dancers, and is easily missed. Odette has no mime to explain her predicament to the prince. You need to read the programme to be aware that she must find someone who must swear to be true to her in order to be released from her swan form.
The production may work well for audience members already familiar with Swan Lake. It may not be ideal for first time viewers who could easily find the narrative difficult to follow. But (and it is a very big but) there is one excellent reason for everyone to see this, and that is Irina Kolesnikova. In a production short on emotion elsewhere, she is a touching and vulnerable Odette, her wonderfully pliant back and exquisite arms radiating longing and unfulfilled yearning. It is not so much a performance as a quasi-mystic experience, connecting into some deep and ancient sorrow which she is sharing with us. She is more womanly and human than many Russian Odettes and her transformation back into a Swan at the end of the first lakeside scene is sharply delineated.
Kolesnikova is completely in command of the steps; nothing seems to be difficult. As a grinning Odile she has a fabulously good time as if nothing could possibly be more fun than seducing a gullible prince. Even here, where many ballerinas exploit the chance to show off, her technique still seems in the service of the role rather than indulged in for its own sake.
Her Siegfried is Denis Rodkin, a principal of the Bolshoi. Although he partnered her attentively, there was little chemistry between the two of them. Initially he seemed to be paying more attention to the elegant presentation of the steps rather than showing us what was in his mind. It’s a quirk of the production that in the opening scene much more effort is put into the jokes of the jester and the drunken tutor and their ostensibly funny antics than into establishing the character of the prince.
Rodkin was handsome and polished but seemed to be not fully engaged. He appeared happiest in his own variations in the ballroom which were skilfully delivered and warmly received. He only began to come alive as a character rather than as a dancer at the very end of the ballroom scene when his deception by Odile is revealed. The lack of deep engagement between the two leads made this a less involving Swan Lake than it might have been.
St Petersburg Ballet Theatre is run without any state funding. It has been in existence since the 1990s with Kolesnikova as its star since 1998 and tours extensively. It has 55 dancers, almost all trained in Russia. The evening is mainly centred on Kolesnikova, but there are talented soloists in the ranks that deserve a mention. There was a neatly performed pas de trois in Act 1 from Mikhail Tkachuk, Anna Samostrelova and a delicate Miho Naotsuko. The women returned as Big Swans in the lakeside scenes. Sergei Fedorkov was the energetic jester.
There are 22 swans in the corps, which sounds perhaps rather less than ideal. However they are well drilled and the wide spaces of the Coliseum stage did not look under-populated in the lakeside scenes. The scenery for the production is by Semyen Pastukh, who provides conventional views with an autumnal feel for the palace, and a ruined church in the forested backdrop for the lake. Costume design is by Galina Solovieva, who provides opulent costumes for the court and appealingly simple white tutus for the swans.
The lighting is at times overly histrionic with lurid red for every appearance by Rothbart and some over enthusiastic effects for flashes of lightening. The company have brought their music director, Timur Gorkovenko, as conductor. He took the white pas de deux very slowly, but whipped through the character dances in the ballroom at a rapid pace.
If it were not for the electric charge provided by Kolesnikova’s performance then this would be a pleasant but not particularly exciting or involving production where there does not seem that much at stake for the protagonists. But she supplies such poetry and ardour in her finely judged delivery of the role that it is definitely worth seeing for that alone. Perhaps other partners such as Vadim Muntagirov later in the run will provide the more passionate response that her Odette deserves.