London, Royal Opera House
5 March 2020
Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare had justified faith in Liam Scarlett as the producer and co-choreographer of a new version of Swan Lake in 2018. Two years on, Scarlett’s reputation has been sullied by allegations of sexual misconduct with Royal Ballet School students. He was suspended as the company’s artist in residence seven months ago; an investigation is still ongoing. Although Scarlett’s own creations have been shelved by the Royal Ballet and other companies, the revival of Swan Lake has gone ahead, its re-staging accredited to O’Hare.
Thursday night’s opening cast of Marianela Nunez and Vadim Muntagirov as the leading pair was the same as in the 2018 premiere, even better executed than before. They bring their own experience of the roles from performing them many times: they know what they want the choreography to convey (whether it’s by Petipa, Ivanov or Scarlett) and they know how to accomplish every moment of their dancing. Their account of Swan Lake is spellbinding.
Now to the production: Scarlett’s revision of the 1895 scenario makes even less sense than the original. During Tchaikovsky’s overture, a princess has her tiara snatched from her head by a mysterious figure who transforms her into a swan. What does Von Rothbart want – her or the realm she might inherit? When Odette, in the form a white swan, first meets Prince Siegfried by the lake, she communicates her plight in mime, imploring him to save her by swearing undying love. Once Siegfried is tricked into betraying her, Odette drowns herself and Von Rothbart is mugged to death by the swan-maidens. Siegfried is left with a lifeless princess in his arms – a downbeat end to the ballet, without a love-affirming apotheosis.
Von Rothbart, it seems, had a plan to seize power over Siegfried’s future kingdom, once the prince had come of age. Disguised as the Queen Mother’s vizier by day and ruling over his swan-maiden flock by night, he plotted all along to take control of the court. Then, when Siegfried chances upon Odette and the lake of her mother’s tears, Von Rothbart conjures up Odile as Odette’s dark double, and seizes the Queen’s crown in the ensuing confusion. The scenario has become encumbered with an implausible rationale for the sorcerer’s evil.
When the production sticks to simple story telling, it has many virtues. Act I reveals that Siegfried is constrained by a militaristic court in official mourning for the death of his father. Light relief is provided by Benno, who leads the courtiers’ formal revelry and escorts the prince’s younger sisters in a pas de trois that shows off their academic schooling. This is a tightly disciplined society. Marcelino Sambé as Benno dances splendidly, more a spritely virtuoso than a soldierly cadet. Mayara Magri and Fumi Kaneko are well contrasted as the charming sisters, Magri exuberant and Fumi meticulous. They are just as delightful in the Act III pas de trois, interpolated by Scarlett in the ballroom festivities.
The balance in this revival is better between Benno and Siegfried, with Sambé ceding pride of place to Muntagirov’s courteous prince. In the opening scene of the 2018 run, it was all too easy to confuse the two friends in their military uniforms. (Sambé deserves a better tunic.) Siegfried is a Romantic dreamer, dreading an arranged marriage set up by his mother and her scheming vizier. Muntagirov’s huge leaps display his desire to escape his predetermined future. The scenery changes around him into a moonlit lake. Tchaikovsky’s music heralds the arrival of other-worldly creatures who will offer him a vision of purity.
Nunez transfigures Odette from a swan preening her feathers to a semi-feral being fearful of capture. How can she trust the intruder, armed with a crossbow? There’s a stunning silence from the orchestra, under the baton of Koen Kessels, when she protects her frightened flock from him, arms outstretched in defiance. After this watershed moment, she grows in trust, allowing Siegfried to touch and support her. She then accepts his loving embrace, swayed between his arms folded around her. She, Kessels and violinist Sergey Levitin take the central pas de deux so slowly that the audience holds its breath in awe until the scurry of cygnets breaks the spell.
Like Natalia Makarova before her, Nunez indulges Ivanov’s adagio choreography to express Odette’s yearning for love and freedom. She pulls away from Muntagirov’s entranced Siegfried, only to return to him, plunging into arabesques like a bird in flight. She leans back in supported pirouettes, confident that he will hold her and let her go again. Once assured that Siegfried is indeed her prophesied saviour, she rejoices in a solo full of hope, echoed by her attendant swan-maidens. Ominously, Von Rothbart returns to reclaim her, leaving Siegfried bewildered.
The lakeside encounter must have passed in a flash between Siegfried’s leaving his birthday party and arriving late for the Act III ball that same evening. The scenario is overcomplicated, with Siegfried having to change his uniform while Benno covers for his absence with the second pas de trois with the sisters. John Macfarlane’s set for the ballroom is splendiferous, with its gold wall, marble pillars and imposing staircase. The Queen’s train no longer covers most of it as she sweeps down to occupy her throne. (Probably Elizabeth McGorian as the imperious, bejewelled Queen was the only performer who could manage its extravagant length.) Bennet Gartside as her vizier takes his place below her, waiting for his coup.
It’s still tricky to associate the four would-be fiançées with their entourages, unless you pay close attention during the national dances. The Spanish number is much improved, the Neapolitan one, in Frederick Ashton’s choreography, a bit of a disaster on Thursday night. Meaghan Grace Hinkis and Valentino Zucchetti were so out of sorts with the music’s tempi that it was a relief when they tossed their tambourines to waiting attendants.
Nunez is magnificent as Odile, so triumphant that she doesn’t need to be overtly seductive. Siegfried believes she’s Odette, joyfully come to celebrate her union with him. He lets rip in his solo, landing silently from buoyant jetés and double tours enl’air. He slows down multiple spins at will, as does Nunez, never putting a foot wrong. Both dancers are in their prime, able to take total control over their technical feats while making them appear effortless, and in character.
Von Rothbart, who has been glowering gothically as the vizier, reappears as his monstrous self when Siegfried mistakenly swears he will marry Odile. The curse has not been lifted, so Odette must remain in thrall to the evil magician for eternity. It turns out, however, that they are not immortal. Odette determines that she has no option but to die. She cannot forgive Siegfried, even though they reprise their once-trusting pas de deux to a mournful version of the same music. Scarlett’s choreography for the last act refers back to Ivanov’s for Act II, keeping the swan-maidens in ordered patterns rather than disarray. Their unexpected attack on Von Rothbart after Odette’s suicide from the rocks therefore comes as a shock – though what happens to them after his death is not disclosed. Perhaps they were Siegfried’s hallucination all along. He lies comatose by the lake shore, till he rises to discover the drowned body of Princess Odette. Was she real all along? Do we need to rethink the storyline as we leave the theatre, rather than retaining the magical impact of the dancing? Swan Lake, of all ballets, shouldn’t need explaining.
Live screening in cinemas 1 April, with Lauren Cuthbertson as Odette/Odile and William Bracewell as Siegfried.