mon 17/06/2024

Swan Lake, Royal Ballet | reviews, news & interviews

Swan Lake, Royal Ballet

Swan Lake, Royal Ballet

Marianela Nuñez's dream Odette/Odile distracts from hideous designs and score butchery

Marianela Nuñez as Odette: swan-quivery and vulnerableAll images ROH/Alice Pennefather

Is there an art-form more tied to bad as well as good tradition than classical ballet? Yolanda Sonnabend’s unatmospherically if expensively kitsch designs for this Swan Lake wouldn’t have lasted more than a season or two in the worlds of theatre and opera, yet here they still are in Anthony Dowell’s soon-to-be-retired homage to Petipa and Ivanov, first seen in 1987 and due to take Swan Lake at Covent Garden past the 1000th performance in the present run.

Longer term, ballet hack Drigo’s mutilations and interpolations of 1895 would have made Tchaikovsky turn in his then-recently dug grave, and here they still are, sabotaging his most concisely dramatic ballet act (the fourth).

At least the score, such as it is here, sounds plangent and pliant under veteran ballet conductor Boris Gruzin. Matching it for magical suppleness on the first night was the peerless performance of Marianela Nuñez, gliding in at short notice to replace an indisposed Sarah Lamb. Of coure Nuñez knows her Odette, infinitely more touching in swan-quivers and human vulnerability than Alina Cojocaru’s recent performance for English National Ballet, and she matches Cojocaru for sly brilliance as decoy Odile.

Carlos Acosta in Royal Ballet Swan LakeIt’s there, in the “Black Swan” pas de deux of Act Three, that Carlos Acosta (pictured right in Act Three) comes into his own, controlled in his muscularity to complement Nuñez’s perfect fouettés if not quite as abandoned in his joyfulness as of yore. Yet is there a duller part for a principal male dancer in the first two and a half acts? The mime of this Act One doesn’t even make it quite clear why Prince Siegfried should eventually be troubled on his birthday – a striking contrast to the persistent melancholy and petulance with which Ivan Vasiliev at ENB made us aware that a story would eventually evolve. Though there’s no Nureyev-style interpolation for this prince, David Bintley’s choreography of the big waltz, moved to a later spot in the action and suavely conducted by Gruzin, does give Acosta a minute to dance properly, but that’s it for an hour. Emma Maguire, Francesca Hayward and Alexander Campbell go quite some way to making elegant amends in the the pretty pas de trois, and Alastair Marriott even manages to make us laugh as the tipsy tutor, but everyone’s waiting for the lakeside act.

Act Two of Royal Ballet Swan LakeWhich looks pure bling, further sabotaged by Sonnabend’s making tallish Gary Avis’s villain look like an especially dumpy owl. Odette is set apart from her maidens by her tutu – no need for the long arms of Svetlana Zakharova or Zenaida Yanowsky to make her stand out from the swan-crowd – but why do they have to look like tacky sylphides in shiny tulle (pictured above)? If you want traditional, then it doesn’t come any better than ENB’s blue lights on white multiple tutus. Not that the corps here does a bad job, though the four cygnets look all too deadpan and I don’t understand why the original choreography gave the dashing reprise of the collective waltz to two ballerinas. At least the crucial pas d’action is pure unforced poetry from Nuñez, complemented by a violin solo from co-leader Sergey Levitin which manages to fill the customary slow tempo.

The ball scene is a crowded fright, and any attempts at evoking late-imperial Russia at the palace are rendered daft by Mohicaned Von Rothbart and his skull-headed attendants; why would Genesia Rosato’s classy princess not bat an eyelid at their coming anywhere near her? The national dances feel cumbersome, other than the predictable charm of the Neapolitans in Frederick Ashton’s elaborate routine, winningly executed by Laura Morera and Ricardo Cervera.

It strikes me as odd that there should be a second interval almost as long as the final act which follows it; another bad tradition. Nuñez wasn’t the only lady in the house who had changed character; coming back to my seat, I found the dance critic next to me turned into another person, a very friendly one, who told me her friend had left. When I raised an eyebrow, she explained: "the real dancing is over". Not good for Tchaikovsky’s fluent denouement – except, of course, that it’s anything but, with Drigo’s ridiculous insertion of two completely unsuitable Tchaikovsky piano-piece arrangements and his excision of the masterfully sad original number for the corps. English National Ballet at least restores that. Still, no classical version tells the final tragedy anything like as movingly as what has rightly become “Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Relatively short on elaborate dance it may be, but that’s where you have to go to find something more like “Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake” too. This production, on the other hand, can’t be retired quickly enough.


But David, Yuhui Choe wasn't dancing. Emma Maguire replaced her in the Act One trio. I fear you were blinded with anger at the enormities of what had been done to the score.

I shouldn't have trusted the evening's cast list, which still had Sarah Lamb on it (an announcement should have been made). I'll go in and correct, but for the record I wasn't angry in Act One, despite the change of order. 

But the evening's cast list had Sarah Lamb as Odette/Odile. There was quite an extensive supplementary leaflet as well as screens in the foyer announcing the main change.

That's what I wrote: the cast list was wrong on both counts. As a critic, I got the press release, but I didn't see the supplementary leaflet, whatever that was, nor the screens in the foyer. Not enough: if they couldn't have got the cast list reprinted with two days' notice, someone should have come out and announced the changes.

If you want to see an intelligent, adult, version of Swan Lake, more faithful to Tchaikovsky's score than any current one then it has to be the Peter Wright/Galina Samsova production for Birmingham Royal Ballet. It never fails.

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