I really enjoy Swan Lake, so I make an effort to “collect” productions, noting the differences in them rather like one might do wine tastings (“Oh, this has been oaked! Oh, they collapsed the last two acts!”). It came to me as a bit of a surprise to realize that, after eight years in London, I hadn’t actually seen Swan Lake: on the other hand, given the price of the tickets – it looks like it’s been a recurring financial decision to pass as amphitheater seats alone were running 50 quid. But I was able to find a slightly restricted view seat in the stalls circle for around 55, which is a price I’m more than happy to pay to see Natalia Osipova dancing: I feel morally obligated to see her as many times as possible (or at least once per ballet) now that she’s performing regularly at the Royal Ballet. These brilliant dancers don’t stay at the peak of their career forever anymore than a cherry tree stays covered in pink blossoms all year round.
Sadly for me the Siegfried chosen for this production is Matthew Golding, who singularly impressed me with his complete inability to act during the production of Onegin I went to last month. He a strong dancer but in a story ballet you want someone to pull you in, to get the emotional commitment to the story, and not just see perfect jump (check) perfect landing (check) awesome lift (check) all done with the kind of facial expressions last seen on Luke Skywalker (slightly angry – check – determined to succeed – check). On the other hand, you can absolutely believe his Prince Siegfried is too stupid to tell the difference between Odette and Odile, so that’s one hurdle crossed.
The Royal Ballet’s production (mocked by a friend for being dusty) struck me as singularly deliciously costumed, with the first act done in a mixture of well researched 1870s styles with perfectly interwoven Russian traditional dresses. Were both worn at court at that time? Who knows, but the effect was grand, the colors as varied as leaves in the forest and I couldn’t gawp as much as I wanted to. Instead of the bizarre jester role I’ve seen in some Russian productions, Royal Ballet had some comic relief provided by “the tutor” (Alastair Marriott), who gets in a dance with some girls of about 10 or 12 (Manon Forssell Pyk, Emily-Rose Holland) in which they basically attempt to duck away from him. They were for me the highlight of this act as I rarely get the chance to see young talent on stage – future ballerinas of the Royal, represent! And while the pas de trois was well done, I was bored by the waltzing and generally ready to just move through this scene and on to the lake (oddly I could see a swan boat at the back of the stage from where I was sitting … deliberate? accident?).
Then we had act two, with all of the young men of the palace going into the forest a-hunting and a most peculiarly unfrightening Von Rothbart. However, there was terror aplenty to come as the swans finally came on stage and I realized: they had six young girls playing cygnets. With their whitened faces and blond(-ish) hair, they were like the terror twins of The Shining, only multiplied by three. They didn’t have a lot of dancing to do (and were mostly kept in the back), but they made everything seem more supernatural and just damned creepy – almost as creepy as Golding’s peculiarly immobile face. This is the emotional heart of the ballet and the make-or-break time for me as an audience member, and although Osipova danced well and her fluttering fingers as she slowly folded herself down on stage (with her front body and arms extending to her toes) tried to break my heart, it was impossible for me to buy any emotional connection between this Odette and Siegfried. The swan spell was broken and I felt grateful I hadn’t forked over the hundred quid plus for a proper stalls seat.
The first interval ended and I piled back into my seat, eager to see how the big palace scene was handled and, of course, Osipova being outrageous and outgoing and out there as Odette. I loved the costumes for this scene – it was all done as a masquerade and had a real feel of Masque of the Red Death about it, a feeling enhanced by Von Rothbart appearing with two children wearing death’s masks. He sat there petting him as if they were his evil monkey minions and he a latter day Elpheba. The upper edges of the ballroom all had giant mirrors on them – echoing the giant mirror at the back of the stage that Odette would appear in (or so I assumed: my blocked view cut this right off). Then we had the suite of dances that makes up the pre-choice of bride extravaganza in this act. The various Russian dances and the Spanish dance were adequate, but I was charmed by the Neapolitan dance, which featured flying tambourines, clever arms-like-ribbon catches, and stolen kisses – I think it’s the best version of this I’ve ever seen. It’s all a build up to the series of solo dances by Odile and Siegfried, which, well, were fine but just lacked emotional intensity for me. My heart was checked out and I could not connect. That said, I love it when Siegfried’s mistake was revealed to him and Odile was essentially snatched off stage in a ball of fiery smoke, practically as if she was being dragged back into the depths of hell. It all worked well with the extremely dark tone of this scene and I enjoyed it.
However, I was pretty much ready to go home at this point, but came back anyway hoping for a bit more niceness in the act four dancing. What I got was some black skirted swans … a nice chance to break up the rhythm of the costuming … and the most unconvincing evil Rothbart scene ever. He seemed utterly powerless, less of an evil sorcerer than the Wizard of Oz. Just to mock me further, whatever actually happened to Odette and Siegfried was utterly hidden. They disappeared from my sightlines, then reappeared on a swan-shaped boat. Did she plunge of a cliff and he dive after her? Death seemed unlikely given that they’d already beaten Von Rothbart (could have done it with a feather duster, really, he was so wimpy), so I have no idea what actually was supposed to have happened in the ending. All I wanted to do was get home, and I dashed out the door. Natalia would never know.
(This review is for the performance that was filmed for broadcast in the Royal Opera House live cinema season on Tuesday March 17th 2015 and I’m pleased to say that from where I sat the cameras were not a distraction. I just discovered that the Neapolitan dance was choreographed by Ashton. How wonderful! It did really have a La Fille Mal Gardee feeling about it. Note: this is the final use of this production, per this article by Judith Mackrell: if you’d like to see a proper critic’s response to the production, it’s worth a read.)