|SWAN LAKE. What else?!|
Photo: ROH 2018, by Bill Cooper
I thought I could get into the Royal Opera House's new Swan Lake on a press seat, having written a big article about it, but it turned out I couldn't, certainly not at short notice. Tickets for Liam Scarlett's production are like the proverbial gold dust and it seemed that checking back continually for returns was the only way. Therefore by chance I landed one of the best seats I've ever had: possibly not to everyone's taste, but wonderful if you like being almost on the stage, right over the French horns and harp and able to see every detail, including the evil glares of Von Rothbart, without opera glasses. Which I do.
Ballet heaven doesn't even begin to describe what followed.
John Macfarlane's designs are more than just detailed and opulent: they create a whole world that pulls you in and, however fantastical the drama, feels consistent and convincing. The lavishness of the pink marble and glowing gold ballroom scene caused a gasp and applause on curtain-up - not something I've heard at a ballet for a good while - and the parkland and palace gates of Act I similarly balance beauty and a sense of oppression. The lakeside, with lurid moon for act II and dappled clouds for act IV, is suitably gothic. The swan tutus are full of feathery loveliness - and the Hungarian princess, one of the four seductive young royals attempting to snare Siegfried's affections, seems to have half the foyer of the Franz Liszt Academy stitched into hers (quick solution to swan dilemma: go off with her instead?).
Cross Hamlet with Dracula and Giselle: the storytelling of this version leaps into focus. Rothbart is human(ish) by day, demon by night; when we first see him, in a new prologue set to the overture, he captures and transforms the unfortunate Odette, cradling her in his arms à la White Swan pas de deux, but looking as if he's about to sink his teeth into her long white neck. The pose creates resonances around that "iconic" image, normally just a passing (if wonderful) moment in act II. Several times before that when Siegfried tries to fold Odette's wings into an embrace, she resists, and that's probably why. When their cuddle is finally achieved, it has extra meaning.
Next, Rothbart is incarnated into the Queen's adviser, dressed from head to foot in black, exerting sinister control over the court - which he wants to infiltrate and destroy. Siegfried, brooding and mourning, loathes him. What happened to the King? Has the 'adviser' perhaps poured poison in his ear while he slept? Siegfried, refusing his instruction to go back to the palace at the end of act I, could witness Rothbart's twilit transformation if he bothered to turn around at that moment. Given his predatory hold over Odette and her companions, perhaps the creepiest moment of the whole production is when we see him escorting Siegfried's two little sisters into the ballroom. Will they be next?
So to choreography. Scarlett's own additions mostly integrate amid the original without jarring any sensibilities, idiomatically classical with an excellent feel for musical detail and cross-phrase imagination. The Act I Waltz and Polonaise are a huge improvement on the last production (I always felt that waltz was a mess - can't remember who choreographed it), even if I still hanker for the old Frederick Ashton ones from pre-1987. There's a beautiful solo for Siegfried set to the entr'acte - which in a way makes so much sense that one wonders why it wasn't done before. This one wins over the gorgeous Ashton solo, because frankly nobody could ever dance that one as well as Anthony Dowell. National dances are fun and full of "authentic" Czardas and Mazurka touches, though, to sound sour for a second, I found the Spanish number vaguely kitschy; and very glad that Ashton's Neapolitan Dance is still in place, as it's possible there would have been a balletomanes' rebellion had it been chopped.
Act IV is chiefly Scarlett with a centrepiece of a new pas de deux for Siegfried and Odette: it is woven out of a high-classical deconstruction of moves from the White Swan pas de deux as the pair try, hopelessly, to recapture that 'first fine careless rapture'.
Rehearsal of the new pas de deux
And the ending? Odette throws herself off the rock; the swans are saved; Rothbart dies; but Siegfried lives on, cradling the body of the drowned Odette. One can't deny that it prompts tears. But do we feel a sense of redemption? Not really - even though the music tells us it should be there. Siegfried has learned a lesson about love and loss, but he hasn't given his life for it. This matters. Perhaps they could usefully consider revising the idea in a future revival.
Our Odette/Odile on Saturday was Natalia Osipova, demonic and aflame in the Black Swan (no fouettés, mind - instead, a dizzying speedwhirl round the perimeter) and a suitably touching, dramatic Odette. Her prince was Matthew Ball, one of the company's rising stars: a perfect Hamlet-style Siegfried with notably beautiful control of multiple spins and a meltingly lovely, blended and complementary partnership with Osipova. It's just been announced that he will join Matthew Bourne's New Adventures to dance the Swan in their next tour of that famed version. Meanwhile the mesmerising presence of Gary Avis as Count Dracula, er, Rothbart, just could not have been bettered.
The orchestra, meanwhile, was on splendid form, though Valery Ovsyanikov's conducting smoothed out some of the punchier edges at times and the slowish tempi can be a bit of an issue, but in staged ballet, that's probably inevitable. I do have a mild allergy to that thing where the tempo suddenly changes completely in the middle of a piece so that another dancer has a turn doing something different.
All I wanted to add - other than perhaps a different ending - was slightly deeper characterisation, as everybody is slightly one-dimensional except, intriguingly, Siegfried's mother, the Queen, with Elizabeth McGorian creating a whole wealth of personality and experience with a minimum of gesture. Some neater bows might help to secure the loose ends: what happens to Benno and the little-sister princesses when Rothbart takes the court into dry-ice, black swan-populated meltdown at the end of act III (or maybe something happened to them on the extreme right of the stage, which I couldn't see)? All this can be tweaked, added to, reinterpreted, etc, in due course if Scarlett and company wish to do so. For the moment, it's simply that I want to say something more constructive than merely I loved the whole thing to bits and pieces, it's total magic and I can't wait to see it again, which is also true.
Tomorrow's performance (12 June) is being beamed into cinemas worldwide. Go see.