Annunciata Elwes is captivated by a very traditional production of this most beloved Russian ballet.
I must have been seven years old when I last saw Swan Lake. But it was with a childlike wonder, 25 years later, that I watched the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s latest production at the London Coliseum.
The music, performed by the English National Opera, was transporting and, as I always find with Tchaikovsky (perhaps due to hours spent watching Sleeping Beauty on repeat as a child), easy to love.
As traditional as they come, this production of Swan Lake is produced by those who know it best. The set design, with enormous painted trees, undulating countryside, a palatial castle and the spooky lake, is as glorious and rich in colour as it must have been in the days when Tsar Nicolas II attended the ballet, although he was probably more interested in gazing at his beloved, Mathilde Kschessinskaya, the first ballerina to wear a black costume in the role of Odile.
Indeed, although the ballet was first performed in Moscow in 1877, it wasn’t until the 1940s that the sorcerer’s duplicitous daughter was first referred to as the Black Swan.
Today’s award-winning White/Black Swan, Irina Kolesnikova, has held the post of prima ballerina for the St Petersburg Ballet since 2001. Despite the gilded opulence of the production, she was most mesmerising of all, with limbs that undulate like ribbons underwater, exquisite control and an elegance that demands adoration.
The jester, impish, amusing and highly skilled, danced by Sergei Fedorkov, was the other standout performer, as well as Rothbart (Dmitriy Akulinin), who was genuinely sinister.
Odette’s sweetness and hypnotising beauty seem primed for tragedy, but that’s not always how the story goes. Sometimes, Odette, condemned to be a swan forever due to Siegfried’s unknowing treachery, kills herself and her lover follows suit; another version has the prince kill Odette with his crossbow by accident; in another, both the prince and sorcerer Rothbart drown while fighting; and another has Rothbart kill Siegfried and make off with Odette (notably performed by Rudolf Nureyev for the Paris Opera Ballet).
In 1945, a new Mariinsky Ballet production of Swan Lake took a different course, allegedly under Stalin’s direct suggestion. It was thought that the tragic death of innocent lovers was not in keeping with Russia’s new philosophy and that a victory over the evil Rothbart would be a fitting allegory of life in ‘the new and glorious Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’.
The Soviets saw the October Revolution, 33 years previously, as an example of good overcoming evil and it was thought that art should follow suit. Since then, in all Kirov and Bolshoi versions of the ballet Siegfried and his Odette live happily ever after.
I must have seen one of those many tear-jerking versions as a child, because the happy ending in this production surprised and, I hate to say, disappointed me. Tchaikovsky’s music is so powerfully tragic, it seems a shame to ignore it, but the St Petersburg company can hardly be at fault for my preference.
Swan Lake is at the London Coliseum, London WC2, until September 2, for a short spell of 16 performances (following seasons in Spain, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Ireland, France, Italy, Austria, USA, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa, South Korea, New Zealand, Japan, China, Macau, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia). To book, visit www.londoncoliseum.org.
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