Over the past several days, having way too much time on my hands, I have watched four versions of Swan Lake: Paris Opera Ballet’s, Royal Ballet’s, La Scala Ballet’s, and the Maryinsky’s. (The ballerinas were, in order, Agnes Letestu, Marianela Nuñez, Svetlana Zakharova, and Ulyana Lopatkina.)
In spite of one blatant attempt to make Prince Siegfried the sole major perpetrator of the ballet, the focus is always on the ballerina here and besides, some Siegfrieds are nothing more than placeholders — or rather, ballerina-holders. Among the Siegfrieds I just watched, Robert Bolle stood out, but none of them had any cause for shame. They didn’t phone it in; each had his own unique presence. It’s just that when the ballet is refocused on Siegfried, it gets really boring. Doubt that? Then watch the first act of the POB’s Nureyev production, which is so barren and dull that even Siegfried nods off — not just once but over and over. It had the same effect on this viewer. In fact, I never really got past the second act in that video without using the “fast forward” function extensively, so can’t comment on it much. I’m still wondering if at some point Siegfried held a skull while reciting “to be or not to be…”
If the POB’s production was Swan Lake stripped down to the bare bones in terms of decor (and it appeared to be), then the Royal Ballet’s production was on the other end of the spectrum: so sumptuous and decorative that one almost lost track of the story for staring at the costumes and props. But it was my favorite production of the four.
Particularly in the first act, Swan Lake needs that kind of help. It can be deadly dull (I’m convinced that the oft-repeated charge that Swan Lake is “boring” comes from too many viewers crashing in the first act), and as I mentioned, the POB’s production accomplished that to an unmatched degree. The Royal Ballet actually managed to make it watchable. The La Scala production and the Maryinsky’s seemed merely endless — what, someone ELSE is going to dance now? — and a good time to take a potty break except that one might miss the performance of a prospective future Odette if one stepped out of the room.
I’m going to propose that someone, somewhere, cut that first act down to the famous pas de trois and a bunch of mime and be done with it in about 10 minutes at the most. After all, we’re here to see the swans.
The issue of the swans’ attire was the only thing that bothered me about the RB’s production. Yes, I know this was a “traditional” approach, and in Swan Lake, tradition seems to dictate that the swans wear long tutus while Odette alone wears the classical tutu (I guess this is partly because the swans are transformed back into human form at the end of the ballet, and in the traditional version, Odette never makes that transformation). But the tutu-mismatch tradition was mostly abandoned by the mid-1900’s, and with good reason: it was confusing to the eye. And so it remains. No need to resurrect it now.
As for the corps themselves, my vote goes to the Royal Ballet, ill-attired as they were, with La Scala a close second. Of course, the POB corps — at least, what I’ve seen of it on videos — is wonderful and I can’t criticize (I just hated that infernal production). It was the Maryinsky that got to me; at one point, one swan actually looked ill and I thought perhaps she’d puke or fall over. However, they are still fascinating to watch — imagine a stage-full of potential primas, which is what they are. Sometimes this is good,and sometimes not. I can’t say it was bad in Swan Lake; it just wasn’t my preference.
Looking at the ballerinas, I admit I found Letestu the least interesting — probably not surprising because the production she was in was failing to hold my attention. I’ve never seen her in anything else; I’m sure she’s divine, so I don’t want to get a bunch of angry comments from her admirers. Nunez seemed to have the strongest fouettes I’ve seen (I didn’t count how many she did) outside of ABT’s Gillian Murphy, who is so powerful she can leave you gasping (which is, after all, the point of those fouettes in this ballet). Current Russian ballerinas seem to be pretty routinely less dazzling when doing fouettes, but neither Lopatkina nor Zakharova missed a beat; Zakharova being Zakharova, she even managed to glitter a bit.
I liked Lopatkina’s arms the best, and loved her subtle Odile. Nunez benefited from a production in which she was actually given time to “listen” to Von Rothbart’s whispered instructions, and it was so clear what was happening in that scene that I’ll wager even a first-time viewer would have caught on. I thought Zakharova looked like she was having the time of her life in Act III, even if I wondered how Siegfried could be so taken by someone so unlike his beloved Odette. I’ve also seen a video of Obraztsova dancing in the same production and thankfully, it looked like she left out the giggles and substituted a cold, hard stare (I didn’t see her exit, however). As both Zakharova and Obraztsova were dancing in the Burmeister production — the happy-ending one — this seems a bit more convincing. There is enough clowning around in that version as it is.
Which brings me to the issue of the court jester…
La Scala’s jester, Antonio Sutera, was absolutely brilliant. Whoever it was playing the jester in the Maryinsky production was considerably more reserved. Hard to tell from this distance if that was just the because it was a different take on the story, or what the problem was. (There was no jester in the other two productions.) I know the jester irritates some viewers to no end. I guess Sutera’s jester may have crossed that line for many people, but I thought he was refreshing — particularly in that deadly first act.
And that brings me to the various endings. I admit I don’t much like the happy ending of the Burmeister production. I do like the traditional let’s-jump-off-a-cliff thing, and that was in the Royal Ballet’s version (never made it all the way through to the end of POB’s production, so i don’t know how it ended; however, a double suicide would have been appropriate, judging by the cheeriness — and I do mean that sarcastically — of the rest of it). I still don’t know what happened in the Maryinsky production, and I actually watched it. It seemed to end abruptly with Odette and Siegfried reconciling just after Siegfried killed Von Rothbart, and all those other swans just disappeared. Maryinsky fans, please correct me on this.
Like I said in an earlier post, I hadn’t seen an entire Swan Lake in many, many years and I guess the only one I ever knew was the one with the bittersweet ending and the powder-puff tutus and the oh-so-delicate Odette and relatively circumspect Odile. Of course, you didn’t see so many sky-high extensions then and some ballerinas didn’t even get through the fouettes. Nowadays, I imagine that would be considered a crime. In fact, I read a report that one promising young Maryinsky ballerina quite recently didn’t make it through her fouettes in one of her first performances of Swan Lake — probably to audible gasps of horror from the crowd, I imagine.
Judging from the videos, today’s Swan Lakes seem a bit more like Olympic events than lyrical fantasy ballets. They have lost some of their magic because of that. But would I trade the new for the old? I’ll have to think about it a while. Sometimes, you just have to let time pass.