The Royal Ballet’s 2016 Frankenstein was a masterclass in how not to make narrative dance and the news that Liam Scarlett had been chosen to spring-clean and ‘reimagine’ Swan Lake had many balletomanes reaching for the smelling salts (it doesn’t take much, to be honest). It was sighs of relief and trebles all round when the new production premièred at Covent Garden last week: proper tutus; gorgeous designs; first-rate dancing.
The critical response has been largely positive but not everyone had a five-star evening. The Daily Telegraph gave it a niggardly three stars, finding the designs ‘variable’ and bewailing the absence ofa dramaturg (which has to be some sortof first). ‘I do like a little dry ice,’ whimpered The Stage (also three stars) and the Guardian, broadly in favour, seemed peculiarly focused on the Kleenex count: ‘Fundamentally what I want from a production of Swan Lake is that it makes me weep.’ Everyone was glad to be rid of the decorative excesses of the 1987 Anthony Dowell production but pined for Dowell’s scholarly treatment of what survives of the original choreography.
Scarlett hasn’t done undue violence to the well-loved Prince-meets-Swan scenario but some of his tweaks are more successful than others. Like many swan-makers (Bourmeister, Helpmann, Deane), he adds an expository prologue showing Rothbart turning Princess Odette into a swan. Like Nureyev and countless others, Scarlett also beefs up the role of Von Rothbart. Odette’s enchanter is now a usurping elder statesman, who lurks on the sidelines at Siegfried’s birthday party wearing black brocade and a sour expression before popping up at the lake in evil-birdman drag.
This attempt to retro-fit a political subplot into a fairy story misfires badly and even a dance actor as intelligent and expressive as Bennet Gartside has difficulty raising his ponytailed Rothbart above the level of pantomime villain (there was even a boo-hiss curtain call).
Lev Ivanov’s Act Two lakeside and Marius Petipa’s ‘black swan’ pas de deux have been left well alone, but Scarlett has rewritten most of the first act, replacing David Bintley’s maypoling ensembles with a new, peasant-free waltz for Siegfried’s friends: neatly crafted but essentially what the late John Percival of the Times used to call ‘knitting’. Scarlett’s Act Three boot dances need a lot more salt and pepper but there was real flavour in the old Frederick Ashton Neapolitan duet, particularly when performed by the lusty, spring-driven James Hay (at the second performance).
Rothbart’s scenery-chewing could easily be toned down and the national numbers gingered up but Act Four would be harder to fix. Scarlett, perhaps unwisely, has replaced Ivanov’s transcendent swan groupings with blandly attractive ensembles of his own to a score ‘cleansed’ of Tchaikovsky’s tender, limping Valse bluette added by Riccardo Drigo in 1895.
The new ending has Siegfried cradling his lover’s corpse as the curtain falls. Not only is this a bit of a cliché — Albrecht, Armand and Des Grieux all do much the same — it doesn’t live up to Tchaikovsky’s soaring apotheosis, offering neither the cosy closure of the happy ending favoured by Soviet productions nor the cathartic release of two lovers united in death.
Happily, these shortcomings were gilded over by John Macfarlane’s ravishing designs, which replace the frayed and fiddly Yolanda Sonnabend sets and costumes with easel-worthy backcloths, magical transformations and a royal palace of such marmoreal magnificence that it enjoys a flurry of grateful applause before anyone in Act Three has danced a step. The tutus are exquisitely cut and the widowed Queen is a vision in bustled black jet, but Siegfried might want a word with his tailor — he can be hard to distinguish from the rank and file in the first act.
Director Kevin O’Hare often seems more interested in giving everyone a turn than in putting on the best possible show but he was taking no chances on opening night, with principals and first soloists slumming it in minor roles. Alexander Campbell, Francesca Hayward and a keen-eared Akane Takada displayed filigree footwork in their starry pas de trois and there were flawless central performances from Marianela Nunez and a white-hot Vadim Muntagirov.
Nunez’s fabled physical control (and Koen Kessels’s accommodating baton) allows her to play with each phrase, retarding Odette’s turns and falls as if striving to prolong her precious moments with Siegfried and fast-forwarding Odile’s pyrotechnics to accelerate Rothbart’s coup d’état. Muntagirov has never danced better. He might not have the nostrils for Marguerite and Armand — melodrama isn’t his forte — but he is a superlative Siegfried, using every step to illuminate the character he portrays. The yearning arabesques in his Act One soliloquy tell of a prince desperate for love, and his rapturous jetés and swizzling double tours in the ballroom show a man who thinks he has found it.