thu 11/08/2022

Swan Lake, Mariinsky Ballet, Royal Opera House | reviews, news & interviews

Swan Lake, Mariinsky Ballet, Royal Opera House

Swan Lake, Mariinsky Ballet, Royal Opera House

A subdued start to the Mariinsky's 50th anniversary season

Act IV is the core of Swan Lake. It doesn’t seem so theatrically, being a peculiar 20-minute bolt-on after an interval that frequently lasts longer than the act that follows. But musically it transcends everything that has gone before, its thready little waltz one of the most delicately tragic things Tchaikovsky ever wrote. And balletically, Lev Ivanov’s rigidly structured classicism draws viewers into the terrifying void that is death. While emotionally the frozen swan-maiden of Act II and the brazen strumpet of Act III here merge to create the incarnation of suffering woman.

Well, that is unless, as at the Royal Opera House at the moment, the Mariinsky is dancing. For the Mariinsky, celebrating the half-century since it first appeared in the West, continues to stage an even older production of this classic, that of Konstantin Sergeyev, the then Kirov’s artistic director under Stalin. Not even swans died unhappily in the glorious Soviet Union, and so here we have Swan Lake with a happy ending, against music, against sense, against theatricality.


And very much against the grain of the splendid corps de ballet, who this final act gave a committed, morally nuanced production of seriousness and depth, only to see it thrown away by a staging that demands that the evil magician Von Rothbart gets beaten to death with his own wing.

SLake_Lopatkina_Korsuntsev_pic_N_RazinaOne feels that the company knows how old-fashioned this production is, and they are not happy to be in it. The evening started slowly, with an unconvinced, uncommitted first act. When the company’s star, Uliana Lopatkina (main picture, above), appeared in Act II, her prince, Daniil Korsuntsev (pictured right), seemed relieved: no longer required to mooch around performing Sergeyev’s unfocused Act I choreography, with Lopatkina he could shape the great white act created by Ivanov. Together, with the help of the Mariinsky orchestra, playing wonderfully under their conductor Boris Gruzin, they were totally committed.

Yet both took some time to settle. Lopatkina, with her endlessly long arms, her angular flat body, had clearly requested a tempo that was so slow it seemed wilfully eccentric. Her performance was thought through and careful, but the electric charge this extraordinary dancer can bring with her was only intermittently felt. Every phrase was extended to its full legato, every step and shift flowed through in an unending pulse to the next phrase, but it remained obstinately unmoving.

In Act III, the “black” act, where Rothbart’s daughter Odile impersonates the Swan Queen, Lopatkina replaced the slow flowing shapes with sharp staccato outlines. This was a valid reading, and a more enjoyable one than the white act had been. Korsuntsev, now reaching the end of his career, was a careful, generous partner, but apart from a series of pin-sharp tour jétés, his own dancing was subdued.

“Subdued”, indeed, may be the best word for the evening. The performances were never less than very, very good; but it was hard to become involved with what was happening on stage. Perhaps if the Mariinsky had a real artistic director, who could relaunch some of these Soviet-era classics, morale would improve. (The company is headed up by the conductor Valery Gergiev, with the ballet company only given a deputy director.)

This three-week season, with six programmes, will no doubt reveal more.


I'ver commented before to your ballet critic that Tchaikovsky did not compose a waltz for the last act of Swan Lake - the one the Maryinsky perform is an interpolation of a dreadful un-Tchaikovskian orchestration by Drigo of one the charming smaller movements from the op.72 piano pieces. There are several recordings of what Tchaikovsky actually wrote which reveal this brief act to be a musical masterpiece. Matthew Bourne's version sticks exactly to what Tchaikovsky wrote. Perhaps that is why his last act is so powerful.

Yes, Waldteufel, we have indeed been here before. And in preparing the notes for the Gergiev Prom of what purports to be the complete Swan Lake score in concert, I discover to my horror he'll be sticking to this butchery, along with cuts of about a third of the music elsewhere, as performed by the Maryinsky shortly after the composer's death. Act IV as Tchaikovsky wrote it is his first through-composed ballet act, good enough for Jurowski to want to perform it with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

I do hope, David, that you are allowed to refer to the butchery in your programme notes.

Not as 'butchery', Waldteufel, but I think a more tactful explanation, with the history of this 'tradition' in a box, will make it clear where I stand. And as I requested to do a number-by-number job, I make it clear at every point what's happened, what's been added and what's missing. Of course we also have the Gergiev recording of the Drigo version to compare alongside the full score to be absolutely sure.

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