Reviews DanceReviews Published 6 June 2018

Review: Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House

May 17th - June 21st

A cat among the swans: Liam Scarlett’s interpretation gets three big ticks from Anna Winter.

Anna Winter
Swan Lake, Royal Opera House. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Swan Lake, Royal Opera House. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

My cat currently resides in a drugs cubby hole at the clinic (buprenorphine is the opiate of the pussies and to be honest it looks like fun). The emotional maelstrom of geriatric feline care leaves little spare brain power for stringing together prose. But this is about the Royal Ballet’s new production of Swan Lake, and a new Swan Lake is a subject that requires a lot of honking, some clucking and maybe even some squawking from ballet-goers. It’s a big deal. Here I present some bitesize chunks about the show, much like the bits of cheap paté within which I hide halves of cat tablets. Salty content ahead.

  • John Mcfarlane’s designs.

The Royal’s previous production featured some questionable designs by Yolanda Sonnabend, namely the raggedy knee-length skirts worn by the corps, instead of the traditional tutu, that covered the flock’s classical lines and gave them a bedraggled look. Thankfully, Mcfarlane gives the waterfowl-women back their tutus but he also clothes the entire cast in costumes of incredible detail. For instance, the princesses lined up by Siegfried’s ma as marriage prospects get some amazing garms. The skirt of the Italian lass’ tutu is covered in colourful ribbons, the Polish princess wears long scarlet gloves with a brown fur trim. The black swan Odile’s tutu has a tapered cut-out back that is just pure gla-mour and while I think Odette’s costume has that same shape, what’s more noticeable is the extra feathery texture of the skirt, from which we get a sense of softness, of vulnerable bird, rather than dancer trussed up in tulle.

The sets are equally impressive… we’re in the world of late 19th century European royalty where even the spacious grandeur of the parkland seems stuffy. Prominent at the lakeside is a jagged rocky precipice lit by a mysterious moon – Caspar David Friedrich comes to Covent Garden. These are truly special creations. BIG TICK.

  • The Liam Scarlett effect.

On the strength of his previous narrative works, like the bloated three-act Frankenstein and convoluted Sweet Violets, artist-in-residence Scarlett didn’t seem like a safe pair of hands for the swans. But he’s done a pretty fine job here. First of all, he gives more narrative clout to the Von Rothbart character. Instead of simply being a malevolent owl-wizard who lurks in the forest, this Rothbart has a day job at the palace as a Rasputin-esque advisor to the queen, a diamond-encrusted widow who makes Lucille Bluth look like some sort of cuddly mum of the year. No wonder Siegfried’s got issues.

Daytime Rothbart has a nasty little ponytail and a black coat and spends a lot of his time approaching the poor prince (Vadim Muntagirov: such a shayna punim) in a menacing fashion. They reminded me of a pair of Bermondsey tomcats facing off in a cul de sac, one a precious pedigree with a lot to prove, the other a diabolical varmint with pendulous balls and a bad attitude. Perhaps some of the Rothbart stuff is broad to the point of ham – when turning into Siegfried’s night-time nemesis on the palace grounds, we see VR contort, grimace and dash off, almost as though he’s been caught short with a catastrophic attack of irritable bowel syndrome. (I feel your pain, babe.) He’s next seen sporting wings and a sort of ribby exoskeleton with a head like a blanched radish trailing hairy tendrils. It is truly horrifying, especially the radish.

What about Scarlett’s choreographic contributions? He hasn’t tinkered with Ivanov’s Act 2 because it’s basically sacred, but he’s added a rather lovely duet of regret and forgiveness for the lovers in Act 4. The first act features winsome ensemble dances for the royals and their acolytes (the peasants and their maypole were obviously told to piss off) although the choreographic airiness is somewhat hampered by Mcfarlane’s giant stage-left tree. Despite that, it’s all classical elegance with some beautifully wafty double-fisting of goblets. A little fussy at times, perhaps, but nothing to get disgruntled about.

Along with character dance consultant Amanda Maxwell, Scarlett’s given the Act 3 Spanish dance, mazurka and czardas a newly zesty energy. They’re no longer the filler-before-fouettes. Tierney Heap is particularly great as the imperious Spanish dancer, brandishing her capacious skirts like a cape. (Ashton’s charming Neapolitan dance remains, with some amusing tambourine action.)

The prince’s chirpy pal Benno is given prominence in this production and it works well. Danced by Alexander Campbell, he’s a wonder of compact precision and a good-humoured foil to the sorrowful Siegfried. Plus he gets a starry pas de trois with Akane Takada and Francesca Hayward as Siegfried’s sisters. If you want crystalline pointework and lilting epaulement, you’ve got it.

  • Marianela Nunez.

Smashes It. Luckily, I was able to see Osipova as Odette/Odile a few nights before the Nunez performance. The former has a special kind of intensity, imbuing the white swan with a gently feral quality and her dark doppelganger with gleeful ill-will, but Nunez is truly transportive. She matches the lush glissando of the Act 1 violin solo (bravo Peter Manning) with her own thoughtful rubato phrasing, making manifest the doleful contours of Tchaikovsky’s music. (The orchestra under Koen Kessels give a shapely, exciting performance, save for a few squirty horns here and there.) In Act 3 Nunez glimmers with cruel intent as the violin inveigles, but her Odile isn’t just some Hot Piece of Cloaca with which to tempt the prince (he really is committed to widening the gene pool…). Importantly there are shades of Odette-ish softness, the fluttering of fingers around the neck, that convince Siegfried that this vision in black is really his modest true love who just happens to feel a bit more peppy than usual.

A note on Vadim Muntagirov. Not really a note, more of a gushy tribute: the elevation, the landings (kitten soft!), the Act 3 mega turns that match the fouettes and then some. With Nunez, this is a next-level pairing, technically and artistically. In the mime section of Act 1, when Odette is explaining to the befuddled prince why she’s a swan-maiden, something rare happened – codified gesture became a convincing conversation without words.

But anyway, enough of the poetry-in-motion, I need to re-up the paté stash.

Swan Lake is at the Royal Opera House until June 21st. For more details, click here.

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Anna Winter is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House Show Info


Written by Pyotr Il’Yich Tchaikovsky

Choreography by rMarius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, Frederick Ashton, Liam Scarlett

Cast includes Marianela Nunez, Vadim Muntagirov, Elizabeth McGorian, Bennet Gartside, Alexander Campbell, Francesca Hayward, Akane Takada, Olivia Cow

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