St Petersburg’s White Nights Festival in July this year had several different productions meaning it could be seen almost every day. A London festival equivalent might be providing daily performances of The Last Night of The Proms. With that Russian national lifeblood treasure with which to attract and reward visiting arts tourists, not only in the two main cities, might boredom not set in?
A good 21-year-old Prince (Siegfried) under maternal pressure to marry but unattracted to the neighbouring court princesses lined up for him, stumbling instead upon, and falling in love with, a good maiden (Odette) spellbound as a swan on a woodland lake by an evil sorcerer and outsider (Baron von Rothbart). And the Prince then tricked by the sorcerer and his evil female accomplice or daughter (Odile, an Odette look-alike) into declaring love for another (Odile) and thus needing to defeat the sorcerer to break his spell over the swan to release and reclaim Odette in marital union.
The distraught, naive Prince may fail, and either die or survive to tell the tale alone. Or he may succeed and win bliss. Or he and Odette may die together and be united in a transfiguring afterlife. We don’t usually know which until the final minutes of the evening.
Swan Lake’s longevity and the worldwide adoration derives from its potential for differing interpretation. Seeking to impart a new take and inject fresh life, a producer might think they and the public, too, are tired of the same scenario. They must be very careful. Konstantin Uralsky, artistic director of Russian State ballet & Opera Theatre of Astrakhan stuck his neck out.
It’s vital to buy and read a Swan Lake programme brochure first, to be briefed on what’s actually going on. Without actually reading mine, I discovered watching the Acts 1 and 2 in this interpretation that Baron Von Rothbart is a member of the Queen’s court. Aha, it’s about politics, I thought. Clever! He’s after disposing of the Prince and seizing power.
But Odette (the 35-year-old blonde Natalia Korobeinikova) seems not to be connecting with the excellent, noble but emotional Siegfried (the 22-year-old Estonian, Rudolf Dudoladov). There’s virtually no eye contact. Maybe she is too perfect to fall in love? Or Korobeinikova herself can’t act. Or else we have two partnering dance principals without chemistry.
The interval arrives and I catch up with my reading. Oh. Rothbart is Siegfried’s tutor. The swans are his private show that he’s kept from Siegfried all this time. And he’s miffed because, finally showing off his creation to Siegfried, maybe to help him find an alternative spouse, Siggy’s gone and picked his star turn and the romance must be snuffed out or the show’s finished.
Act 3, and, contrary to tradition, a very different dancer (the 20-year-old brunette Aigul Ishnulatova) is Odile the Black Swan. How on earth can Siegfried mistake her for Odette without having first taken a Wagnerian love Potion like his namesake or Tristan − and there’s been no sign of that, not even in the Goblet Dance (am I handing Uralsky an escape route here?).
We are given an end game Rothbart loses without much of a fight, despite apparently invoking a tsunami out of the lake designed to consume the couple. Maybe they drown, maybe they assume new god-like power preventing Rothbart breaking them apart, but those new to Swan Lake did not get the real thing.
Instead of Siegfried aroused into heroic victory or defeat we have him confused and bewildered by his tutor suddenly revealing his true self. We have no real sign from Odette that she really wants Siegried and instead of passion there is eventual desperation in all three corners of the triangle. And the final apotheosis is not of the would-be lovers but of the remaining swan troupe-flock bereft of their star.
Still, with Russian companies, you usually get top-rate costumes. No exception here. Gracious near-knee length swan tutus; pastels and satins for the Pas De Quatre (instead of Trois); a mediaeval masquerading court in Act 3 with Siggy’s mate, Benno (dancer unnamed), becoming the lovable jester we lacked in Act 1, and in smashing purple and gold. The head gear was varied and engaging and the National Dancers were dressed magnificently, bar the Spaniards in minimal white and grey, though the senoritas were given red hair roses and elegant long fishnet sleeves.
My personal favourites were the Mazurka from Poland, betasselled in Prussian Blue velvet and white, with white boots and four-cornered hats.
What Uralsky has done to Petipa and Ivanov, I’m not sure, but there was some imaginative and redeeming stuff for the admirable corps on a small stage (and without the live orchestra in action at larger venues on this tour). And Dudoladov delivered also in his leaps and bounds, climaxing in his two sets of Black Swan variations but diluted in his final scene with Rothbart (the fine 33-year-old Maksim Melnikov) where both seemed to be dancing their own individual rage rather than being in opposing battle.
And as always, there’s the magnificent music, that saves all but the worst Swan Lakes. Oh, the mystery of that characteristically nasal Russian clarinet.