Royal Ballet Swan Lake Royal Opera House 22 May 2018 19:30
The curtain fell for the last time at about 22:35 yesterday and it is now 03:22 on Wednesday. Since then I have travelled 180 miles by rail and another 32 by road. I have read the programme from cover to cover. Yet I cannot sleep because I am still excited about Liam Scarlett's new production of Swan Lake.
There are hardly any gimmicks in this production. There are no new characters. The story is unchanged:
"Prince Siegfried chances upon a flock of swans while out hunting. When one of the swans turns into a beautiful woman, Odette, he is enraptured. But she is under a spell that holds her captive, allowing her to regain her human form only at night.Yet there was still innovation (see How choreographer Liam Scarlett is reimagining Swan Lake on the Royal Opera House's site).
The evil spirit Von Rothbart, arbiter of Odette’s curse, disguises his daughter Odile as Odette to trick Siegfried into breaking his vow of love. Fooled, Siegfried declares his love for Odile, and so dooms Odette to suffer under the curse forever (see the Royal Opera House's website).
There are, of course, John Macfarlane's brilliant new designs which I shall discuss later. For me the most striking innovation was the elevation of Baron von Rothbart from scary cape waving sorcerer on a rock to a an even more menacing scheming court insider reminding me just a little bit of President Putin. Although he appears in the prologue the baron's first intervention in the story is as the queen's adviser. It is obvious that he exerts considerable influence over her. The idea that the prince should marry may even have been his idea. He throws his weight around when he is alone with the prince. He reminds Siegfried of his mother's command to choose a bride. When Siegfried is about to leave the stage with his crossbow, von Rothbart gestures to him to put it down. This enhanced role for the baron affects the dynamic of the story and in my view makes it much more realistic. Particularly the third act when von Rothbart promotes his daughter as a possible royal bride.
A character who is so crucial to the story requires an artist who is as much as actor as he is a dancer and Bennet Gartside performed that role exquisitely. As I could spare the time (and money) for only one performance of the new Swan Lake I chose last night in order to see Federico Bonelli and Lauren Cuthbertson. They are two of my favourite dancers at the Royal Ballet. When I saw them in Giselle three years ago they quite took my breath away (see Cuthbertson's Giselle 3 April 2016). It was on the strength of that performance that I chose Cuthbertson as my ballerina of 2016 (see The Terpsichore Titles: Outstanding Female Dancer of 2016 29 Dec 2016). Bonelli was on stage yesterday and he was as gallant and dashing as ever but sadly Cuthbertson was indisposed. Just before the start Kevin O'Hare came on stage to announce that she had been injured and invited us to join him in wishing her well which I, for one, certainly do. He also announced that Akane Takada. who took Cuthbertson's place, had danced Odette-Odile for the first time the previous Saturday. All I can say is that she was enchanting. While I hope to see Cuthbertson in that role soon I was not in the least disappointed by the casting change.
There were many other dancers who impressed me last night but this already over-long review would become as turgid as a telephone directory were I to include them all. But James Hay stood out for me as the prince's mate Benno. Not quite as big a role in Scarlett's Swan Lake as in David Dawson's but the character does not appear in many productions. Perhaps because I have tried to learn the cygnets' dance (see KNT's Beginners' Adult Ballet Intensive - Swan Lake: Day 1 16 Aug 2015) I feel a special sense of fellowship with whoever dances on it on stage. I therefore gave Elizabeth Harrod, Meaghan Grace Hinkis, Romany Pajdak and Leticia Stock who performed that piece an extra loud clap prompting an old fashioned look from the lady next to me as if to say "What's so special about them?" It would have taken me far too long to tell her. I also liked the Neapolitan dance. Anna Rose O'Sullivan and Paul Kay were lively and sparky. They performed that divertissement in the way that Wayne Sleep and Jennifer Penney used to do.
This was a ballet in which every artist performed well. Especially the corps who were magnificent. Not every man shared that view. On the stairs up to the Paul Hamlyn Bar in the first interval a pinstriped gent was holding forth that the boys were alright but the girls seemed somewhat under-rehearsed. I was amazed by that criticism. "What had he seen that I had missed?" I wondered. For me it was pure delight from beginning to end. The lady who was with the opinionated gent didn't agree. She urged him to stop it and she struck him more than once with her rolled-up cast list.
Having said that it was a very funny audience last night. Nobody joined me in clapping the principals when they first appeared. Hardly anybody applauded Takada as she was approaching her 32nd fouetté. Folk were leaving Florida style even before the first curtain call "It was only 22:30" I thought to myself, "If I can get home to Yorkshire tonight surely there must be trains to Penge." The dancers and musicians gave us there all and they deserved better from the crowd. Ballet Black got a well-deserved standing ovation in Nottingham last week as did Teac Damsa for their Swan Lake in Manchester. "What is it with stuffy old London?" I mused. Those artists deserved a flower throw and when the flower market was next door they would have got it.
I promised to say a word about Macfarlane's designs. Well, they are good. The backdrop of swirling waters for the prologue gave way to the palace gardens for act 1. Seamlessly they morphed into a lakeside with a full moon for act 2. The ballroom scene with its throne was magnificent. However, the most dramatic setting of all was the lakeside at the end. A monochrome landscape dominated by a rock. Those scene changes required ingenious lighting design and David Finn delivered it. The costumes were magnificent particularly Siegfried and Benno's and the uniforms for the men.
Scarlett shows that you don't need bikes on stage, male swans, new characters or even a new libretto to rejuvenate Swan Lake. His work is already pretty close to my favourite Swan Lake though I would hate to have to choose between it and David Dawson's. They are both excellent with their rspective strengths. I loved Anthony Dowell's Swan Lake but I think we were ready for this change.