Swan Lake is so iconic that describing it in a review seems superfluous. The idea of it, moreover, so dominates people's perceptions of ballet, mine included, that before Monday night's performance I was worried that I would be lost for fresh words, silenced by the weight Tchaikovsky and Petipa's swans have acquired in the 117 years since they first fluttered across the stage in St Petersburg. (Although the first treatment, and the music, date from 1877, it is really with the Petipa/Ivanov revival in 1895 that Swan Lake's success story begins.)
Fortunately, great works of art, however (over-)hyped, usually have a depth that rewards concentrated engagement and repeat viewing, and ballet of course has the added spice of being a live performance: the chemistry of the dancers on stage and the mood of the audience can make even achingly familiar works exciting again. It takes a good production, though: for all its dominance, Swan Lake is a slightly odd ballet, and full of contrasts. Some are in the plot (good/evil, purity/wantonness, bird/human); others in the setting ( a rich, glittery, hard-edged court alternating with a shadowy, mysterious forest); and in the choreography (which frames tightly focused, intensely personal pas-de-deux with great masses of identical swans or whirling aristocrats). Tchaikovsky's score, too, offers both densely orchestrated folk dances and spare, heartbreaking string solos. There can, however, be less intentional contrasts: if the Romantic white scenes are sublime, the two long court scenes in Swan Lake can lag, or conversely a snappy, threatening ball scene can make the endless fluttering in the forest look insipid.
Fortunately, The Royal Ballet's regularly-revived production pulls everything together with visual splendour and plenty of pizzazz in the dancing. The sets and costumes are a real delight, particularly in the court scenes, which sparkle with fin-de-siècle Russian colour. The Act I party scene takes place under strings of exotic glass lanterns and dark, feathery firs; the prince and his friends are gorgeous in tight Western-style military uniforms, while Cossacks in gold, ribbons and baggy trousers remind us of Russia's ethnic diversity and distance (both literal and cultural) from Europe. Indeed, the production as a whole succeeds very much because it plays up the Russian-ness of this quintessentially Russian ballet; this is no Perrault fairy-tale, but something rather stormier and less structured. The swans in the corps de ballet do not wear stiff sculptural tutus but rather bulky, feathery, calf-length dresses, appropriate both to the ballet's Romantic heritage, and to the essence of birds which are, after all, not only graceful and elegant but also powerful, wild and dangerous. The ballroom set is dark and slightly menacing, with almost an opium-tinged decadence, particularly in the black and purple costumes of Rothbart's courtiers: the effect is Art Nouveau meets Gothic and it mostly works, although a few of the non-dancing courtiers wear frankly bizarre pink cloaks, and the heavy costumes sometimes obscure the dance too much (a problem in more than one Royal Ballet production; the perils of having the money to make such sumptuous dresses!).
The principals for this, the first night of the new season, were trusty husband-and-wife team Marianela Núñez and Thiago Soares, familiar in these roles from many performances at the Opera House, as well as the DVD of this production. They look fantastic together: Soares is tall, dark and handsome, and acts the (mostly) dutiful prince nobly, Núñez is beautiful and expressive, with incredibly secure technique. Indeed, although her technical mastery is awe-inspiring, I could almost wish for a few more wobbles. Yes, her ability to float slowly off high developpés on point is astonishing, but when she was dancing Odette her control almost verged on stiffness – the bird-heroine needs to show more vulnerability. Some of that stiffness disappeared as the pace picked up, and her Odile was swift and seductive, though perhaps not quite as threatening as she could be (partly because it's hard for a dancer with as beautiful a smile as Nunez to look truly evil).
By the last act, the audience was being carried along on a storm of irresistible, glorious Tchaikovsky: as the lovers throw themselves off the cliff there is the deep satisfaction of tragedy, subsequently tinged rosy pink as the two, united in death, float blissfully into the sky. Yes, Swan Lake is an odd fairy-tale, as well as potentially cliché-ridden, overblown, and familiar, but on Monday The Royal Ballet, though not always pitch-perfect, demonstrated beyond doubt that the magic still works.
Royal Opera House, Covent GardenBow Street Covent Garden
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2E 9DD
Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares in Swan Lake © Alice Pennefather, courtesy of ROH
Marianela Nunez in Swan Lake © Alice Pennefather, courtesy of ROH
Thiago Soares and Marianela Nunez in Swan Lake © Alice Pennefather, courtesy of ROH