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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake, Opus 20
Natalia Osipova (Odette/Odile), Matthew Golding (Prince Siegfried), Elizabeth McGorian (The Princess), Gary Avis (Von Rothbart), Alastair Marriott (Tutor), Ryoichi Hirano (Benno), The Royal Ballet, Orchestra of The Royal Opera House, Boris Gruzin (Conductor), Marius Petipa/Lev Ivanov (Choreography), Anthony Dowell (Production), Christopher Carr (Stage Director), Ross MacGibbon (Screen Director), Yolanda Sonnabend (Set Designer), Mark Henderson (Lighting Designer)
Recording: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, England (March 17, 2015) – 180'
Opus Arte DVD #OA 1181D (or Blu-Ray #OA BD7174D) (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Format NTSC 16:9 – Sound 2.0PCM + 5.1(5.0) DTS – Region Code: 0 – Booklet in English, French and German – Subtitles in English, French and German

Anthony Dowell mounted an update of The Royal Ballet’s storied production of Swan Lake in 1987, his first year as the company’s Artistic Director. Dowell was making a statement of where the company was artistically and technically. Dowell’s makeover for contemporary audiences was hugely successful, with surgical adjustments over the years. It was first fully staged at The Royal Opera House in 1934, by Nicholas Sergeyev, Marius Petipa’s regisseur who fled Russia in 1917, taking with him the original choreographic notations of Swan Lake and other classics. Much of the original choreography from Marius Petipa’s and Lev Ivanov’s 1895 minted version of Swan Lake is preserved. Dowell’s production was given another make-over this season with the biggest change in the opulent production designs by Yolanda Sonnabend which resets the ballet in Czarist Russia of Tchaikovsky’s era. This is dazzlingly well-suited to the production’s worldwide simulcast on the movie screen held earlier this year. That broadcast is now available by Opus Arte’s DVD and Blu-Ray formats.

The story opens in the palace garden during a festival and is a buffet of Russian folkloric dance and class revelry. The highlight is the fiery balletics of the pas de trios danced by Francesca Hayward, Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell. The fête winds down when Prince Siegfried receives a new crossbow and goes on a lakeside hunt with his drunken soldiers. Siegfried ventures off on his own where he becomes entranced by the sight of Odette, queen of the swans. She leads the flock when they are not under the evil control of Von Rothbart who disrupts their tranquility and transforms Odette into the sinister Odile. In the famous Black Swan scene, Odile seduces, then mocks Siegfried’s passion while Odette is revealed as a prisoner of Von Rothbart. In the finale Von Rothbart and Siegfried battle for Odette’s soul, lakeside, as the corps de ballet swoops in to decide their fate.

Yolanda Sonnabend’s vaulted world of Imperial Russia (instead of the standard storybook castle environs) is a smart visual template, even if it looks “over the top” from some camera angles. Most impressive is her costume design: the swan tutus, along with being earthy and stunning (some with veined bodices and black skirts), show the precision of body line in motion. The jeweled and textured fabrics of the court dances (military, cultural and masked ball) are dazzling period dance couture.

The Act III ballroom divertissements, featuring Russian czardas, mazurka, and polonaise dances, look too studied. The exception is the too brief Spanish Dance with Frederick Ashton’s additional Neapolitan Dance with the entwined Laura Morera and Ricardo Cervera who deliver a jaunty and quicksilver performance that is completely refreshing.

Osipova represents a generation of dancers who have the strength and skills to meet the requirements of both roles. Her adagio pointe work exudes lustrous clarity of movement. She adds mystique to Odile, part avian, and as Margot Fonteyn famously said, always a woman. From every angle Osipova gives a defining performance, from diamond-hard arabesque variations to her impeccable transitional phrasing, technical artistry and dramatic expression. For Odile’s fiery 26+ fouettes, Osipova starts by rotating with double leg whips, then locks into thrilling speed and control that leaves the audience panting.

As Siegfried, Matthew Golding is a most attendant prince in their pas de deux, but he struggles with conveying any character, looking baffled in the acting scenes that rely on mime and gesture. Fortunately he gets to show more fire in technical ability when the dancing starts. Golding has lyrical ease in the air, his turns are always centered and his grand pirouettes are flawless.

Von Rothbart, a part that always borders on camp, has Gary Avis dancing with a wry wink as he leers and creeps on the periphery of the scenes before diving in to move the story along. Since this performance was recorded live, the camera catches erratic phrasing in some of corp de ballet sections, but mostly their ensemble pulse, if not their precision, is captivating. Those famous entwined geometrics of the four Cygnets (little tilted in this performance) lagged but hardly diminished their luster. In contrast, lead corps duo Melissa Hamilton and Itzlar Mendizabal sustained crisp precision and lightness.

Concertgoers who are used to a more driving rendition will find the fine orchestral detailing and tempo by conductor Boris Gruzin as lugubrious, yet Gruzin’s pacing deftly frames Osipova’s singular artistry. In other spots, Gruzin doesn’t amp up the orchestral thrust and the corps de ballet swans, in contrast, look lumbering during key moments. The performance was directed for the screen by Ross MacGibbon who skillfully captures the immediacy of the individual performances, including well-chosen cutaways to the musicians in The Royal pit.

Lewis J. Whittington




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