Swan Lake, Royal Opera House, London

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At the end of the first act of the Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake we are treated to the cheery sight of two drunks on stage: a sozzled cadet and Prince Siegfried’s tutor smashed out of his skull and – on Tuesday night, when I caught up with the romp – giving one of the most grimly vivacious performances I have seen on these ancient boards. And this in the company’s 901st outing of the ballet at the Opera House. The aesthetic implications of the scene are as bizarre as the statistic.

This staging by Anthony Dowell has but one thing in its favour: a choreographic text nearer to the 1894-95 staging by Petipa and Ivanov in St Petersburg than any other we see today. In a dance world where witless producers seek to have their nasty way with this most popular of the “classics”, the Royal Ballet tells as much of the truth about the dances as we are now likely to know.

And there the good news ends. Tricked out with frightful accretions; updated for arcane reasons to Tchaikovsky’s era; gaudily over-decorated and wildly over-populated with cadets, arquebuses, palsied waiting-women, manic courtiers and the denizens of a drag ball, all acting their heads off, it makes the fatal error of supposing that more is more. Then remember the Mariinsky Ballet’s current staging, where less is more, where poetic austerity is the watchword and an aristocratic dance style justifies every moment. This is an ideal the Royal Ballet must consider. An earlier production, decorated by Leslie Hurry in the 1940s, was without bluster or fripperies, and Swan Lake spoke its truths about impossible love, choreographic sublimity, a tremendous score.

“Keep the text. Go back to Hurry. Show us Swan Lake and not Carry on Upping,” say I. Tuesday brought us a fine Odette/Odile from Marianela Nuñez, the dance lustrous, phrased with musical finesse (in spite of a workaday account of the score), the choreography’s drama made clear, lovely. Here is a rare artist. Rare, too, the clarity of Thiago Soares’s portrait of Siegfried, every moment understood, vital in emotion. No grand bravura in dancing, but sensitivity and intelligence of an exceptional order.

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