Swan Lake, Royal Opera House, London

When the curtain rises on Swan Lake at the Mariinsky Theatre, you see an autumnal setting soon filled with an ensemble of young courtiers whose dancing tells of ordered grace as a prelude to the tragic events that will ensue. When the curtain rose on Monday night’s Swan Lake at the start of the Royal Ballet season, it revealed a madness of peasant vivacities, arquebuses, dropped goblets, a maypole, frantic mumming from “chaperones”, tippling cadets, fiercely busy supernumeraries, and a lurking unease – not least in the classical pas de trois, which smacked of desperation. As a prelude, this was no shy hint of mayhem to come. (The sole virtue was the elegance of Elizabeth McGorian as the Queen Mother, serene, gracious, real.)

The Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake boasts the best text of any current production, based on important notations of the St Petersburg original in 1895. It is well produced. And it is sabotaged at every moment by the troupe’s inability to leave well alone. So, the flummery of the first act, and the insecure manner of a performance that denied musical and choreographic sense in favour of lethargic tempi and a sleep-walker’s view of the Swan Queen’s drama.

Dramatic momentum, choreographic shape, were sacrificed to Marianela Nuñez’s belief that the dance (and hence the score) can have elastic qualities, allowing her to shape Odette’s tragedy as a sequence of poses, freeze-frame dramatics and musical insensitivity. Dance as stasis. Owning a vivid technique, an irresistible presence in such roles as Swanilda, Lise, Aurora, Nuñez gives us Odette as somnambulist, and the malign Black Swan as exposition of notable technique but less than notable sensibility.

Her Siegfried was Thiago Soares, o’er-parted at moments by the dance, but ever-aware of the drama implicit in his actions and an impeccable partner. And so, the poetic force of score and choreography was numbed and Swan Lake denied. I salute Itziar Mendizabal’s appearance as a leading swan, and note that the production has been freshened in costuming, its lighting revised: it is destined to be transmitted to cinemas on October 23, albeit with a different cast. But oh! For the grand inevitability of the Mariinsky staging!


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