Swan Lake, Royal Ballet, ROH, Covent Garden, May 2018Posted on 18 May 2018
Bravo! Liam Scarlett has put the magic back into Swan Lake.
Short tutus for the swans have returned, and the ever-changing patterns they make on stage give life and strength to the white acts. From the stalls you may not be able to appreciate them — I was in the Amphi — but with 26 swans plus queen, Scarlett displays numerous beautiful, shifting arrangements. And the designs by John Macfarlane, atmospherically lit by David Finn, elicited applause at the start of Act III and reflect Macfarlane’s love of this ballet, which at age 11 inspired him to take up a design career.
Russian uniforms feature at the start of Act I, and in Scarlett’s conception von Rothbart in his long black coat is a nineteenth century Rasputin-like figure at court, plotting to take the crown while exhibiting the modern, humourless determination of Putin. As in a trompe l’oeil he transforms effortlessly to the sorcerer who commands the swans, and in a brief vignette at the start turns the captured princess into the swan queen. I won’t spoil the ending, but in the meantime this is a feast of dancing, with but a brief scene linking Acts I and II as Prince Siegfried defies von Rothbart and rushes out into the forest with his crossbow.
His friend Benno, strongly represented by Alexander Campbell, plays a more important role than usual in the court acts, forming a pas-de-trois with the prince’s younger sisters, beautifully danced by Francesca Hayward and Akane Takada. This opening night featured an immensely powerful cast, with terrific character dances (Spanish, Hungarian, Neapolitan, Polish) each with its own princess in matching tutu seeking the prince’s hand. The swans were magnificent, the dance of the cygnets in Act II superbly executed by Elizabeth Harrod, Meaghan Grace Hinkis, Romany Pajdak and Leticia Stock, and Bennet Gartside made a wonderfully sinister and commanding von Rothbart.
As swan queen and prince, the peerless performances of Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Mutagirov will not be surpassed in this opening run of Scarlett’s production. Her poise and command magnified by numerous small touches with arms and head, her allure as the black swan in Act III, and her palpable agony in Act IV recreated the dread magic of the swan queen in the first ballet she ever saw as a child. As the prince whose claim to the throne is undermined by the wily von Rothbart, who captures the crown in Act III, Muntagirov showed nobility to which the sorcerer could never aspire, and his dancing was out this world, landing with effortless control from brilliantly executed jumps, and performing fabulous double tours-en-l’air.
Yet no matter who is dancing, this new Liam Scarlett production will entrance audiences with its firm emphasis on dancing and the fantastic interchanging patterns made by the swans, all under superb musical direction by Koen Kessels. As white flowers descended from the balcony boxes at the end this was a night to remember.
Performances continue with various casts until June 21, with a live cinema relay on June 12 — for details click here.