It’s not just Tchaikovsky’s sublime music and Liam Scarlett’s beautifully reinvigorated choreography danced by one of the finest companies in the world that make this production such a treat. This simply has to be one of the most gorgeous stagings of the classic crowd-pleaser, lavishly designed by John Macfarlane. Live, it absolutely dazzled the eye, nestled in the gilded glory of the Royal Opera House. I can only imagine how spectacular it will look on cinema screens.
Swan Lake’s core story and choreography have rightfully retained much of Petipa and Ivanov’s 1895 version, but Scarlett has happily excised much of the parading, posing and faffing around that can often bog down the openings of Act 1 and 3.
Instead, we sweep straight into gorgeously dynamic group numbers outside the immense palace gates that are endlessly pleasing, perfectly embodying the soaring music and giving the finely drilled corps plenty of opportunities to shine.
Again no time is wasted whirling our handsome prince (Bracewell) into the woods as he goes swan hunting with his new crossbow. Instead of dropping the curtain for a scenery reset, Siegfried dances out his frustrations at a looming arranged marriage as the backdrops pull away and rotate into the menacing woods and a shadowed clearing before a moonlit lake.
As Siegfried, Bracewell has such beautiful, fluid lines and natural grace, and he is matched by Cuthbertson’s effortless clarity of line and placement as tragic ensorcelled princess Odette.
They fall in love in a rather touchingly understated English way, in between a succession of grand set pieces for the corps. There’s nothing more breathtaking than the massed swans flattering en point, arms slowly beating in mesmerising synchronicity. However, the crowd, understandably, still goes wild every time for the deliciously fun Dance of the Cygnets.
Of course, evil sorcerer Rothbart (Gary Avis on sneering, hissable form) is lurking, determined to destroy the swooning couple before they can pledge eternal love and break his spell. The stage is set for the Act 3 mega-melodrama and one of the biggest moments in all ballet, fittingly showcased in a jaw-dropping set.
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I’ve seen it three times live and every time the curtain opens to reveal the palace throne room, it takes my breath away. Sure, there’s nothing subtle about it, but I’ll happily gorge my eyes on giant golden candelabra, soaring columns and painted ceilings, and the most ecstatically over the top gold-encrusted dais, throne and backdrop. It’s fit for Christina’ Arestis’ imperious queen. Wonderfully languid in every regal move and resplendent in glittering, bejewelled black, she is matched by the opulence of the gathered courtiers.
Act 3 introduced Siegfried’s four prospective princess brides, each of whom present a nationally inspired dance, all danced with gusto by the corps. But the ravishing centrepiece of the ball is the arrival of Rothbart’s wicked niece Odile, transformed to look like Odette but with added sexy, predatory swagger.
In the dual role, Cuthbertson sharply toys with Siegfried in a series of showboating moments for both of them, before searing through the famous 32 fouetté whipped turns. The music surges, the audience erupts into cheers and all hell breaks loose before the curtain falls on a shameless clifffhanger. Fabulous stuff.
Act 4 returns us to the lake. Siegfried and Odette must face Rothbart one last time after, naturally, a series of heartbreakingly danced passages.
Swan Lake’s ending is the one thing that varies significantly across the world and the years. Some companies choose to have the lovers both die, others prefer them both to live. Scarlett’s rather bold revised choice certainly doesn’t please everyone, but you’ll have to see it for yourself. Another minor quibble is rather too much unnecessarily complicated scheming by a disguised Rothbart in the palace scenes.
However, this is a grand, satisfying traditional staging with added modern flair that deserves to be seen on stage and screen whenever you can.
Swan Lake will be live-streamed to UK cinemas on 19 and 22 May: check local cinemas for details.