Zurich's charming opera house lies within a stone's throw of the lake. During intervals on balmy summer evenings such as this, audience members wander lakeside, where swans glide serenely. It's the perfect house in which to see Swan Lake and Ballett Zürich boasts a gem: Alexei Ratmansky's rigorous reconstruction of the 1895 Mariinsky production in St Petersburg by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, the version which established Tchaikovsky's ballet as a classic. With an exquisitely danced Odette/Odile by Viktorina Kapitonova, who premiered Ratmansky's version two seasons ago, I was floating in swan heaven.

Viktorina Kapitonova (Odette) © Carlos Quezada
Viktorina Kapitonova (Odette)
© Carlos Quezada

The former Bolshoi director relishes his forays into choreographical archaeology, Le Corsaire, Paquita and The Sleeping Beauty among his excavations. This Swan Lake deserves to be considered definitive, not in the sense of it being absolutely the best, but because it is the version which, two years after Tchaikovsky's death, essentially defined the ballet as one of the greats after its initial 1877 failure. It was fascinating to see this production so swiftly after the unveiling of Liam Scarlett's new staging for The Royal Ballet, not least because it highlights occasional dramatic and musical weaknesses in that 1895 version.

Stepanov's notation plans of Petipa and Ivanov's choreography, smuggled out of the Soviet Russia in 1919, provided the key for Ratmansky's reconstruction. (Incidentally, in the 1980s they were offered free to The Royal, but turned down.) A lot of the traditions which accrued over the intervening century have been wiped clean, including the pesky jester introduced early in the Soviet era. Gone too is the “black swan”; Odile here sports no swan feathers, but glitters in black, maroon and emerald tulle, with no fluttering swan mimicry. Ratmansky restores lots of mime and reinstates Benno, Prince Siegfried's pal, as supporting prop in the lakeside pas de deux (à trois?), taking Odette in hold even though he is apparently invisible to her. There's no swan headgear for Odette, but a crown, while her swans are in feathery-soft knee-length tutus and white caps under which long ponytails cascade... no ballet buns permitted here. Jérôme Kaplan's designs are gorgeous, with clouds obscuring the giant lakeside moon by the time we get to the finale.

Manuel Renard (Rothbart) and Viktorina Kapitonova (Odette) © Carlos Quezada
Manuel Renard (Rothbart) and Viktorina Kapitonova (Odette)
© Carlos Quezada

But this is more than just a reconstruction. It's a staging that's moving and joyful in its own right. The Act 1 Valse champêtre, coming after the pas de trois, is a delight, with 20 couples armed with baskets of flowers and stools, although there was some slightly untidy maypole work. Otherwise, the Zurich corps is neat, making the last act Valse bluette unusually captivating. This was one of Riccardo Drigo's 1895 interpolations (although possibly with Tchaikovsky's consent as he was in talks with Petipa to revise the score shortly before his 1893 death). I usually find it holds up the action, but not so here. The Un poco di Chopin pas is weak though – Scarlett's solution in London actually adds to the narrative, helping achieve a reconciliation between Odette and Siegfried. I can't help feeling that Scarlett's Act 3 is stronger too, with three freshly-minted national character dances. In Zurich, the Spanish Dance is smiley rather than sultry, although the Csardas opens in suitably haughty manner. Ratmansky's Neapolitan Dance – thankfully minus tambourine zils – is a burst of lemon sunshine. The denouement is moving, a double suicide and then a swan boat drawing Odette – now in human form – and Siegfried across the skies, the score ending with soft chords.

The Neapolitan Dance © Carlos Quezada
The Neapolitan Dance
© Carlos Quezada

Viktorina Kapitonova, shortly to leave the company, was a heartbreaking Odette. Initially, she coyly hid her face from Siegfried but was coaxed into response. In Ratmansky's choreography, arabesques are softer and her leg is kept lower, with no flashy six o'clock penchés. She has willowy arms and was incredibly light, her feet silently kissing the stage. In this version, Odette's counterpart, Odile, is no cold clinician; Kapitonova's Odile wore a beguiling, butter-wouldn't-melt smile and won Siegfried through charm, triumphantly clinching his knee in an arabesque penché at the climax of their pas de deux. Her swift feet dazzled in Odile's solo, with chaînés turns on demi-pointe. Siegfried is a less tortured soul here, giving Alexander Jones little scope for acting, but he partnered Kapitonova sensitively and impressed in his muscular solos. Manuel Renard's Von Rothbart is essentially a non-dancing role, but with giant raven wings he still caught the eye. Wei Chen was a lively Benno.

Alexander Jones (Siegfried) and Viktorina Kapitonova (Odile) © Carlos Quezada
Alexander Jones (Siegfried) and Viktorina Kapitonova (Odile)
© Carlos Quezada

Pavel Beloff led the Philharmonia Zürich in a robust account of the score, sprightly tempi, a nice Russian tang to its principal trumpet and plaintive oboe solos for the famous swan theme. Hopefully it carried to the swans listening from the lake outside.


Mark's accommodation on this trip was sponsored by Oper Zürich