Faced with one of the most daunting tasks in ballet – choreographing a new production of Swan Lake – Liam Scarlett has nailed it. Huge pressure rests on the shoulders of anyone restaging a core repertoire work for The Royal Ballet. Swan Lake has been part of the company’s DNA since 1934 and this is the first new production for 30 years, replacing Anthony Dowell’s which was retired in 2015. Three years is a long time to go swanless. Expectations were high: Swan Lake needs to be a banker that will pack out the House for years.

Scarlett started with a distinct advantage: the brilliant John Macfarlane. The Scottish designer has created wonderful sets and sumptuous costumes. They set the ballet in the 1890s, the decade when Tchaikovsky’s ugly duckling finally became an elegant swan in the years immediately following his mysterious death. The park outside the palace gates could be a scene from Chekhov. Moonlight sheds an amber glow over craggy rocks at the lake, more abstract, bleaker in Act 4. The palace ballroom is a stunner, marble walls, a vaulted ceiling and a crimson curtain veiling a sweeping staircase – little wonder the audience erupted into applause. Gone are Siegfried’s midnight blue tights that often had him half-disappearing and dancing as a torso in the lakeside scenes. Gone too are the ragged, knee-length swan plumage for the corps: tutus are back (at the express wish of RB director Kevin O’Hare).  

Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa’s 1895 staging for the Imperial Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg revived Swan Lake’s fortunes and their version has provided the foundation for many productions ever since. Scarlett remains faithful to them – you don’t mess with Ivanov’s Act 2 – but has provided new ensembles and character dances, along with a clever twist or two. It’s a mark of his achievement that it’s sometimes difficult to discern when Petipa/Ivanov end and Scarlett begins.

In the prelude, spaciously conducted by Koen Kessels, we spy Bennet Gartside’s von Rothbart through a scrim turning Odette from princess into swan. Rather than an avian nocturnal presence by the lake, von Rothbart is a court intriguer, the Queen’s surly adviser. At the climax of Act 3, when it is revealed that Siegfried has been duped into declaring his love for the wrong swan, von Rothbart wrests the crown from the Queen’s head. Odile cackles. A corps of black swans invade the ballroom as the palace crumbles before our eyes, the walls disintegrating to reveal the lake behind. It’s a coup de théâtre to leave you breathless.

The new Act 1 Waltz is beautiful, initially danced by four couples, then twelve, with a cameo for Alexander Campbell’s sprightly Benno. In Act 3, Scarlett has choreographed three new national dances: a Spanish Dance with a quartet of posturing toreros competing for the attention of Tierney Heap’s sultry señorita, all extravagant fan flicks, drawing her skirt like a cape; a lunging, purple swirl of a Hungarian Czardas; and a lively Polish Mazurka. He retains Sir Frederick Ashton’s Neapolitan Dance, but with a neat twist, Marcelino Sambé and Meaghan Grace Hinkis tossing their tambourines to court flunkies to play mid-routine. Scarlett’s best new number, though, is the Act 4 pas de deux for Siegfried and Odette. Eschewing Riccardo Drigo’s traditional interpolations (the Valse bluette and the Un poco di Chopin), he inserts a variation, the Andante con moto from the traditional Act 3 Pas de six. The tenderness between Vadim Muntagirov and Marianela Núñez was devastating as Siegfried seeks reconciliation with Odette who, with broken wing beats, is all but emotionally destroyed. At the finale, Scarlett provides no apotheosis, no heavenly reunion. Instead, Siegfried gathers Odette’s body in his arms as the curtain falls.

Núñez draws out the best in Muntagirov. His Siegfried is noble and poetic when cradling Núñez in his arms, but has time to spare in aristocratic leaps in his dazzling Act 3 solo. Núñez radiates her usual grace and feathery vulnerability as Odette, but her Odile was more menacing here than previously; icy, haughtily sneering, casting von Rothbart surreptitious glances during the opening of the Black Swan pas de deux: wicked and simply delicious.

Gartside’s von Rothbart was wonderfully sinister and, elsewhere, Francesca Hayward constantly drew the eye as one of Siegfried’s younger sisters who are given two pas de trois with Campbell’s likeable Benno. The odd strangled trumpet fanfare aside, the orchestra played splendidly for Kessels, with the nutty sweetness of Peter Manning’s violin solos a particular delight. Despite some ragged moments, the swan corps had strong moments, precision balanced with poise. During the flower-strewn curtain call, Scarlett tore himself away from the line-up to turn and thank them. There’s no doubt: this Swan Lake is a keeper.