It might surprise the average Swan Lake audience member to learn the ballet and Tchaikovsky’s score almost didn’t take flight. An 1877 version, created for the Bolshoi Theatre and choreographed by Julius Reisinger, was not deemed a success. After revision attempts fell short, the production was shelved for well over a decade before Petipa, Ivanov and Tchaikovsky discussed the idea of a revival for the St. Petersburg stage. But Tchaikovsky died unexpectedly in 1893, and Petipa himself fell ill in 1894, necessitating a split of choreographic duties with his subordinate, Ivanov. In spite of all this – or perhaps because of it – what resulted is a multi-faceted masterpiece with heart that continues to weather the test of time. Friday’s sold-out, opening night by the San Francisco Ballet was clear confirmation of this. 

Artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s 2009 production, an attempt to spruce up the classic and his own 1988 production, has kept the spirit and classicism of the 1895 production, as well as Petipa’s Act III Black Swan pas de deux choreography and Ivanov’s Act II lakeside scene. An added prologue helps to explain how the young, innocent Odette falls prey to the sorcerer, Von Rothbart (a deliciously evil Daniel Deivison-Oliveira), and gets turned into a swan. Collaborative efforts by Broadway award-winning scenery and costume designer Jonathan Fensom, produced one dominant scenic element per set. In Act I, large wrought iron gates lead out from the palace to the public grounds, as Prince Siegfried (Joseph Walsh), comes out to visit with friends and villagers who’ve gathered to wish him well and toast to his twenty-first birthday. In a spirited pas de trois, Angelo Greco performed sensational double tour, double pirouettes combinations, and partners Dores André and Sasha de Sola delivered clean arabesques, pirouettes and bright smiles. Also appealing in Act I was the five-couple ensemble in the aristocrats’ dance. In Fensom’s colorful, elegant costumes, the dancers whirled and waltzed. Coupled with Tchaikovsky’s music (a tempo di valse), it proved one of the most satisfying moments of the first act. Throughout, Jennifer Tipton’s lighting worked well in tandem with Sven Ortel’s projection design, making it seem as though we were observing an actual twilight sky, with clouds floating past, and the colors taking on darker hues as nightfall approached. 

An enormous full moon backdrop dominates the Act II scene, as does a tiered, oversized slab of black rock intended to suggest a lakeshore. The corps of thirty swans, clad in traditional snowy-white pancake tutus were wondrous to behold in their precise unison and ensemble movements, although Michael Ward’s feathery swimming-cap design for the swans is a “love it or hate it” affair (better put: tolerate it or hate it). On Friday night Maria Kochetkova took the lead role as the swans’ queen. As the regal, sorrowful Odette, she exhibited refined yet restrained technique, incorporating bird-like flutters that worked well. Charming to observe was a nervous tremble in her bourré legs, when Siegfried first took her hand. Also the way she nudged his hand from behind to tentatively show interest. Her gaze remained demure, her energy contained, as she pantomimed to Siegfried their plight: swans by day, a spell that could only be broken if a man promised his love and remained faithful to that vow. Joseph Walsh, as Siegfried, delivered an assured, engaging performance with genuine heart, partnering Kochetkova beautifully in the pas de deux. Jennifer Stahl and WanTing Zhao as the two Swan Maiden danced well, as did the crowd-pleasing quartet of cygnets (Isabella DeVivo, Jahna Frantziskonis, Julia Rowe and Natasha Sheehan).

In Act III, Prince Siegfried’s birthday celebration, a grand, golden staircase dominates the setting and seems more Art Deco or Metro Goldwyn Meyer than 19th century Europe. Nonetheless, it nicely presents each new arrival: foreign princesses vying to become Siegfried’s bride. Standouts here included Jennifer Stahl as the Spanish princess, with partners Lonnie Weeks and Francisco Mungamba; Jahna Frantziskonis, as the Neapolitan Princess, with Esteban Hernandez. Her leaps and soundless landings were particularly satisfying, and her final leap seemed to fly right past Hernandez in the direction of the audience, an adorable finish. The ultimate scene-stealer in Act III, however, was Kochetkova’s Odile, sent by her father, Von Rothbart, to trap Siegfried into breaking his vow to Odette. It’s here where the full onslaught of Kochetkova’s formidable talent comes into play. As Odile, she was virtuosic, wondrously flashy, whipping off multiple pirouettes and high arabesques with a powerful attack. Her thirty-two fouettés looked positively effortless. 

The fourth act yields a satisfying ending to a production that seems to be over all too soon. Music director Martin West led San Francisco Ballet Orchestra in a stunning rendition, with gorgeous solos by violinist Cordula Merks.