This first revival of Liam Scarlett’s production of Swan Lake, which premiered in 2018, took place while The Royal Ballet’s Artist in Residence is under suspension during a well-publicised investigation into his conduct. These circumstances cast an extra cloud over the stormy lakeside landscape of a production that otherwise has proven to be a compelling and opulent successor to the much-loved version by Anthony Dowell that had ruled the swan’s roost at Covent Garden for almost thirty years. In its place, Scarlett’s staging stays true to the Petipa/Ivanov traditions of Acts 2 and 3 but brings new choreography to Act 1 and a final act that is so fresh it is largely all his own handiwork.

Vadim Muntagirov (Siegfried) and Marianela Núñez (Odile) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Vadim Muntagirov (Siegfried) and Marianela Núñez (Odile)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov could have been dancing a threadbare production in a village hall and it would still have been magnificent. Nuñez has always been a special ballerina, but she has matured into a performer of other-worldly quality, one for whom time seems to stand still. She has acquired a distinctive Russianness, the shimmering grace of an icicle melting into her Argentine passion. Her expressiveness is palpable, especially when conjuring the magic to make Siegfried believe that, as Odile, she is Odette; and her dancing is of the finest quality imaginable. In Muntagirov, Nuñez has acquired the ideal partner. He exudes lonely nobility and his dancing is equally impeccable: fluid transitions, soft landings and effortless hanging jumps. In his Black Swan variation, Muntagirov repeated the mighty trick of doubling up in the succession of three double tours en l’air down the centre. In partnering, Nuñez folds over his arm like warm marzipan enveloping a spoon.   

Marianela Núñez (Odette) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Marianela Núñez (Odette)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

There is now a prologue that explains the backstory of Odette’s enchantment by Von Rothbart (similar to the scene in American Ballet Theatre’s production). Gone are the usual hoi polloi of the first act, which is now entirely populated by the nobility: the pas de trois is danced by Siegfried’s best friend, Benno, accompanying the prince’s sisters in a calmly collected and suitably aristocratic performance of this set piece by Marcelino Sambé, Mayara Magri and Fumi Kaneko. There is a surprising nonchalance to Sambé’s dancing, which makes it appear to be effortless even though it is clearly anything but. In another twist to the norm, Von Rothbart is not just a grotesque sorcerer hanging out at Lakeside, but he also doubles as the Queen’s sinister, long-haired, leather-coated adviser, a role played with mystery and menace by Bennet Gartside, oafishly man-spreading as he perches to watch Odile’s seduction of Siegfried.   

Elizabeth McGorian (The Queen) and Bennet Gartside (Von Rothbart) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Elizabeth McGorian (The Queen) and Bennet Gartside (Von Rothbart)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

    

Most of the national dances have been refreshed, although the ebullient legacy of Frederick Ashton’s Neapolitan duet has been retained, energetically performed here by Meaghan Grace Hinkis and the irrepressible Valentino Zucchetti. The four princesses, unsuccessfully presented as potential brides for Siegfried, are given much more prominence, each introducing their dancers in stereotypical style; thus Yuhui Choe (the Italian princess) stands up and passionately entreats her duo to do their best, while Anna Rose O’Sullivan (the Polish princess) remains disdainfully aloof, already aware that her journey has been wasted.

Scarlett’s new ending makes sense of the forgoing narrative as Odette sacrifices herself to save Siegfried, leading to a heart-breaking finale as the prince carries her lifeless body from the lake while the spirit of the swan princess hovers in the sky above them. 

Artists of The Royal Ballet © ROH | Bill Cooper
Artists of The Royal Ballet
© ROH | Bill Cooper

John Macfarlane’s magnificent costumes brought tutus firmly back in evidence and gorgeous, jewel-encrusted gowns for the Queen (an imperious, charismatic performance by Elizabeth McGorian). Macfarlane has kept to the opulent, ochre and gold colour palette for the palatial scenes; with the stage in Act 1 dominated by a gargantuan tree, dwarfing a pair of enormous gateposts the size of a house; and a huge sweeping staircase, under an impressive painted ceiling, flows into the ballroom for the betrothal party. That latter design eccentricity seemed incongruous to the size of the remaining space and the set for these acts is so monumental that the bodies dancing in the ensemble scenes seem unnecessarily constrained for space, which emphasised the occasional imperfections in the unity of the group dances. However, Macfarlane’s designs often enhanced the perspective, as for example, when the diagonal lines of swans seemed to fade into the backdrop of a moon-filled vortex over the dark and stormy lake. Rarely has a set looked so like a work of art.   

Scarlett’s proposed new ballet for 2020 was cancelled as a result of his suspension and who knows what the future holds.  But, in his tilt at the world’s most famous ballet, and the challenge to replace a much-loved version in The Royal Ballet’s repertory (where Swan Lake has always held a special affection) he has achieved a production that is both reassuringly traditional and refreshingly new.  

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