Having painstakingly deciphered Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s dance notations for the defining 1895 production of Swan Lake in St. Petersburg, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky wowed the Zurich opera house audience last year with his reconstruction of the popular ballet. Ratmansky admittedly took some liberties around the more ambiguous of the 19th century stage directions, but made a consummate case for telling the story with pointed gestures and steely precision, as was done at the time of the original.

<i>Swan Lake</i> © Carlos Quezada (2016)
Swan Lake
© Carlos Quezada (2016)

Act 1 in the Ratmansky production opens to a noble and palatial setting, where the prince (Alexander Jones) and his mother, the queen (Beate Vollack), along with members of their court, are being entertained by various configurations of dancers. At one point, no fewer than 20 couples grace the stage with refreshing youth and bouncing skirts. Flower baskets and a colourful maypole mark the Valse champêtre, whose parties share enough smiles to last a lifetime. While all is gaiety and vivaciousness, there’s also the black humour of poor old Wolfgang, the prince’s teacher (Filipe Portugal), whose advances to one of the maidens are firmly rejected. While some of the mime used to move the narrative along was enigmatic to me, the queen signing a caution to her son to curb his drinking was unmistakable. In light of that, the prince proposes to his mates, including his dear friend, Benno (the spirited Andrei Cozlac), that they all take up their crossbows and head off to the lake for the hunt. 

Jérôme Kaplan’s elaborate set for Act 2 couldn’t be more mythical: a crumbling stone portal, the trunks of huge trees stage right, a lake behind all-angled reeds. It is here that we first meet the swan princess, Odette, whose role prima Elena Vostrotina awards a portrayal that speaks of an older style. Her pointe work is clean, her upper body supple enough for her to fold her head almost into her chest − as, when heartbroken, she does convincingly in Act 4. Her arms are able to emulate a swan’s neck much like the great Maya Plisetskaya, did to the strains of Camille Saint-Saëns' The Dying Swan. And the infamous magician von Rotbart (Manuel Renard) does justice to his evil character in a hugely oversized and ominous crow costume as, on the strains of some of the evening’s most stirring music, he grabs the princess and forces her away against her will.

Alexander Jones (Prince) © Carlos Quezada (2016)
Alexander Jones (Prince)
© Carlos Quezada (2016)

With its carpet-hung Ottoman mosque-like stage, the fanfare of colourful costumes and layered fabrics in Act 3, particularly in the exuberant Hungarian dance sequence, were a sheer delight to watch. Yet it’s here that the almost black-clad “double” Odile deceives the prince into proposing to her, thereby condemning his beloved Odette to an untimely death. Most effectively, lighting by the master luminist Martin Gebhardt exposed the prince’s agony in the form of a glaring light.

Act 4 brings the tragedy to its conclusion. The still-life of Odette’s fellow companion swans making a human garland around their grieving princess, as if to once protect and support her, was a heart-breaking vignette. Yet there was something inherently jarring about her match with her prince. I’d have liked to see the prima ballerina more fluid in her lover’s arms, more gentle-edged, more – dare I say it – bird. Instead, she seemed self-conscious, lacking in spark and light when dancing with him. And while the costuming for this production (again, Kaplan) was otherwise just stunning, the silk bodice on Vostrotina’s chiseled body suffered a wardrobe dysfunction, lifting regularly to a gap that made a distracting zigzag of movement at her waist.

© Carlos Quezada
© Carlos Quezada

For me, though, it was the Ballet Zürich company and its Philharmonia orchestra that took the highest accolades in this production. The dancers showed themselves a finely-tuned whole, particularly given the demands of such sustained and complicated figures. Despite their numbers and the stuffs of elaborate costuming, their entrances and footwork were seamless, even if sometimes a bit noisy. Similarly, the orchestra, at ease with the palpitations and throbs of Tchaikovsky’s musical heartstrings, pulled the very best out of the romantic score. The harp, violin and oboe soli were particularly compelling, and concertmaster Hanna Weinmeister deserves special recognition for the sheer beauty of her solo work. Oddly, apart from the Prince and von Rotbart, none of the other male dancers took a curtain call. However, to see her given the chance to take a well-deserved bow was rewarding.