Review: Royal Ballet - Swan Lake - Royal Opera House

Performance: 10 February - 9 April 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 12 February 2015

Royal Ballet 'Swan Lake' Photo: Alice Pennefather, courtesy ROH

Performance reviewed: 10 February

Christmas bounced back to the Royal Opera House with all the renewed warmth of a fresh log thrown onto the embers for there is no more festive production of Swan Lake than that presented by the imagery of Yolanda Sonnabend’s designs for Anthony Dowell’s 1987 production, which retains all its considerable charm as a gorgeous centrepiece among The Royal Ballet’s Crown Jewels.

The whole of Act 1 appears to be set in some courtly Lilliputian world of green, gold and burnished ochre, nestling under the wide fir branches of what appears to be a giant Christmas tree adorned with baubles of coloured glass and other yuletide decorations. By coincidence, a miniature version of the prominent velvet crown ornament has hung on my own tree for many a year. Act 3 places the costume ball inside a giant Fabergé egg, filling the stage with the grand opulence of a well-dressed party inside a sumptuously-designed palace. With nightly re-runs of Top of the Pops and sundry ancient sitcoms and soaps, BBC three and four regularly remind us of the mid-80s fashions we would all like to forget (bouffant hair and mighty shoulders pads to the fore) but thankfully Dowell’s Swan Lake proves that there is at least one evergreen design palette from that generally tasteless era!

And it wasn’t just the bottom end of a huge Christmas tree or Tchaikovsky’s music that reminded me of The Nutcracker for in a bizarre way Dowell’s concept of Von Rothbart occupies the same “master of ceremonies” function at the Act 3 ball as does the mysterious Drosselmeyer in the first act of that other Tchaikovsky ballet. At The Royal, both roles are superbly interpreted by that supreme character actor, Gary Avis, who reprised his portrayal of the evil spirit on this opening night. In the mixed imagery of glam rock pop star (very ’80s) and mohican-sporting hell’s angel, Avis bestrode both the lakeside and the Fabergé ballroom like a colossus, albeit one that might burst into singing ‘I’m the Leader of the Gang (I am)’ or ‘Hell Raiser’ at any minute. He leered at the six princesses, flirted with Siegfried’s mum (also confusingly entitled a “princess” in this version) and fooled around with his dwarves: if this Von Rothbart really is modelled on an ’80s glam rock pop star then clearly the warrant would already be on its way for his arrest.

The role of Prince Siegfried is marginalised in the Dowell production most notably in the Prince having little to do in the first Act (where the lonely soliloquy solo – a regular feature in other productions – is omitted). A former principal dancer at The Royal Ballet once told me that while the demanding role of Odette/Odile was one of the first to drop off a ballerina’s roster, playing the Prince was one of the last to remain for the guys. At 41, Carlos Acosta has already signified that his dancing days are nearly over – for classical ballet, at least – but he showed that a mighty fine Siegfried still remains in his locker. He was a strong and sensitive partner for Odette in the white act adagio; and a clueless, lovelorn, easily seduced nincompoop in the black act, but a fool who nonetheless injects fiery passion into the mighty leaps of his variation and super-fast spins of the coda. It was a very fine performance with which to please his legion of fans and it is worth noting that Acosta is only likely to appear twice more as Siegfried at Covent Garden (appropriately on Valentine’s Night and again on 19 February).

One has to feel very sorry for the Boston-born principal ballerina,Sarah Lamb, for whom an infected foot put paid to her opportunity to lead the line as Acosta’s Odette/Odile in the special spotlight of this opening night. One hopes she will be fit in time to partner Acosta in those two remaining performances. Her ill fortune handed Marianela Nuñez her fourth opening night in full-length ballets, this season (following hot on the heels of Manon, Kitri in Don Quixote and Tatiana in Onegin) and she mixed lakeside ice with ballroom fire to rock the role with a rarely seen serene imperiousness, wrapped in the clarity of impeccable technique. Nuñez has been dancing leading roles since she was a teenager and, now aged 32, at the peak of her artistry and skill, she continues to challenge herself to get even better. This was an unforgettable performance. In fact, this was two unforgettable performances, as both the white and the black swan: Nuñez being distinctly convincing in both personalities.

Injuries and illness required a few changes throughout the cast – an inevitable burden for a busy company at the height of its season – but everywhere one looked there was excellence on show. Alistair Marriott and Genesia Rosato brought strong projections of character to their roles as the tutor and the princess (Sonnabend’s gorgeous red dress for the latter in the ball scene being a special treat); the pas de trois by Alexander Campbell, Francesca Hayward and Emma Maguire (another late substitute) was charming; Bennet Gartside and Helen Crawford led a raucous Czárdás; and Laura Morera and Ricardo Cervera delivered a spectacular Neapolitan dance. The only wobbles were that the four cygnets went a little off-message in the closing stages of their iconic dance and an occasional lighting cue was awry (Acosta came onstage unlit for a few vital seconds in Act 2) .

We could all do with a touch of Christmas spirit and dressed in Sonnabend’s magnificent grandeur – not forgetting Mark Henderson’s lighting design, which accentuates the sensational colour schemes – this Swan Lake is a welcome spectacle at any time of the year.

If you can’t make it to the Opera House, there will be a live screening at cinemas around the world on Tuesday, 17 March (starring the multi award-winning Natalia Osipova and Matthew Golding), which will be repeated on the following Sunday (22 March).

Continues in rep until 9 April 2015.

Photos: Alice Pennefather, courtesy ROH

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He writes for Dancing Times, Dance Europe, Shinshokan Dance Magazine in Japan,, and other magazines and websites in Europe and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards in the UK. Find him on Twitter @GWDanceWriter

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