Review: Mariinsky Ballet in Swan Lake at Royal Opera House

Performance: 7 - 11 August 09
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 10 August 2009

8 August performance

Before turning to more crucial matters, let me catalogue a few of the more obvious irritations in Konstantin Sergeyev’s 1950 production of the world’s most famous ballet.

Firstly there is the Jester. A bouncing, spinning, smirking clown, without whom nothing in Siegfried’s castle can happen since he is the master-of-ceremony for every event (no wonder the place is ripe for a sorcerer’s takeover). But, if we must have a jester then it should be Andrei Ivanov – a man who takes professional jesterdom so seriously that it’s probably the occupation named on his passport; I’ve now been watching him jest since 2003! Ivanov is unquestionably a crowd pleaser; applause ringing out as his flashing spins accelerate into a circus exhibit and, for sure, the first act would be duller without him. But all his antics tend to distract attention from swans, lakes and a fairytale romance.

Then there is the lifeless character dances at Siegfried’s bride-choosing Ball, probably made the more so since they’ve no meaning without identifiable princesses of any remotely associated nationality. It’s not surprising that Siegfried can’t decide on a match when all the princesses seem exactly the same.

The Sergeyev production also has the worst of lacklustre endings. When Von Rothbart’s wing vaguely comes away in Siegfried’s hands, one wonders what all the fuss was about when it’s that easy to dispose of him. I prefer the more sinister human form of the sorcerer in other productions; it never seems right when the Queen (or “Princess Regent” in this version) is sitting at a Ball having nonchalant chit-chat with someone who would look more at home in Star Trek. And, of course, the happy ending just doesn’t sit well with the whole point of a narrative about the purity of true love and the pain and penalty of betrayal.

I could go on but the fact is that all of these irritants pale into insignificance when measured against the performance of these remarkable dancers. The Mariinsky corps de ballet is never less than stunning in the famous white acts, delicately framing and filling the stage in living landscapes wherein each white-tutued goddess is a precision-drilled flourish of the paintbrush. The star dancers garner the headlines but the backbone of the Mariinsky is found in the beauty and symmetry of all those collective lines.

But we need stars and I had the privilege of seeing two outstanding principal ballerinas on consecutive nights. Firstly in the glacial elegance of Uliana Lopatkina, a divinity so perfectly in her element as Odette and so evidently unable to reach the boundary of excellence in her artistry since she continues to improve even when she appears already so complete. I’ve watched her for many years and – like all great athletes – Lopatkina appears to be in complete control of time, with a subtle eloquence of facial expressiveness that leaves her audience in no doubt of the emotion she feels.

On the following evening, Viktoria Tereshkina climbed the same mountain with an almost equal aplomb. She particularly excels in the black act; her high cheekbones, strong jawline and flaring nostrils breathing fire into the sorcerer’s daughter, Odile, as she playfully, deceives the hapless Prince into betraying his beloved Odette (what a chump!), but even Tereshkina’s splendour is left in the wake of Lopatkina’s triumph as the swan princess. This is no contest, however, and I count myself to be beyond fortunate in having seen such back-to-back brilliance.

There is really very little to say about the rest. The performances of Lopatkina and Tereshkina were enhanced by the attentively solid partnering of their respective Princes, Daniil Korsuntsev and Evgeny Ivanchenko. The pas de trois was danced delightfully by Yana Selina, Valeria Martinyuk and Maxim Zuzin (replaced by Filipp Stepin on the following night) and the four cygnets (Chmil, Cheprasova, Martinyuk and Yushkovskaya) were in charming harmony on both evenings. It was lovely to catch sight of the delightful Irina Golub again as one of the leading swans, but I feel that she should be concentrating exclusively on the principal roles, now. It doesn’t seem fair to me for a wonderful dancer to be performing Juliet, one night, and then a big swan the next, especially when there are so many others in that wonderful corps de ballet who would relish the opportunity.

The Sergeyev Swan Lake is now nearly 60 years old but, unlike the soviet Romeo & Juliet with which the Mariinsky opened this brief London season, it won’t be the heavy hand of history that should save it from oblivion. As long as it remains a platform for ballet as powerful as these performances have been, long may it last, Jester and all!

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