Review: Royal Ballet in Swan Lake at Royal Opera House

Performance: in rep until 8 April 2011
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 24 January 2011

Royal Ballet 'Swan Lake' 
Photo: Dee Conway

Reviewed: 22 January 2011

The opening of The Royal Ballet’s new season of Swan Lake, coming just a day after the countrywide cinema release of Darren Aronofsky’s film Black Swan, was a marketer’s dream, although one more likely to have been born of simple coincidence.

Nevertheless, with so much talk about Black Swan and its sordid tale of make-believe ballet, how refreshing to have a White Swan renew our faith in the way real ballet can make believe.

The American ballerina Sarah Lamb – now in her seventh season at the Royal Ballet – personifies the brittle, enchanted – and enchanting – qualities of innocence and vulnerability that define Odette, the swan queen, and her performance in the white acts has been polished into the smoothest of glacial pearls. The complete conviction that Lamb brings to those crucial moments of swan changing to maiden (and vice versa) is as entrancing as the spell cast upon Odette by the wicked sorcerer, Von Rothbart. Lamb’s delicate flexibility, exquisite port de bras, gorgeous line and shimmering legs are sublime elements of a profound skill that exists only in those fleeting moments of performance and we were privileged indeed to witness such artistry at the height of its beauty.

Like Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman’s character in Black Swan), Lamb is a more natural Odette, with physical and performance qualities that lend themselves less obviously towards the virile seductress, Odile, in the deceitful black act. But, in this performance, she succeeds in redressing that balance with a more sinister and coquettish characterisation of the Black Swan than I’ve seen from her before; beginning with a triumphal, flashing of all-conquering eyes on her magical arrival at the State Ball, which signalled in an instant her transformation from serene swan queen to the duplicitous evil of von Rothbart’s daughter. Lamb’s dancing in the adagio pas de deux of the white act is beyond exemplary but, just to prove that nothing can ever be perfect in ballet, she still has room for more precision in the variation and coda of the Black Swan pas de deux.

As Siegfried, Federico Bonelli casts a very princely aura and he is an attentive and solid partner, especially in the adagio duet but he must have been disappointed by three uncharacteristic wobbles in his own third act variation. I was also left dissatisfied with a low-key pas de trois in Act I where the three dancers seemed to lack drive or elevation, even though their line was often elegant. I enjoyed the stern maternal concern of Genesia Rosato as the Princess (Siegfried’s Mother) and the commanding presence of Christopher Saunders as the sorcerer, particularly in his control of the Ballroom scene, although the one blot on Yolanda Sonnabend’s landscape of luscious designs lies in Von Rothbart’s bizarre costumes, which are reminiscent of the OTT stage clothes of the most outrageous ’70s glam-rock icons (Saunders persona as Von Rothbart at the ball seemed like Alvin Stardust wearing Gary Glitter’s gear!). This aside, Sonnabend’s palette of gorgeous golden ochre for Act I and the purple hues of Act III remain a significant highlight of Anthony Dowell’s production, which still seems remarkably fresh after 25 years.

The most acid of several bad tastes left by Aronofsky’s film is in its clichéd depiction of an ensemble of ballerinas riven by bitchiness and the divisiveness of ambition; an easy target for just about every ballet film. The best of all ballet lies in a well-schooled corps de ballet, moving as one, and never is this more significant than in the flock of swan maidens that lights up the second and final acts of Swan Lake. The Royal Ballet’s swans – led by Francesca Filpi and Tara-Brigitte Bhavnani – were magnificent in their absolute command of this unity.

Hundreds of thousands of people will flock to watch Black Swan and I hope that there will be many amongst these cinema audiences that might wonder what the magic of ballet is like. If they do, then a trip to see The Royal Ballet in full flight in this splendid production of the real Swan Lake should do the trick.

Swan Lake is in the Royal Ballet’s repertory programme until 8 April 2011 **“”:

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