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Wedding Bells on 'Swan Lake'

As previewed, the visit of the Mariinsky Ballet to the Kennedy Center Opera House, with a production of Swan Lake, seen on Tuesday night, is one of the highlights of the month. The Mariinsky production, like most productions everywhere, goes back to the St. Petersburg theater’s first staging of Swan Lake, choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in 1895. The troupe now dances, however, an updating of the story created by Konstantin Sergeyev in 1950, which on one hand seems traditional because it remains close to Petipa in much of the choreography and the sets and costumes. On the other hand, it represents a fundamental shifting of the narrative weight, raising the profile of the villain, von Rothbart, by associating his evil power with the most famous theme in the ballet. Even more unsettling, it alters the tragic conclusion of the ballet, with Prince Siegfried battling von Rothbart, striking off one of his wings, which breaks the spell over the swan-maidens, setting them all free. Odette and Siegfried are reunited in love.

This was music to the ears of Miss Ionarts, who had been dreading two things about seeing her first Swan Lake: how scary would von Rothbart be, and how sad it would be to watch the lovers die or kill themselves. Miss Ionarts prefers a happy ending to a tragic one, but it has to be said that, from an adult point of view, this ending robs Swan Lake of a good portion of its dramatic power. This production, beautiful staged and beautifully danced, is still worth seeing and makes an excellent first Swan Lake for a younger viewer, but for those longing for the cathartic power of the story, matched so perfectly to its gorgeous score, it may be a letdown.

The first act thus becomes the dramatic crux of the work in many ways, from the gloomy introduction, by which the tragic tone of the work is announced, to the fateful encounter of the prince and the swan-maiden on the shore of the cursed lake. Andrei Yermakov’s von Rothbart, especially in his black swan costume with silver mask in the first and last acts, was all slashing winged arms and raptor-like menace. As Odette, principal dancer Alina Somova showed plenty of the gymnast’s flexibility that has so divided critics, with one particular en pointe extension that drew audible gasps from many in the audience. That quality in her dancing was an easy way to make the role of Odile, which she also portrayed, more seductive and physical than Odette. There were some extraordinary extensions of her long legs in lifts at the opening of Act II and a series of dizzying pirouettes, but it could have been exploited more for characterization.

While her Siegfried, principal dancer Vladimir Shklyarov, did not always achieve great height in leaps or full vertical position in spins, he was an affecting match with Somova in the pas de deux at the end of Act I, making that moment the climax of this version of the ballet, with Somova soaring effortlessly in the many lifts, a fragile butterfly captured by the prince, matched to the warm violin solo of Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra concertmaster Oleg Rylatko. The corps was at its best in the swan scenes, a perfectly unified flock of graceful white birds, with pleasing contributions as the revelers in the first act and in the divertissement of national dances in the court scenes of Act II.

Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, Mariinsky Ballet’s ‘Swan Lake’ is magical (Washington Post, January 30)

Franziska Bork Petersen, Mariinsky brings the magic (Copenhagen Post, January 26)

Alistair Macaulay, Live From St. Petersburg (With Popcorn) (New York Times, June 12, 2013)

Ann Murphy, Mariinsky Ballet's 'Swan Lake' brings the beauty but not the tragic heart to the stage in Berkeley (San Jose Mercury-News, October 11, 2012)
Among the supporting cast, Sergeyev’s addition of a dynamic role for a jester in the court scenes was a fine vehicle for the kooky moves and antic leaps of Vladislav Shumakov, who made a distinguished appearance from the corps. (The character’s joking attempts to get himself kissed by the prince’s tutor, instead of the girls the tutor is aiming for, take on a whole new layer of meaning given the current controversy over anti-gay legislation in Russia.) The only shortcoming was one of the women among the prince’s friends at the Act I party, who have a series of dances to entertain the prince, where there was a minor stumble and what generally looked like an off night.

Mariinsky conductor Alexey Repnikov led a generally polished performance from the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, in spite of the many stretches to the tempo that make a live orchestra so essential to ballet. The oboe solos in the principal tragic theme, which go very high, were skillfully if not effortlessly negotiated, and the trumpet solos, especially in the Neapolitan dance, were fine. The brass, in fact, was the most solid section in the orchestra, and there are many of them (cornets, trumpets, horns, trombones, and tuba), making for some ominous clouds of sound.

This production from the Mariinsky Ballet continues through Sunday afternoon, in the Kennedy Center Opera House, but except for this evening, all performances are already sold out.

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