Swan Lake from the Bolshoi: Beautiful but bloodless
Jiten S Merchant
Company: The Bolshoi Ballet, Venue: Godrej Dance Academy Theatre, NCPA, Screening courtesy: Pathé Live in collaboration with the NCPA
There are certain works of art that become synonymous with the genre they belong to. And surely, when one thinks of ballet, SWAN LAKE springs to mind.
Though created in the late 19th century, it has an evergreen, endlessly renewable quality that allows it to be interpreted afresh, keeping abreast with evolution in artistic sensibilities. Part of its appeal lies in its fairy-tale story...deceptively simple but loaded with deep shades of meaning and symbolism.
In this, Price Siegfried on his 21st birthday must choose a bride. On a hunting expedition in the forest, he comes across a lake and a group of swans who turn into beautiful women, headed by their 'swan queen' Odette, with whom he promptly falls in love. She and her maidens are under an evil spell of the magician Von Rothbart -- a spell which can only be broken through true love. The prince promises to make her his own, if she will come to the palace the next day for a big celebration where he will announce his choice of bride.
The magician, who has been on the scene disguised as an owl, makes an appearance at the party with his daughter Odile, the 'black swan'. She is made to look exactly like Odette; and captivates the Prince who swears his love to her. At that time, Odette, the 'white swan' is seen fluttering at the window; and the Prince, realising his error, rushes to the lake...into which she jumps, killing herself. After a battle with Rothbart, the Prince follows her, the spell is broken and the swans become human; the Prince and Odette are seen united in the hereafter.
All this is set to music of great passion and lyricism, by the Russian composer Tchaikovsky. Indeed the ballet's plaintive signature melody, the 'swan' theme associated with Odette and her tragic love, is familiar the world over in theatres, concert halls, car-horns and ring-tones.
Probably the most famous modern interpretation of the ballet is in the film ''Black Swan'' which presents the Odette/Odile dichotomy as both alter-ego and doppelgänger. There is even a hugely successful gay version by Matthew Bourne. More conventional alterations made to the story include Rudolf Nureyev's Vienna production which ended the ballet in stark tragedy, with the lovers drowning in the flooded lake; while the Soviet authorities decided to give it a happy ending, with Odette saving the Prince from Rothbart and the couple living happily ever after.
The choreographer Yuri Grigorovich was the architect of a legendary production at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre in 1969, which used such an ending. But the performances being screened at the NCPA, also from the Bolshoi and choreographed by Grigorovich (and others) are of a different scenario in which the entire swan saga is presented as a dream, or a figment of Prince Siegfried's imagination. This robs the plot of impact and comes across as a half-baked cerebral exercise, inconsistent and somewhat pretentious.
Moreover, the music has been chopped and changed, most damagingly at the conclusion. The ballet's climax is originally set to some of the most gloriously thrilling music ever written, ending with the 'swan' theme resounding in a triumphant peroration of brass, percussion and full orchestra. Here, the music reverts to the Prelude and ends with a muted reiteration of the theme, ending in a whisper, leaving the Prince alone onstage and the audience bewildered as to what just happened.
This production is staged in four scenes and divided into two halves. The sets for the palace are elegantly devised, with diaphanous hangings against a cyclorama of streaked sky. By contrast, the lake is drab, bare and monochromatic in a dull blue-gray, a far cry from the atmospheric settings one has seen.
The dancing in this production is exquisite...and bloodless. Maria Alexandrova dances Odette with a pure classicism that is utterly beautiful to behold; but where is the characterisation, the swan queen's vulnerability, her fluttery nervousness and fear giving way to love? Alexandrova's Odile has some sparkle but little sense of dangerous sexuality (made unforgettable by the great dancer Maya Plisetskaya) and is ultimately not enough of a contrast. And she almost misses one of her 32 fouettés (turns) near the climax of her 'black swan' scene with the Prince.
Among the other principals, Ruslan Skvortsov's athleticism and long leaps as Prince Siegfried are impressive; but Nikolay Tsiskaridze is an unmemorable cipher as Rothbart. However, the young dancer Vyacheslav Lopatin makes an agile, perky Jester. The corps de ballet dances with charm and precision, the four Cygnets are a perfectly co-ordinated delight; but the Spanish and Hungarian Dances lack fire and pizzazz.
The presentation at NCPA's Godrej Theatre (on Sunday 14 April 2013) no longer had the severe audio anomalies experienced at the earlier Met Opera screenings reviewed here The Met: Live in HD. In fact, the quality of sound was sweet and clear; but it lacked power, being played-back at an inordinately soft level. The audience was heard complaining bitterly during the interval, after which there was some improvement...but not enough. This reviewer was told the recording was to blame; and indeed there may be some truth in that, since some of the climaxes sounded distinctly compressed. However, the overall volume should have been much louder, to allow Tchaikovsky's magnificent score to shine through.
This has been a recurring problem with some of the recent Met Opera performances as well, which makes one wonder why the NCPA doesn't take the trouble to do a level-check before each screening.
Next screening on April 22, 2013 at the Godrej Dance Theatre, NCPA at 6.30 pm.
Jiten S Merchant was the English drama critic for the Times of India (Mumbai) from 1989 to 1997, after which he free-lanced for the paper and on the Internet. He has worked in amateur and professional theatre as actor and sound-designer, and has directed and performed in staged play-readings. Currently, he is an accredited reviewer for Seen and Heard International, one of the oldest and most widely-read online purveyors of music-criticism, for whom he covers concerts of Western Classical music and Opera in Mumbai. His recent pieces are available on his blog: merchant-at-large.blogspot.in