Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 1
Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake ranges from the ordinary to the sublime, but with Amber Scott giving a divine performance as Odette/Odile, sensitively partnered by Adam Bull as Prince Siegfried, this Australian Ballet revival is ultimately a very satisfying experience.
Baynes was commissioned to create a new Swan Lake for the company’s 50th anniversary in 2012. Artistic director David McAllister wanted a traditional production to stand alongside Graeme Murphy’s stunning modern version, created in 2002 for the company’s 40th anniversary, which drew so cleverly on the love triangle between Prince Charles, Princess Diana and Camilla Parker Bowles.
Baynes has retained most of the Act II choreography for the swans from the 1895 Kirov version – and why wouldn’t you; it’s gorgeous and much-loved – as well as the Black Swan pas de deux in Act III. The rest is his.
He has topped and tailed the ballet with an image of Baron von Rothbart on a funeral boat. In the prelude, a melancholy Prince Siegfried, struggling with the responsibilities of his role as his coming-of-age party approaches, recalls his grief as a young boy at his father’s funeral. A boat glides across the back of the stage carrying his father’s body. Baron von Rothbart appears from behind it and fixes his gaze on the Prince.
At the end of the ballet, Rothbart fishes Prince Siegfried’s body from the lake and lifts it onto the boat. The suggestion that Rothbart holds some kind of sway over the royal family, and the Prince in particular, isn’t developed any further though. Baynes does have Rothbart lounge casually in one of the royal thrones during the Act III divertissements but that comes across as pretty unlikely. And it feels strange that we don’t see Rothbart controlling the swans.
The production gets off to a slow start with a rather ordinary Act I. The court is busy preparing for Prince Siegfried’s birthday. Ambassadors present foreign princesses to him in the hope that he will choose one of them to be his wife, while The Duchess and The Countess vie for the Prince’s attention. However, Siegfried can summon little enthusiasm for anything around him and as the act ends, he is drawn to the solitude of the lake. Thus he meets Odette as a result of his melancholy, rather than being in the forest hunting with friends, which is an interesting psychological reading.
Without a great deal of story-telling or dynamic choreography to enliven it, Act I feels rather long and uninspiring. The ballet takes off in Act II with the swans. The corps de ballet were in great form on opening night (less so, at the matinee the following day) and the beautiful, familiar choreography with the dancers in their white and silvery tutus, moving together in perfect synchronicity to create beautiful formations of swans, is as spellbinding as ever.
Most thrilling, however, is Baynes’ own choreography for the swans in Act IV. The way he has them flurry and swirl around the stage, moving apart and then flocking back together as the Prince tries to find Odette among them is absolutely beautiful. Their use of fluttering hands, arms and feet captures the sense of women trapped in swan’s bodies, and Odette’s grief at Siegfried’s betrayal, which has her body just about giving out beneath her, is heart-rending.
It’s a shame that the ending is a bit of an anti-climax with the Prince just running off stage, before being fished out of the water by Rothbart, while Odette is represented by the image of a flying on screen. The fact that she has been freed from Rothbart’s power by the Prince’s sacrifice doesn’t really come across and we feel robbed of that final cathartic, emotional moment.
Designer Hugh Colman has chosen the Edwardian era for the court scenes, with a lovely use of colour in Act III – greens, aquamarines, pinks and purples for the ladies and some vibrant designs for the Spanish dancers and Cossacks, which give the ballet a boost of exuberant energy. The lake meanwhile glitters darkly, moodily lit by Rachel Burke.
On opening night, Amber Scott was everything you want in an Odette/Odile. Her Odette was exquisitely fragile and ethereal. She danced as if there was a little less gravity in the air around her and conveyed emotion with every fibre of her being. The gracefulness of her arms, the undulating flexibility in her back and neck, the delicate, nervous flutter of her feet was utterly captivating.
Her Odile had a similar beauty but bolder strength and the calculated expression on her face conveyed the knowing way she used her charm to trick the Prince. As for her 32 fouettes, she nailed them with a precision that had the audience cheering.
Adam Bull was a sensitive Prince Siegfried, partnering her beautifully, his towering height compared to hers working to emphasise how much he wanted to protect her. With his long limbs, the small stage doesn’t give him the space to really let fly with his Act III set pieces but he still generated excitement and his performance convinced dramatically.
Benedicte Bemet as the pushy Duchess and Miwako Kubota as The Countess both danced beautifully and created strong characters, as did Rudy Hawkes as the Prince’s friend Benno. Veteran dancers, Gillian Revie as the Queen, Olga Tamara as Siegfried’s nurse and Stephen Heathcote as The Lord Chancellor each created a strong dramatic presence.
Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous score is, of course, a perennial pleasure and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra performed it superbly under guest conductor Andrew Mogrelia.
I was lucky enough to see Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo make their debuts as Prince Siegfried and Odette/Odile at the matinee the next day. While not yet as heart-breakingly fragile as the experienced Scott, Kondo danced beautifully, capturing Odette’s feeling of entrapment and sorrow, while her Odile exuded confidence without being wildly different to her Odette. Guo conveyed the Prince’s melancholy convincingly and his set pieces in Act III had the dazzling energy and élan that makes him such an exciting dancer. Their emotional connection to the roles will naturally develop, but it was an impressive debut by both.
Swan Lake plays at the Sydney Opera House until April 20. Bookings http://www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777