Pyotr Tchaikovsky "Swan Lake" fantasy ballet in three acts (four scenes)
Premiere of this production: 08 Mar 1950
The performance has 2 intermissions
Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes
Swan Lake, the treasure of the Russian Classical Ballet ballet, form the basis of the classical ballet repertoire of the Mariinsky Theater: more than a hundred years ago, it was choreographed by Marius Petipa and is considered to be a hallmark of the Mariinsky Ballet - the Main Ballet Stage of the Russian Empire. This classical masterpiece was performed almost uncountable number of times at the Mariinsky Theatre and in the course of numerous tours.
It is difficult to understand these days how it could have happened that the first show of the “Lake” in 1877, in Moscow’s Bolshoi, was a flop, and that it took many years for the ballet to achieve its worldwide cult status. The composer, Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, never lived to see the ultimate success of his creation.
The story begins in 1875, when Bolshoi commissions a ballet score from the young but already famous composer. It was not yet customary practice –despite Tchaikovsky fame and previous successes, which included four symphonies, the now famous Piano Concerto and “Eugene Onegin” opera, the Imperial Theatres of the time would normally employ the composers on Imperial payroll, such as Cesare Pugni, Ludwig Minkus, and Riccardo Drigo. Keeping that in mind, Tchaikovsky did not embark on the course of a revolution in the Russian ballet, and studied the classic ballet scores assiduously, planning to produce a score that would be in tune with the established tradition but at the same time would sound new and interesting. The task of composition occupied him from May 1875 to April 1876. The story was a knightly fairy tale, and historians still debate the literary origins –some opt for Heine, some for Musaeus, a German fairy-tale writer, some for Russian folklore fairy tales, some even for Pushkin.
The first show took place on February 20, 1877, and was a flop. The critics reviled the chief choreographer, Wentsel Reisinger, and were short on praise for Polina (Pelageya) Karpakova, the first interpreter of the main female part. The failure of the first show was detrimental for the immediate reputation of the ballet itself, and for quite some time nobody dared to stage it again.
The situation changed after Tchaikovsky’s death. In 1893, Mariinka decided to revive the “Swan Lake”. A new version of the libretto and the music was to be produced by Modest Tchaikovsky, the composer’s brother, Ivan Vsevolzhsky, the director of the Imperial Theatres himself, and by Riccardo Drigo. The latter used the original music as a source material for a completely new score. The choreography was supervised by Marius Petipa and his pupil Lev Ivanov. The tradition claims that while Petipa was the father of the unique choreography of the new ballet, its truly Russian singing character is there thanks to Ivanov. The lake and swan scenes, famous for their perfection, are undoubtedly his alone. It was Ivanov who came up with the idea of enchanted ladies with their criss-crossed arms and heads tilted to one side, which every spectator immediately recognized for birds that sit with their wings folded. The very magical world of the swan lake was created by Ivanov. Petipa’s are the scenes of courtly dances and festivities and their intricate lace of waltzes and various dances – Spanish, Hungarian, Polish. Petipa also created an antipode for Ivanov’s White Queen of Swans –its black twin Odile, and its beautiful black pas-de-deux of the second act.
It was this particular stage version that came to be admired as the pinnacle of Russian ballet. This production, as none other, was the perfect setting for many famous dancers to showcase their art. The Swan Lake is a unique and perfect creation, and despite the changing musical and dancing fashions, the performance of Odette and Odile parts is still considered a touchstone for the mettle of any serious dancer. The White Swan is truly a symbol of Russian Ballet, of its beauty and magnificence.
© Text 2010 Art and Culture Magazine "St Peterburg"
Scene 1: The Park of a Castle
Prince Siegfried and his friends are celebrating his coming of age at a private party. The guests drink to his health and the jester entertains them with his antics. The Prince is warned that his mother, the Princess Regent, is approaching.
She is displeased with her son’s behaviour and she presents him with a crossbow. After the Princess has gone, the partying begins anew.
Twilight falls. The guests depart and the Prince is left alone in the park. High above, Siegfried catches sight of a flock of white swans and the vision stirs the hunter’s urge in him.
Seizing his bow, the Prince makes his way off into the heart of the forest.
Scene 2: A Lake in the Forest in the Middle of the Night
White swans are swimming near the shore; they are beautiful young maidens who have been transformed by the evil magician von Rothbart. Only at night can they assume human form and the only power on earth which can break this evil spell is devoted love.
Siegfried appears. He sees one of the white birds come to shore and draws his bow to shoot it. The bird suddenly turns into a beautiful woman – it is Odette, Queen of the swan-maidens. Odette’s beauty enthrals the Prince and he tries to capture her. She, however, is afraid of the evil magician and, as she avoids Siegfried, she disappears in the midst of the swan-maidens. Siegfried runs after Odette and vows eternal love and fidelity to her.
Odette’s heart responds in the same way to Siegfried’s passionate love.
Dawn breaks. Odette bids Siegfried a tender farewell and the white swans glide slowly away across the lake.
Scene 3: A Ball at the Castle
Siegfried must choose a bride from among the well-bred maidens who have been invited, but he remains indifferent to them all because he has given his heart to Odette. Only at his mother’s insistence does he dance with any of the prospective brides.
He must, however, choose one of them, and as a token of his love he must give his chosen bride a bouquet. As he faces this dilemma, however, a fanfare of trumpets heralds the arrival of new guests – the magician von Rothbart and Odile, his daughter. The Prince is struck by her resemblance to Odette.
Von Rothbart wants the Prince to fall in love with Odile so that he will break his vow of eternal love and fidelity; Odette will then remain in the sorcerer’s power forever. It is for this reason that he has given his own daughter Odette’s form and features. Odile seduces Siegfried, who is fascinated by her charm. He announces to his mother that the beautiful Odile is his choice. The wicked magician is jubilant.
Suddenly Siegfried sees a vision of the true swan-maiden outside the castle window and realises that he has been deceived into breaking his vow. In despair, he rushes to the lake to find his beloved Odette.
Scene 4: The Lakeside, at Night
The swan-maidens stand dejected and sad. Odette has told them what has happened.
Siegfried rushes in. He begs Odette to forgive him and he professes his undying love for her, but the enraged sorcerer summons the black swans and commands them to separate Odette and Siegfried. Siegfried grapples with the sorcerer. Fearless in the encounter, he breaks von Rothbart’s wing. The sorcerer collapses, his power gone, and he dies.
Love has broken the evil spell. The sun rises and shines radiantly on the Prince and Odette, and on the maidens whom Siegfried has rescued.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky "Swan Lake" fantasy ballet in three acts (four scenes)
on the playbill