Libretto - Vladimir Begichev, Vasily Geltzer
Costume design: Galina Solovyova
World premiere: 20 February 1877, Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow (choreography by Julius Reisinger)
Premiere in St Petersburg: 15 January 1895, Mariinsky Theatre (choreography by Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa)
Premiere of Konstantin Sergeyev’s version: 8 March 1950, Kirov Theatre, Leningrad
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.
The terrace of castle is filled with joy and merriment - Prince Siegfried is celebrating his coming of age, his courtiers congratulate him while his mischievous jester entertains the assembles guests. The servants announce the arrival of his mother the queen, she presents her son with a crossbow for the hunt. The queen reminds her son that at tomorrow coming of age ball he will have to choose a bride. Night is fast approaching and the guests take leave, Siegfried is finally alone with his thoughts and premonitions of what the future may bring. In the twilight a flock of swans pass over and he rushes to the lake.
At the lake in the heart of the forest, the swans having stepped ashore turn into beautiful young girls Siegfried about to draw his crossbow stops fascinated by their beauty. Odette the swan princess is startled by Siegfrieds presence, he assures her no harm will come to her. Odette tells him of her terrible plight. Tells him of her high birth and how she has fallen under the spell of be a swan and only in the hours of darkness to assume her human form. She tells him she is bound for eternity by the spell unless an unblemished youth swears eternal fidelity and marries her. Siegfried realizes his destiny has changed. Day is breaking, the swans are again swimming on the lake, Odette bids a sad farewell, Siegfried is left desolate.
The coming of age ball commences at the castle. The young noblewoman whom the Queen has chosen as prospective brides are presented to Prince Siegfried, he shows no interest thinking only of Odette. The entertainment and merrymaking continue until a fanfare announces the arrival of more guests. Rothbart disguised as a knight sweeps in with his daughter Odille, Siegfried is dazzled by her beauty and her resemblance to Odette, swears his love and fidelity... Rothbart the sorcerer triumphs in his deception. Siegfried horrified at what he has done rushes from the ball and into the night.
At the lakeside Odette tells her fellow swans of Rothbarts devilish trickery. Siegfried fleeing from the ball arrives at the shore begging Odette’s forgiveness and telling of his undying love for her. Rothbart appears and he and his black swans battle with Siegfried and the forces of good until the light of the dawn breaks and the forces of evil are vanquished. The rising sun gives birth to new life, happiness and love.