This is the most iconic of Russian ballets with one of the most iconic ballerinas of the 20th century. Iconic is an overused word, but here it is utterly apposite. The great Maya Plisetskaya is in her prime in this rare recording from the Palace of Congresses and which marks the centenary of the first production in 1876.
Tchaikovsky would not recognise the production that we largely take for granted, for so much has been added since his death. Ironically, we may not even have the production had he not died so tragically as it was revived and re-worked for the tribute performance, being a work that was then not over familiar to audiences.
There are differences in the Soviet productions too, with the wonderful virtuoso character of the jester being omitted from non-Russian productions and this version also having, less successfully, the happy ending. Usually the happy ending grates but here is sort of works, largely because the role of Rothbart (the Evil Genius) is rather underplayed; he is more of Svengali than an overgrown owl.
We have a treat too in Alexander Bogatyrev, a sympathetic Siegfried with none of the troubled relationship with his mother that is often seen. His batterie is breathtaking and gives the impression of effortlessness and power.
Oddly, he is given a sword for his birthday so is not going to hunt when he encounters the flock of swans. He seems more a confused teenager needing a bit of space. This is quite different from Grigorovich’s later production, where Siegfried is more like Hamlet and the swans take a back seat to the story of his angst.
This is a very beautiful production with muted colours. The princesses have taken on the monochrome hues of the Russian winter. Dressed in silver and white, their national dances are superbly executed with subtlety rather than brashness.
The white acts are second to none. The corps are picture-perfect, not a hand or a foot out of line, not a hop or a wobble visible. The synchronisation and musicality is breathtaking, a fitting support for Plisetskaya who pleads as the delicate Odette and flames as Odile. This is a copy book version of the alter ego, the Jekyll and Hyde of the ballet. The tiny details of bird-like movements as the swan queen are completely convincing as she gradually loses her fear and approaches Siegfried. There is a minimum of mime, but the story is nonetheless conveyed with some truly dramatic characterisation. Plisetskaya’s flawless technique makes every enchainment seamless, although fans of the 32 fouttées will be disappointed as they are substituted for pose turns in this production.
Plisetskaya was feted for her own story ballets – Carmen and Anna Karenina, but how wonderful to see her in the ballet that she must have danced more times than any other, a rare case of a true ballerina assoluta (ballerina – what an overused and misused word), the classical technique embodied in every sinew and thought.
It is hard to realise that this performance was recorded nearly four decades ago and how fortunate for us that it was.
If this was the only Swan Lake in a collection, it would be justified.
The Russian Ballet Collection (Swan Lake and four other classics) are available via www.russianballetcollection.com or by calling (UK) 0344 543 9801.