Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY; 28(m) June 2014
Sometimes I see a ballet performance that is so vividly splendid I know I will carry it in my mind’s eye for weeks to come. Such is the case with the June 28th matinee of American Ballet Theatre’s ‘Swan Lake’. I have seen ‘Swan Lake’ more than 40 times, but I can count on one hand the times this ballet has left me feeling so high. After ‘The Nutcracker’, ‘Swan Lake’ is probably the best known ballet in the world. It contains both Tchaikovsky’s unforgettable score and the ultimate challenge for the ballerina – the dual role of Odette/Odile.
‘Swan Lake’ is the story of Odette, who is turned into a swan by the evil sorcerer, von Rothbart. Odette can only become human again if a young man who has never loved before pledges his undying love to her. Prince Siegfried meets Odette while hunting and falls in love with her. The Prince tells the Swan Queen he will love her forever. At Siegfried’s 21st birthday ball, however, von Rothbart’s daughter Odile arrives. Von Rothbart has used his magic to make Odile look exactly like Odette. Odile seduces the Prince into declaring his eternal love for her. Knowing she now has no chance of ever being human again, Odette throws herself into Swan Lake. Siegfried jumps in after her and the lovers are reunited in the afterworld. Von Rothbart dies and the rest of the swans are turned back into young maidens.
ABT’s current production of ‘Swan Lake’ is staged by Kevin McKenzie after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. This version has a few flaws. There are two von Rothbarts – one good-looking, the other monstrously ugly. The work includes a prologue showing the two von Rothbarts turning Odette into a swan. Seeing Odette as a young girl at the ballet’s start takes away much of the magic of her entrance in Act II. The sight of the hideous von Rothbart squeezing a stuffed toy swan (after Odette has been turned into a swan) is embarrassingly ridiculous. Perhaps the most serious weakness is that so much of Act IV has been deleted. Without a complete final act, much of Siegfried’s devastation over his betrayal of Odette and her subsequent grief are lost. Due to some extraordinary performances on Saturday afternoon, ABT’s ‘Swan Lake’ is still magical.
Polina Semionova is magnificent in the dual role of Odette/Odile. Usually a ballerina favors one role over the other. Semionova is one of the few Odette/Odiles I have ever seen who is equally stunning in both parts. As the Swan Queen, Semionova has gloriously rippling swan arms which appear to be almost boneless. Her wonderfully supple upper body shows clearly the misery Odette feels when Siegfried declares his love for Odile at the ball. Semionova’s every movement is plush and luxuriant. Her petite batterie at the end of Act II, where her legs crisscross in the air, are amazing. As Odile, Semionova is gleefully seductive. Her phenomenal balances seem to go on forever. During the coda she starts by whipping off double and triple fouettes, then ends with a series of very fast single fouettes.
As Prince Siegfried Cory Stearns shows off his marvelous line and very secure partnering skills. During the black swan pas de deux he impresses with high leaps and very fast turns a la seconde. Cory Stearns’ puppy dog eagerness is perfect for his portrayal of a very young Prince Siegfried. The look on his face at the end of the black swan pas de deux is priceless. All Siegfried seems to want to do is grab Odile and have his “way” with her. Stearns’ desolation, however, when he learns that he has been tricked by Odile and her father, is heartbreaking.
As good as Semionova and Stearns are separately, together they are truly breathtaking. Their chemistry is passionate in Act II, combustible in Act III (Fireworks occur during the black swan pas de deux.) and poignantly grief-stricken in Act IV.
I usually find the handsome von Rothbart’s solo in Act I II to be a waste of time. Most of the time I’m thinking to myself “Please let this be over so the black swan pas de deux can begin.” On Saturday afternoon, however, Jared Matthews is so perfect as the von Rothbart in purple that I am totally engrossed by his variation. Matthews is deliciously evil and it’s quite clear that he is having the time of his life as the wicked wizard. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone better in this part except for Marcelo Gomes.
In the pas de trois Blaine Hoven stands out for the elevation of his jumps and his ballon. Melanie Hamrick’s dancing is full of joy and Stella Abrera shines with musicality and vibrant movements. The all important female corps members in Acts II and IV dance in splendid harmony with the music and each other. Christine Shevchenko and Katherine Williams’ big swans show off their lovely lyrical phrasing. Tchaikovsky’s glorious score is played beautifully by the orchestra. In spite of the production’s flaws it is a glorious afternoon at the ballet. June 28th matinee performance of ‘Swan Lake’ is one I will carry with me for a long time.