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Mariinsky Ballet, DVD 2007

Odette/Odile: Uliana Lopatkina
Prince Sigfried: Danila Korsuntsev
Jester: Andrei Ivanov
Rothbart: Ilya Kuznetsov

Paris Opera Ballet, DVD 2008

Odette/Odile: Agnés Letestu
Prince Sigfried: José Martinez
Tutor/Rothbart: Karl Paquette

Agnés Letestu as Odette.

I’d originally planned to have my first viewing of Swan Lake be a live one, since the Royal Danish Ballet is staging it this winter, the final performance being on the 19th of December. However, due to health issues, I had to cancel the trip to Copenhagen for now and instead settle with a couple of DVDs from the library. Of course I would have loved to watch this ballet of ballets on stage, but I must say that the filmed performances I got my hands on were quite satisfactory, on very different levels.

The two performances I found at the library were representatives of the two big schools of ballet in the world, the French and the Russian. Not only did the two companies interpret the tale very differently, but the very story was shown in two of its many diverse editions. The synopsis is to be found on Wikipedia, where the ending of the Russian staging is given in more detail, whereas the French one isn’t represented. In opposition to the happy ending given to the two lovers in the Russian, the French ties the story together by having the first scene and the last scene be identical. In the first scene, Prince Sigfried sees an owl carrying a swan with it into the heavens, and it proves to be a premonition of what happens after he breaks his vow to Odette by pledging his true love to Odile; Odette consequently confined to eternal swanhood. As such, she is forced by Rothbart to leave Sigfried behind by the lake’s shore as she and Rothbart ascend in their bird shapes.

Not only were the endings different, but the two performances of Swan Lake were as dissimilar as could possibly be. The Russian was explosive in its colourfulness and the use of countless props. The French, in comparison, is almost minimalistic in its staging, the only props being a throne and a crossbow. Rothbart also played a much larger role in the French version, danced as a double role by Karl Paquette (the tutor in act 1, Rothbart in the following acts). The acts taking place at the castle were warmer, close to carnevalesque in quality, in the Russian version, with a very prominent Jester as danced by Andrei Ivanov and a wonderful, motherly Queen played by Alexandra Gronskaya. In this manner, the two performances seemed to accentuate the aspects that were weaker in the opposite version, and if mixed together, they would have formed one perfect “Swan Lake”. Each on their own, they had their strong points. In my opinion, the French had the stronger main character portrayals, with Agnés Letestu as Odette/Odile, José Martinez as Prince Sigfried and, as mentioned above, Karl Paquette as Rothbart. The Russian, on the other hand, had an amazingly strong ensemble, led by the figure of the Jester and at its full strength in the party scenes, both in the first and the third act where the various solists really came across at their best.

To present the casts in the order I watched the shows, I will begin with the Russian version. The Mariinsky Ballet (formerly known as Kirov) is as traditionalistic as one would expect of a Russian company staging Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake – a ballet russe if anything ever were. As Odette/Odile is Uliana Lopatkina, idolized in and outside of Russia, and perhaps perceived as the Odette of our time. At least by some. I didn’t much care for her as Odette, I must admit – finding myself slightly bored in the second act. It is not that she isn’t an accomplished dancer, technically she might even be better than Letestu, but she portrayed a very cold Odette. Someone wrote in a review I came across that her Odette seemed to be captured in a world of her own where no one could interact with her, not Prince Sigfried, not Rothbart and not the audience. I think this was a very precise description of what I experienced. Every move was perfection, but without passion – as if all Lopatkina’s emotions had been locked away in the faultlessness of her motions. Thus her interaction with Danila Korsuntsev was without any spark or real investment, something I will return to in my comment on his portrayal of Prince Sigfried.

Lopatkina did seem to come to life just a little when she played Odile in act 3. Not only was her costume gorgeous, but the role seemed to fit her better – the flawlessness albeit cool air of her movements befitting the daughter of Rothbart who is only attempting to mislead Sigfried and having no real personal interest in him. All in all, I just think that the third and fourth acts of the Russian version were the most successful parts of the entire ballet. The ensemble in act 3 was delightful and in Odile’s solo it actually felt as if Lopatkina was inspired by the ardent atmosphere and delivered a choreography that was much more present than anything she danced as Odette.

With such an aloof Odette, Danila Korsuntsev didn’t have much of a chance of shining as Sigfried. Although I found his portrayal of the prince a little too light-hearted at times; yes, almost boyish, especially when faced with Odette – as mature and ice queenish as one could imagine, I did like the obvious character growth that his prince went through. From the young man who didn’t care about anything but dancing and hunting in act 1 to the heroic king-like figure who would fight Rothbart and free the swan maidens in the final act. Perhaps because I preferred the “older” version of the prince, I actually felt very swayed by Korsuntsev’s performance in act 4. In the last fifteen minutes of the ballet, Lopatkina’s Odette finally woke up at bit and at the very end – for the first time throughout the performance – I watched with my heart in my throat. This was mostly due to Korsuntsev’s obvious happiness at being reunited with the human Odette, but Lopatkina did manage to almost mirror him and – also for the first time during the show – they formed a duet, instead of portraying two individuals who happen to meet one another.

In the supporting roles as Rothbart and the Jester were Ilya Kuznetsov and Andrei Ivanov respectively. Although Rothbart is the main villain in the performance, Kuznetsov’s presence was surprisingly understated and sometimes bordering on neutral. It might be due to the make-up which I found absolutely appalling, but overall he just didn’t perform much as a dancer and rather walked around the stage like the minor character of the Queen. I just didn’t find it to be very impressive. In contrast, Ivanov’s Jester was not only a technically marvellous dancer, but he linked every group on the stage together, running to and fro, making the eyes of the audience move from one part of the party to the other effortlessly. I would wish that Rothbart had been given this sort of attention, or – if nothing else – that Ivanov had played the villain instead. It would have bound the entire performance together much more strongly.

Where the Mariinsky “Swan Lake” distinguished itself was in its minor appearances. Alexandra Gronskaya as the Queen was no less than brilliant – not only was she stunningly beautiful in her costume, but her performance was heart-warming and full of emotion. In the first act she was the benevolent mother who bestowed a much wanted present onto her son and in act 3, she was a worried mother who did not understand why her son would not choose a princess to marry and therefore showed much concern towards him, even as she pushed him to make the dictated choice. In act 3, the four tango dancers were sublime, their costumes extravagant and their dancing full of the passion, heat and lust of southern dances like flamenco and tango.

And this is where the Russian owns the French. Because where the ensemble upheld the performance in the Mariinsky version, the ensemble was in need of being upheld by the leads in the French. Fortunately the three leads were all amazingly strong dancers and performers, but it did make the first and some of the third act a little stale to watch. I might have been spoiled by the splendour of the Russian costumes, but the very air of festivity and happiness seemed much more subdued in the French.

Luckily, there was nothing boring about Agnés Letestu’s Odette or Odile. Her Odette was everything I have ever associated with the role. Feminine, fragile and anguished – a princess caught in the form of a swan and devastated by the consequences and the endless search for true love to save her. Thus, her reaction when she first meets Prince Sigfried is absolutely stunning. She flees, afraid of either being let down or having him get hurt by Rothbart. As the prince slowly wins her confidence, she comes near him much as a wounded animal would; little by little, step by step, until he finally takes her hand and dances with her, promising her to free her of her curse. There are people who I’ve heard find Letestu’s Odette cold, but having seen Lopatkina’s, I think she’s anything but. She’s fearsome, frail and almost resigned to her fate as a daytime swan, thus making it quite a fight to develop any trust in Prince Sigfried. Letestu’s motions are fluttering and whimsical, while at the same time she’s warm in her femininity. Despite being a swan, she’s a woman transformed into a swan, not a swan-like woman. Even so, the wing-like movements of her arms are truly magnificent, especially at the exit of Odette at the end of act 2.

Her Odile required some getting used to. Once again, the costume was more subdued than in the Russian (sadly), but in return her Odile was more explosive. Half-way through the third act, it dawned on me that Letestu’s quick, sharp movements as Odile made me think of a raptor – perhaps an owl, which was fitting seeing how she is the daughter of a half-owl-half-man. Her Odile is a true femme fatale every time Sigfried is looking, enchanting and alluring, but when he’s not, she’s “merely” a wicked woman, detesting him and finding great joy in deceiving him. Overall, I preferred Letestu’s Odette to her Odile and in some instances found Lopatkina’s Odile more beautifully danced. However, Letestu’s Odile was danced with an obvious analysis and statement behind every movement and as such she was also more characteristic than Lopatkina’s interpretation.

To match Letestu, the Paris Opera Ballet have cast José Martinez in the role of Sigfried. In this role the greatest differences between the two versions become evident. Where Korsuntsev is happy-go-lucky and light-hearted, Martinez’ prince is melancholy and mellow – a man who dreams of something more than parties and good wine. This is underlined by his close relationship to his tutor, his admiration shown in a wonderful small duet where Martinez replicates the choreography that Paquette shows him. Because of this soft portrayal, Letestu’s Odette and Martinez’ Sigfried also click immediately upon meeting. Here is what the prince has been looking for all his life – in this fragile, anguished woman. And here is the answer to all Odette’s prayers, in this loving, thoughtful man. The second act is utter beauty, when these two humans meet and bond and come to love one another almost instantly. The chemistry isn’t electric, but it’s very eloquent. Like a whisper in a tunnel.

I do think, though, that Martinez’ biggest achievement was his breakdown at the end of act 3, realising his mistake and how he has betrayed Odette. He falls to his knees, hides his face in his hands, utterly broken mentally, physique quickly following as he falls down, soon buried in mist as act 4, the lake and its fog, appear on the stage around him. Something about the way Martinez is very bodily about this reaction, without overdoing it, without making it appear tacky, really did make me feel for this sorrowful figure almost as much as I feel for Odette who must see all her worst fears come true. They are both tragic figures in the French version, where in the Russian Odette holds the monopoly on tragedy.

Seeing that there was no Jester in the French version, both the tutor (here named Wolfgang) and Rothbart were given much more attention and stage time. I believe the intention behind the double casting was to make the audience doubt whether the story of the Swan Queen was actually true or merely a dream of Sigfried’s, with his tutor playing the evil magician in his imagination. Either way, I truly enjoyed Paquette’s dancing, both as Wolfgang and as Rothbart. His tutor was less a character of comic relief and more a reflection of the serene characterisation of Prince Sigfried which Martinez’ presented. As a character he didn’t really interest me and honestly, I would have liked to see Paquette play the Jester – his interpretation would have been interesting, I believe, especially within the setting of such a sinister version of the story.

To make up for the blandness of Wolfgang as a character (though beautifully danced, with subtext for any slash lover out there), his Rothbart was remarkable. A greedy, powerful magician with the owl-ness of his being underlined more by his intelligence than his wings. His dancing was forceful and enthralling, much like Odile’s, and the two also had parts danced together which were very interesting to watch. In connection to Rothbart, Letestu’s Odile made perfect sense and it was in those instances where her characterisation more than stood out but also fell into place with the rest of the show. The fourth act was an epic tragedy, with Odette and Rothbart coming together in the shape of birds, leaving Sigfried behind to mourn his flawed choice. In comparison to the Russian fourth act, it wasn’t an as emotionally high rollercoaster ride, but rather a slowly building calamity that finally breaks all ties that were formed throughout the story. First with Sigfried and Odette meeting again and then with the lovers torn apart at the entrance of Rothbart. In the choreography of the fight between Sigfried and Rothbart, the true masculinity and power of the danseur noble – both of them, but especially Paquette – becomes evident. It is an almost pointed contrast to the softness and femininity of Letestu’s Odette and only adds to the darkness of the entire piece. I had tears in my eyes when the first scene was re-enacted again at the end, but this time with the entire story to emphasize exactly how great a loss it is to the prince – Rothbart and Odette disappearing into the fog together, flying away in the shape of two birds. An owl and a swan.

Conclusively, I will say that I did enjoy both performances, though the French more so. Although the ensemble wasn’t as potent as the Russian corps de ballet, the choreography seemed to also reflect this, most of the attention on the three leads instead of fanned out over a bigger character chart. The Russian version shone especially in the third but also the fourth act, although the entire composition leading up to these two final acts is slow and not very engaging which might have made me turn off the DVD before time. What a shame that would have been!

With a point system of 6 pointe shoes max;

I give the Russian 3/6 as a reward for the Mariinsky corps de ballet’s hard work.

The French I give 5/6 for a largely strong interpretation of the story and a genuinely high quality interpretation of the three lead characters.



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