Ballet, Swan Maidens, and Tragedy… Oh My!
For musicians in love with all things Russian, nothing represents Tchaikovsky greatness like his most famous ballet “Swan Lake”.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this “Russian” tale (it’s actually German but who cares) it tells the story of Princess Odette, a beautiful maiden who is cursed by an evil sorcerer,Von Rothbart, to live her days in the form of a swan amongst his other imprisoned swan maidens. Only in the light of the moon does she return to human… that is unless she finds true love in a man who will agree to marry her. Thats where Prince Siegfried comes in. The ballet opens with the scene of his birthday bash, during which Mother announces that she desires her son to marry soon. Armed with his sweet new crossbow, Siegfried decides to take his usual hunting trip when low and behold, just as he’s about to shoot a swan the bird transforms before him into the unfortunate Odette! After she shares with him her tragic plight, he dramatically exclaims his love for her and promises that he will take her to be his bride. This did not please Von Rothbart. When the Prince returns to his palace in the second act, to announce that he has chosen a bride, the audience is treated to a series of beautiful dances during which many of the members of the court display their best moves in celebration. None, however, compare to that of the brilliant performance of an Odette look alike (actually Von Rothbart’s evil daughter Odile) appearing with a mysterious guest (Von Rothbart in disguise) who purports to be the king of some obscure palace. Ecstatic to see who appears to be his fiancée, Siegfried impulsively tells Mommy the Queen that this girl is the one he has chosen. Psyche! Von Rothbart reveals Odile’s true identity, effectively meaning that the Prince is betrothed to the wrong girl and now Odette will be trapped in her curse for eternity. Heartbroken, Siegfried retreats to the forest to beg his lover’s forgiveness for his betrayal. She grants him pardon and in the original production they realize the hopelessness of their situation, drowning themselves in order to be together in death (that’s Tchaikovsky for you… see my previous blog entry to see how his own life ended). A few ballet houses these days choose a more optimistic route, ending with the Price slaying Von Rothbart and freeing Odette along with her flock of maidens from the spell, but personally I feel that some of the effect is lost in these interpretations…
After several years and multiple collaborations with various librettists (the people in charge of the story) and choreographers (the people in charge of dances), Tchaikovsky completed the necessary preparations and the ballet had its premiere on January 15th, 1895. Pierina Legnani danced Odette/Odile, with Pavel Gerdtas as Prince Siegfried, and Alexei Bulgakov as Von Rothbart.
Below I have attached the video of a super famous and super gorgeous Pas de Deux (dance for two) between Prince Sigfried and Odette. This particular performance is that of Natalia Makarova as Odette and Ivan Nagy as Siegfried with the American Ballet Theater. The visual and auditory effects of this scene are, in a word, sublime!