Swan Lake’s Rothbart is an extraordinary important character; his power and evilness must be believable if we are to empathise with poor Odette. Yet often the role is almost laughable in its insignificance or its hammy “baddie” acting with lots of cape swishing.
The La Scala production for a few years – the Vladimir Bourmeister choreography with Roberta Guidi di Bagno’s dreary sets – had Rothbart on a metre-high plinth backstage-left, flapping away madly yet staying firmly rooting in his little corner, (which half the audience couldn’t see). He had no dramtic impact whatsoever.
The New York Times’ Alastair Macaulay says of the ABT version:
Kevin McKenzie’s 2000 version at American Ballet Theater, by contrast, not only hammers home Odette’s ornithomorphic predicament but also makes the sorcerer Rothbart a Jekyll-and-Hyde persona too: now a dangerously gallant cavalier, next a hideous creature from the Green Lagoon (played by another dancer).
The Times’ Debra Craine in her review two years ago was in agreement:
Kevin McKenzie… approaches the story with a pedantic literalism that robs the ballet of some of its magic — do we really need Von Rothbart clutching a rubber swan to understand that Odette is now a victim of his evil spell? Its big idea is to divide the role of Von Rothbart between two dancers, thus allowing the sorcerer to change in the wink of an eye from an elegant seducer into a creepy swamp creature.
Here’s how Macaulay wryly sums up some modern Rothbarts:
Rothbart — this ballet’s Mephistopheles — has become the “Swan Lake” character that no current production presents seriously enough. At City Ballet, most ludicrous of all, he is an old-style operatic devil in a cloak lined with flaming orange. At the Royal Ballet he is costumed to look like a large lump of diseased moss. At the opposite extreme, the Bolshoi makes him the prince’s all-dancing shadow and nemesis, the black to his white. Especially in the performance by the bizarre but ever-enthusiastic Nikolay Tsiskaridze on the recent broadcast, he becomes so campily intrusive that he limits the impact of poor, passive Odette.