Prince Siegfried sleeps on his throne and in his dream he sees the evil Rothbart carrying off a white swan into the sky. This is how Rudolf Nureyev’s version of Swan Lake begins, and ends. The ballet seen as a Freudian nightmare, the young prince who finds escape in his head instead of taking up the reins of power and choosing a bride.
Claudio Coviello, who has only just been appointed principal at La Scala, was débuting in the role of Siegfried. His physical proportions suggest a Romeo, and Siegfried doesn’t instantly come to mind. Company director Makhar Vaziev obviously saw past that, and in a bold casting move placed the young Coviello with one of ballet’s brightest stars, Natalia Osipova. Gamble, or calculated move, it worked. This is a prince who wants to remain a boy, he refuses to grow up, inventing in his mind a swan to be infatuated with, instead of a real woman… or man. Certainly autobiographical elements abound in Nureyev’s vision of the story.
Coviello seems just that, a rather shy boy who is embarrassed, rather than bored, when dancing with his prospective brides. A boy who is instantly animated when a cross-bow is placed in his hands: he wants to play, not have sex. This makes the manipulation by Rothbart and the black swan, Odile, even more cruel. He is an innocent and needs the protection of his tutor Wolfgang, though in his dreams it is precisely this father figure who becomes the sinister Rothbart. When the coldness and forcefulness of Siegfried’s mother is added into the equation, the Freudian view of the ballet is complete.
In the Prince’s aimless little solo, a sort of rambling monologue as he muses on the meaning of life, Coviello tackles the tricky choreography with ease. During a couple of other moments in the evening he showed a lack of experience rather than a lack of technique, and he is plainly more secure when he has steps to execute and doesn’t have to just ‘act’. But Claudio Coviello is certainly a name to watch out for.
Osipova, however, now has to prove at every performance that she can live up to the hype. She can. She did.
The pyrotechnics of her Odile were to be expected, and the 32 fouettés interspersed with double and triple turns, arms closed in front of her like an ice-skater giving her jaw-dropping speed, let the audience gasp and cry “brava!” A bizarre little headpiece made her look a little like Catwoman, but as the choreographic movements recall more a black cat than a black swan, it wasn’t entirely out of place.
But the Odette! She obviously doesn’t possess the lines of Svetlana Zakharova, but how soft, how touching, how intense. The suppleness of her cambre lets her melt into her prince’s arms, and during one tender moment, when he proffers a hand, she looks briefly into his eyes before taking it, as though saying “so you’re not going to hurt me?” Osipova’s actions are not obvious, it is very much a personal interpretation, and although she gives us all the swan gestures we’re used to, she still manages to surprise and delight. Her last moments on the stage, back centre before being whisked off into the night sky, are tragic as she helplessly watches Rothbart maltreating Siegfried. Yet here she has not a step of dance, though her body dances all the same through subtle movements that miraculously fill the large La Scala auditorium.
Another dancer worthy of mention is the convincingly nasty and technically able Mick Zeni as Rothbart. The movement of his cloaks is masterful, never just flapping for effect, and he fills the stage like an ominous shadow. He has a strong physical presence, and flashes searing glances that are powerful and well-judged.
Unfortunately, in some other areas there are weaknesses. The pas de trois, which should bring the house down, got a polite applause; the queen let her cloak get the better of her; the character dances in the ball scene lack clarity and spark; sometimes the ports de bras of the swans are a little random. Many of these failings are linked toe the fact that this company gets little opportunity to dance on stage, having few performances each season in comparison to other major companies. Next year should give them a boost, as the number of ballets has been upped to cover the shortage of the more expensive opera performances. There are so many good dancers in the company, and Vaziev has created a far more harmonious corps than there used to be in Milan, so the potential is there. Generally during the white acts the girls were very good, the sixteen boys who dance the Polonaise at the end of the first act (thus giving the girls time to get their white tutus on, enabling the first two acts to be joined) handled the complexities of Nureyev’s intricate moves with flair, and the four cygnets were nicely together.
Paul Connelly conducted excellently, as usual, but the orchestra sounded at times like a town band. Why do they play so well for opera and often so arbitrarily for the ballet? Maina Gielgud, who has scrupulously revived the production, has reinstated the collapse of the Prince at the end of the third act: after having seen the vision of the white swan, and realising the consequences, he drops to the ground and we find him dreaming on the same spot at the beginning of the last act. This greatly helps continue Nureyev’s narrative, yet had curiously been lost when the version was remounted in 2010 after its decade in the wilderness. This is a production I love, though the essentialness of Ezio Frigerio’s set (singular!), presumably representing the prison in which Siegfried feels trapped, gets a little wearing, though it functions well as a backdrop to set of Franca Squarciapino’s sumptuous costumes. Nureyev’s choreography is fascinating, difficult, expressive and fun.
The evening burnt on a slow fuse, catching alight with Siegfried’s act one solo, exploding in the third act, and then glowing hypnotically until the final curtain.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.