It can't be easy to dance with the possibility of redundancy hanging over your head. The workers at Rome Opera have put on a brave face recently as the theatre's heavy debts will almost inevitably lead to job cuts, but the dancers from the ballet company certainly didn't let their anxiety show as they performed Swan Lake. A version of the same ballet in Milan a couple of months ago made my American ballet-pro companion remark, “But where's the joy?” during the pas de trois. In Rome, there was joy. The company loves being on stage, and the pas de trois here was danced with confidence and smiles. The substitution of Svetlana Zakharova (her absence probably caused by the same budgetary crisis) wasn't a tragic loss, as the Odette-Odile from the opening night of this new production, was available: Anna Tsygankova flew in from the Dutch National Ballet, to join Berlin State Ballet's Mikhail Kaniskin.
This highly enjoyable performance was set in Luisa Spinatelli's elegant designs inspired by, I assume, a Russia towards the end of the 19th century, with choreography, created for Berlin in 1997, by Patrice Bart. Both principals have cast iron techniques: Tsygankova is theatrical and bold as Odile and, although she shows little of Odette's vulnerability, her assurance and technical wizardry is remarkable. Or maybe Bart wanted a cooler Odette, for in this version she shows little compassion for her prince during the last act. Tsygankova's 32 fouettés were impressive and exciting, with an arm rising up to third-position for the first sixteen. Her balances are imbued with authority, and she has a communicative and beautiful face. Kaniskin, as Prince Siegfried, has an impeccable technique; everything is always under control, though also in moments of passion when he could maybe let himself go a little. Nevertheless, his jumps are light, his turns easy, and his pliés and lands are impressively deep and soft: a very fine dancer.
In Bart's version of the ballet, there is an important role for Siegfried's mother, the Queen, who has certainly not cut the umbilical cord with her son. She is obsessed with him, and Bart gives them a passionate, and uncomfortable, pas de deux. Bart's storytelling isn't always clear, but his concept is, with the Queen often taking centre stage. This is an excellent role for a soloist with a strong personality. In Rome, Gaia Straccamore danced the part. She is a permanent company member who has just been promoted to étoile. Étoile? Why, one asks, is she not dancing Odette/Odile? Rome Opera is collapsing under debts – does this seem the right moment to promote a good dancer to such a hollowed position, the company's only étoile? Straccamore danced the role sufficiently, with a little uncertainty during some passages of the choreography, and a rather bland approach to being a queen: nose in the air haughtiness from beginning to end.
Bart has filled his ballet with some fine ideas: Siegfried as an object of desire, trapped between his mother and his close friend Benno; Rothbart, here known as Rotbart, as the Queen's Prime Minister (and lover?), introduced into the action from the start; a jealous Benno who spies Siegfried with Odette and reports this to the court, so even the Queen herself is in on Rotbart's Odile-plan to foil her son; four princesses, dressed in black tutus like Odile, who are all in on the scheme. But if you're going to tinker so much with the plot, why not explain why Rotbart has it in for Odette in the first place? Always such a mystery.
In the final scene, Odette doesn't pardon Siegfried's unintentional flirt, and flies off with the other swans. Siegfried realises that Rotbart is the cause of all his trouble and kills him. On realising that he has lost his love, and become a murderer, he then kills himself. The ballet ends with the Queen finding her son and her lover dead. But this is no ending for a tragedy; the Queen triggered all this, and shouldn't finish up centre stage, distraught, looking for our sympathy.
Why not suggest that Rotbart desires Odette who rejects his advances, so she is placed under his spell as punishment? Though quite why a Prime Minister in the late 1800s has magical powers is anyone's guess. Why not have Siegfried kill his own mother along with Rotbart, and leave him centre stage having lost everything… well, he'd still have Benno. Whatever, fiddling with the story might throw up some interesting interactions, and provide some thought provoking ideas, but coherence is almost impossible, and you either go full out and do a Matthew Bourne, or you provide something which can never be truly satisfying. A more traditional production doesn't have to worry too much about coherency: Rothbart has magic powers, the Prince falls in love with a swan, and so what? It's all accepted because it's presented in the context of a fable; realism, though, needs explaining. In most productions the emotion comes from the impossible yearning between the two central characters, but in Bart's version I felt nothing for the Queen, and little for Odette and Siegfried.
At Rome Opera there was emotion, however, but from the dancing, not the storytelling. The white swans were disciplined and regal, the pas de trois, danced by Alessio Rezza as Benno, with Alessia Gay and Roberta Paparella, was delightful, and Bart's choreography for the corps (except when he slipped in some angular moves, recalling Nureyev's ‘breakdance' sequences, which jarred) was demanding to dance and enjoyable to watch. Certainly a production for Rome to keep in its repertoire – but don't try too hard to follow the plot.
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.