John Neumeier´s “Illusions – like Swan Lake”
Bavarian State Ballet
Bavarian State Opera
April 28, 2011
by Horst Koegler
copyright 2011 by Horst Koegler
So he has returned, resurrected just in time for the 125th anniversary of his death, to his Munich residence, to open the Ballet Festival 2011: Ludwig II (1845-86), King of Bavaria, in John Neumeier´s “Illusions – like Swan Lake”, premiered as the first of his docu-epics in Hamburg 1976. Outside of Bavaria best known through Visconti´s 1972 film about the unhappy monarch, builder of those fairy-tale castles which are today the country´s biggest tourist attraction, benefactor of Richard Wagner and the Bayreuth Festival, victim of his frustrated homosexual inclinations and of his death under never revealed circumstances in Lake Starnberg near Munich.
And so we are progressing through the 1st Act Reality - 1st Memory: The New Roof Celebration´- Reality – 2nd Act Reality – 2nd Memory: A Private Performance of Swan Lake – Reality – 3rd Act Reality – 3rd Memory: Masked Ball – Reality. This means that we are experiencing the King being declared insane and locked up in a a cell of one of his unfinished buildings where he becomes aware of the fleeting apperance of the Man in the Shadows. In his dreams he stumbles on a model of the palace he plans to build, from where he gets transported to the building site, where the peasant population is celebrating the topping-out ceremony – with craftsmen, local girls and some members of the court, among them his confidante, Count Alexander, the Queen Mother, accompanied by Prince Leopold and Princess Nathalia, the King´s fiancée. Also present is The Man in the Shadows, watching the King, who withdraws from the general merriment.
And so we find him in the 2nd act back in his cell, where he stumbles, tearing away the cloth which covers the model of a theatre-box in front of a lakeside landscape, from where he watches a private performance, with Princess Odette transformed by an evil magician looking like the Man in the Shadows into a swan, courted by Prince Siegfried. The King, completely captivated by the theatrical illusion, assumes the role of Prince Siegfried, observed by the hidden Princess Nathalia, when the swan princess gets whisked away by the magician who transforms ino the Man in the Shadows.
In the 3rd act the King collapses in his cell. Through the open windown he hears the sounds of the ball taking place outside, evoking the hallucinatuions of himself, now in his royal robe. participating in the national dances of the cotillon. Princess Nathalia meets the King and lets the domino she is wearing slip from her shoulders to reveal the costume she is wearing as the swan princess. He falls into her trap, gets bewitched through her fouetttés, and falls insane when he identifies one of the clowns as The Man in the Shadows. There is a great disturbance and the King is seized by State guards and taken into custody.
And so we are returning for the last time to the cell, where the King is asleep, awakened by a last visit of Princess Nathalia, still in her swan dress – he sends her away. Now visions and delusions take complete possession of him. The Man in the Shadows reappears and they both engage in a desperate fight, during which reality and fantasy intertwine - the huge blue cloth, appliqued with myriads of swan motifs, which so far served as proscenium curtain, crashes down and buries both of them.
And so the “Swan Lake” ballet, historically dominated by the dual appearance of the swan princess Odette-Odile, has turned full cycle, with the Prince now assuming the role of the protagonist, whether being called Siegfried or Ludwig II; King of Bavaria. It all started when John Cranko produced his first “Swan Lake” in Stuttgart in 1963, already then collaborating with Juergen Rose as his designer. He strengthened dramaturgically the role of Prince Siegfried, notoriously so in the first act – which impressed Rudolf Nureyev so much, when he guested in Stuttgart, that he further worked on it when he himself produced “Swan Lake” at te Vienna State Opera, with Margot Fonteyn as Odette-Odile in 1964. Next came John Neumeier. starting with his revision of the classics, in Frankfort with “Nutcracker” in 1971, in which he transformed Drosselmyer into the character of a ballet-master, modelled upon Petipa, with Marie becoming one of his ballerina pupils. In 1973 Neumeier took up his new job as director and chief-choreographer of the Hamburg Ballet, starting his series of revisions of the classics with his “Swan Lake” in 1976, collaborating with Rose as designer, calling their production “Illusions – Like Swan”. with the King now promoted to protagonist status , The Man in the Shadows as his alter ego. maybe the demonic temptor of his suppressed homosexual desires, maybe the messenger of death, and with the fictitious character of Princess Nathalie, as his fiancée. The gain in dramatic truth is enormous. The persons thus become much nore characters of real flesh and blood instead of being relegated to fairy-tale figurants. I caught the third performance, and there had already been some cast changes. While the first night had been been danced by Tigran Mikayelyan as the King, definitely Munich´strongest character principal (he hails from the Armenian school of Eriwan, which provides such an astonishing multitude of powerful boys) and Marlon Dino as The Man in the Shadows. in my –third – performance Dino had taken over as the King, with Olivier Vercoutère as The Man in the Shadows. If I found both of them adequate, they were nothing against the much stronger Hamburg protagonists – if I remember them rightly – of Max Midinet and Fred Howald, who emerged as characters of almost demonic dimensions. Dino is certainly more elegant than Midinet and the more versatile technician, but he lacks that animal quality which Midinet possessed.
Though my colleagues liked Daria Sukhorukova as Princess Odette, I found her rather anonymous, clean but without any charisma - and certainly she stood no chance against Lucia Lacarra´s powerful Princess Nathalia, who looks and acts like one of those feminine suffragettes of the Florence Nightingly type, flashing out her fouettés like lassos catching her poor victim. All the other characters contribute individual profiles, Lukas Slavicky as the charming Count Alexander, the two Big Swans Severine Ferrolier and Zuzana Zahradnikova, the four Cygnettes of Magdalkena Lonska, Elena Karoushina, Mai Kono and Gözde Oezguer. and Stephanie Hancox as the Queen Mother. And as far as the corps of 18 swans is concerned, they represent probably the most homogeneous flock of their kind among their colleagues from the major German opera ballet zoological gardens. Anyway it´s a magnificent production, looking flamboyant in Juergen Rose´s elegant designs, resplendent in their royal blue Wittelsbach colours The gain in dramatic punch is considerable, and the first act with its folkloristic celebrations and its boisterous dances for the carpenters is refreshingly alive and not without its humorous caprices. Also, of course, the character of Princess Nathalie improves vastly. What I like less is the ball of nations in the third acts. introduced by four harlequin figures. The folklore dances are here performed in their ballroom stylizations as cotillion, but that robs them of their genuine charm. But again the last act pas de deux of the King and the Man in the Shadow works up tremendous power.
Nonetheless I could not help musing about how poor Ludwiig might have fared, if he hadn´t been educated as the future King of Bavaria, but had been allowed to train as a pupil of the Munich Court Ballet School, where he certainly would have been allowed to live out his suppressed sexual desires. instead of exchanging secret kisses with his stable lads. Maybe then he might have encountered there the like minded Tchaikovsky instead of that wretched Richard Wagner, with both of them hatching out a different sort of Tetralogy – not of the bloodthirsty Northern Nibelungs with Wotan as their disagreeable hero, but of the much more sympathetic Mediterranean entourage of Jupiter and his court, planning to build a Ballet Festival House, adjacent ot his Palace at the island Herrenchiemsee instead of that dungeon of Bayreuth!