San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, CA
by Rita Felciano
copyright @ 2017
What is there to be said about “Swan Lake”, the world’s most popular ballet? Possibly, the world greatest? Thinking about that reminded me of a comment I excitedly made to a musician friend about having just heard the Queen of the Night’s aria made by artificial intelligence. His dry response was “which one?” Indeed, which one is the perfect “Swan Lake”, the perfect Odette/Odile, the perfect dénouement? Opera rethinks classics with impunity, and patrons live with it, sometimes even appreciate the creative thinking involved. In ballet we are more conservative, we like our master works to stay close to an original conception, even if we don’t quite know what that had been. It so happens that we have a pretty good idea of what the “original” of the greatest “romantic” ballet might have looked like. Never mind that by 1893 romanticism had been swallowed up by wobbling establishments and the ever-rising middle class.
San Francisco Ballet in "Swan Lake" photo: Erik Tomasson
In 2009 Helgi Tomasson took a chance on commissioning a radical, stunningly effective production from British designer Jonathan Fensom who chose to set the story in something like a post-revolution, scorched earth environment. Death and history lurk around the corners of a cold and inhospitable world for which the silly pulled curtains of nature in turmoil are but wafty reminders. The palace with its blind windows, a huge locked gate and high walls look abandoned. No water or trees soften the lake scene. A huge slab of lava speaks of a catastrophe that happened long ago. From underneath the swans' head dresses lurk strands of black hair. A reminder of the monstrosity to which young girls have been condemned? The ballroom with its spiraling staircase to nowhere looks like it’s located underground with the ever-present monstrous moon (lighting Jennifer Tipton) staring down through an oculus. It fades as the lovers die only to pick up light again as they reappear as a (sentimentalized) image of eternal love.
Setting this “SwanLake” in the Regency/Napoleonic period made sense. The first act downplayed the social classes, probably to set off the Queen Mother (a brilliantly icy Anita Paciotti) as an anachronistic Marie Antoinette/Carabosse. The five aristocrat couples, stiff-necked and noses high in the air, were vastly outdanced by the hordes lustily stomping in the peasants’ polonaise. Nicely, however, the women danced in slippers instead of heeled shoes. A short, slightly bratty children’s dance included the slightly tipsy Wolfgang, the Tutor (Val Caniparoli), thankfully without a blind man’s buff. All of them were pleasingly performed in appropriate styles.
The lively Pas de Trois highlighted an overly eager Angelo Greco, Dores Andre and Sasha de Sola. The two of them later returned as splendid Russian Princesses. It’s always informative and fun to watch these two similar and yet so different dancers. Both excellently trained, one is the more overtly expressive, the other cooler but a fine technician.
Maria Kotchekova's Odette has the disadvantage her small stature. She just about disappeared inside the corps of twenty-four impeccably, almost mechanistically precise swans. (I don't expect to see better) But her strength as a dancer -- with fluttering "wings" emanating from deep inside her back and leaps that hung in the air -- made up in presence what she lacked in stature. Under Von Rothbart's (Daniel Deivison-Oliveira's raving caveman) fixated gaze her balances looked as carved in steel. Vulnerability and desperation, however, looked more learned than felt until the adagio that she heartbreakingly drew out of the music. Lovely to see was how she gently mimed her back ground story. The speed, her delight in her havoc-making role as Odile seemed propelled by an evil spirit that needed recharging from Von Rothbart.
Joseph Walsh, in his first Siegfried with SFB, is very young, polite but slightly distanced from his surroundings. He is an ardent wooer of both Odette and Odile. Not a bravura dancer but rather a solid performer with the charm of the kid next door, Walsh, given a chance, undoubtedly will pull the complexity of his character into a convincing whole. Janna Frantziskonis' fleet Neapolitan Princess ended her variation with Esteban Hernandez in a fish dive towards the audience.
This superb evening of excellent dancing by just about everyone also brought home how much this ballet depends on Tchaikovsky's genius as a composer and orchestrator. Solos (Cordula Merks, violin and Adam Luftman, trumpet among others) were impeccably rendered. The dancers must have felt the quality of the music making and they responded accordingly. It is rare that an orchestra gets just about as much recognition as the dancers on stage. On opening night SFB's, under the baton of Martin West, did. They received rousing extended bravos -- and well deserved they were.