Some nights in Covent Garden are heavy with a sense of occasion, and this particular performance by Swan Lake, which was set a week after opening night, was definitely one of them. by Liam Scarlett Swan Lake isn’t even four years old as a production in the Royal Ballet’s repertoire, but it already has a history. Tragically, Scarlett took her own life last year after allegations of sexual misconduct were never confirmed.
This series of her portrayal was on its second outing in March 2020 and has some particular unfinished business, with a series of exciting debuts yet to be enjoyed over the course of performances – which run through May. Two of those debuts are young directors Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Marcelino Sambé, and what a memorable couple they are.
John McFarlaneThe opulent creations of are as luxurious as ever – so much so that the raising of the curtain to begin Act III is a highlight in itself as the sumptuous gilded ballroom reveals itself for the palace stage. The full complement of 24 Swans in the iconic white numbers is flawless, disciplined and in sync. Yuhui Choe and Leticia Dias are sincere and beautiful like the two swans, and the four cygnets dig deep to stay in time a few times, but always deliver stoically. Thomas Whitehead, a last-minute replacement for a COVID-stricken Gary Avis, is a lonely, ghostly Rothbart figure.
Initially, the bodies are a bit wiry in Act I: there are inopportune moments that are a bit distracting as the audience tries to focus on the key characters. Kristen McNally features as Siegfried’s mother, her clear and majestic mime while David Yudes is lively and reliable as Siegfried’s friend Benno.
What about the stars, though, who – judging by the audience reaction – are the ones we’re specifically here to see? Sambé dances like a man who prepared for it two years ago. His jumps so high and so elegant, while never failing to bring it all together in the softest, creamiest landings. Later, he flies around the stage in the coda of Act III. His solo at the end of Act I as he walks to the lake is already emotionally charged, depicting a man who feels trapped by his status and yearns for something (or someone) else.
It’s all great, and Siegfried hasn’t even met Odette (Anna Rose O’Sullivan) yet. What will be most remembered after this performance is the chemistry he shares with her. O’Sullivan wasn’t even a director before the pandemic yet, but she’s every inch the prima ballerina here. His Odette is sensitive and moving; she feels absolutely everything through her undulating spine, and is both expressive and sweet.
With Sambé, they create the most romantic and delicate pas de deux I have seen in a Swan Lake and he gets a prolonged applause that I don’t remember having experienced before. The story and the characters are so comfortable that you would not suspect that the central pair are both beginners.
Act III arrives and O’Sullivan’s Odile is a prickly character with whom she has a lot of fun, but he is understandably less convincing than her Odette. Sambé vibrates again in the coda, falling completely under Rothbart’s lure.
Among entertainment, artist Nadia Mullova-Barley is a Spanish dance star (if you’ve seen the BBC Nutcracker Dance documentary, you might first remember her as a snowflake), in a performance of astonishing confidence and character, her big physique working well with the Spanish form.
With such a fragile and fickle Odette, there is only one way Swan Lake can end: in tragedy. By then, the couple’s connection is infallible, and O’Sullivan’s Odette is heavy with grief, sharpened by David FinnMood lighting heightens the drama before the inevitable conclusion.
A start worth waiting two years (in the case of Sambé)? I think so, and one that they can only build on for more outings in this race (March 25) and for years to come.
Swan Lake flows with various casts until May 28
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