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Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côté in Swan Lake. (David Cooper)
Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côté in Swan Lake. (David Cooper)

Why are bold revisions of the classics less contentious in ballet than opera? Add to ...

The opera world is always game for a scrap about how far revisionist stage directors should go with well-known works. The ballet crowd seems much less likely to squabble about bold changes, like those in James Kudelka’s beautiful but eccentric version of Swan Lake, now being performed by the National Ballet of Canada.

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The reasons for the divide in sentiment say a lot about how these related art forms think about tradition, interpretation and the musical score. Every classic work evolves through performance, but while opera imposes some fairly firm constants, the substance of a classic ballet is often just one grand jeté away from the drawing board.

Kudelka, as a choreographer, has much more power over his material than any opera director. He can reassign music, invent new characters and change the relative prominence of roles. In Swan Lake, he beefs up the role of the domineering sorcerer Rothbart, at the expense of Siegfried, the hero of the piece. In this version, Siegfried becomes a nebbish everyone can push around, a passive spectator of his own demise.

Say an opera director set out to humble Wagner’s Lohengrin, another hero in a piece involving magic and a swan. He could dress the tenor as an overgrown boy, puts toys in his hand, get him to make deflating gestures at key moments. But in the end, Lohengrin would still lay out his heroic credentials in In fernem Land, and the orchestra would still crash in with the triumphant chords that mean damn right he is. The music says what it says, and can’t be omitted or reassigned – hence the uproar when a director tries to project a boldly contrary message.

Not so in Swan Lake. One of Kudelka’s transpositions involves a dramatic number from Act III that helps trick Siegfried into believing he has re-encountered his feathery love interest, Odette. It starts with the reprise of a harp cadenza associated with Odette, as if Tchaikovsky were going to repeat the big lakeside love duet from Act II. Instead, he veers into an unexpected and sinister oboe tune that confirms for the audience that the woman dancing for Siegfried is an imposter (Odile). But Kudelka cuts most of the harp intro and plops the passage into Act I, where it is danced by a new character, identified as “a wench.” In this new context, it pointlessly alludes to characters we haven’t met yet and a deceit that hasn’t begun.

At Saturday’s performance, this displacement hit me like a blow to the chest. But I didn’t sense any unease in the auditorium, perhaps because this kind of thing happens often in ballet. Shuffling the music of Swan Lake is so normal that even hardcore balletomanes may be unsure about the original sequence.

It’s not even clear what “Swan Lake,” musically speaking, really should be. Is it the score Tchaikovsky wrote in 1876, or the quite different version edited after his death for the 1895 revival? That revival is the shared root of every subsequent production. Most begin with the revised score, a tradition reinforced by the fact that chunks of the Marius Petipa / Lev Ivanov choreography survive in virtually all modern versions, including Kudelka’s.

In Tchaikovsky’s time, major third-party edits were almost equally common in opera and ballet. It wasn’t unusual for a choreographer or star performer to demand changes in the music, or even to hire another composer to write an additional solo turn.

Opera’s conversion to score fundamentalism was well under way by the time Gustav Mahler insisted on no cuts when conducting Wagner and Mozart operas at the end of the 19th century. Ballet retained a looser relationship with the music, perhaps because the major part of the art – the dance – was so perishable. We know a certain amount of what Petipa and Ivanov choreographed, but a full performance of what they did would involve much scholarship and guesswork. The general sense is that ballet music should serve the drama – i.e. the ever-renewable choreography – whereas in opera, the music is the drama’s main substance and inviolable anchor.

So Kudelka is well within the tradition to treat Swan Lake as a fluid set of possibilities. But with freedom comes responsibility, and on that side Kudelka may have scrimped too much. I see his Swan Lake as a symbolic family drama, in which the mother (wearing a headpiece that resembles two giant testicles) imposes her will on the external life of the son, and the “father” (Rothbart) hems in his sexually ambiguous emotional world. The hero’s individuality is so thoroughly crushed that he ends up scarcely registering as a character. You’re left with a grand balletic machine that lurches along even though a major part of its engine is smashed. Perhaps it would be better to give Siegfried a break, let Swan Lake return to a more viable shape, and explore the same themes in a new ballet.

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