Schwanensee / Swan Lake

Aaron S. Waktin

Ballet in two acts

Premiere 21. November 2009

Music by Pjotr I. Tschaikowsky

They are the archetypal figures of classical ballet: the cursed Swan Princess Odette and her swan maidens. And so it is hard to believe that »Swan Lake« was Pjotr I. Tschaikovsky’s greatest disappointment when the work flopped at its Moscow premiere in 1877. It was not until 1895 that the visionary choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov devised that immortal combination of splendour and virtuosity in their version, infused with an atmosphere of elegiac lyricism. Both elements are displayed in the main female roles: Odile, the Black Swan, embodying the powerfully seductive, extroverted woman, and Odette, the White Swan, a poetically-heightened expression of introverted feminine tenderness and vulnerability. And between them, Siegfried’s love, which falters at the decisive moment, and destroys everything. In his reimagining of this classic work from 2009, chief choreographer and ballet director Aaron S. Watkin carefully drew on his deep knowledge of the traditions of dance. The result is a »Swan Lake« of timeless elegance, poetry and tenderness, which, when so masterfully interpreted by the Semperoper Ballett, still has the power to thrill audiences.


Two worlds co-existing within each other – A man and a woman united by 
their love, doomed by a spell of fate – Tchaikovsky’s immaculate music. 

The ballet of ballets – A timeless classic »Swan Lake«

It is hard to believe that »Swan Lake« was the greatest disappointment in the career of composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: the 1877 premiere in Moscow was a total disaster unanimously criticized by both the press and the public. Critics considered Tchaikovsky’s music »too noisy, too ›Wagnerian‹« and too symphonic. The fame of the composer was over shadowed by the choreographer of this first Swan Lake, Wenzel Reisinger, who blamed the artistic failure of the production on the fact that he could not find any resonance whatsoever with Tchaikovsky’s music and declared it simply not possible to dance to.  Tchaikovsky was not able to enjoy the fairytale-like resurrection of his music while he was still alive. Eighteen years after the unfortunate premiere, two visionaries from St. Petersburg guaranteed the immortality of ballet and music: Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. The premiere of the revival of Swan Lake on January 27th 1895 at the Mariinsky Theatre was well received with the majority of the reviews in the local newspapers being positive. The secret of this ballet’s new found success was certainly credited to the fact that two choreographers used their strengths together to collaborate on one production. Petipa remained true to the strategy that had worked for him in many ballets, with a clear separation between pantomimic and danced passages, while Ivanov emphasized the lyric element. Petipa created the images of society while Ivanov thought up the images of the swans. The first are dominated by grandeur and virtuosity, while lyric, elegiac expression stands in the foreground in the latter. Both elements manifest themselves in the two main female characters: Odette, the white swan, is a poetically exaggerated expression of introverted female tenderness and vulnerability and Odile, the black swan, an embodiment of a powerful, tempting, extroverted woman. Between them, the love of a man who fails at the decisive moment and loses everything!

ACT 1SCENE 1 – Prince Siegfried’s Coming of Age celebration
(In the courtyard of a Saxon castle)

Prince Siegfried is celebrating his 21st birthday with his close friend Benno von Sommerstein and the young court. Siegfried’s tutor, Wolfgang, enters and announces the imminent arrival of the Prince’s mother, the Dowager Queen. She tells her son that since he has now come of age, it is time he must marry and so be crowned as king. To this end she has arranged a magnificent royal ball in his honour for the following night. Four eligible princesses from the most influential European courts have been invited from which he must choose one to be his bride. The news of his forthcoming marriage is put aside for one last evening of amusement. As night falls, a flock of swans appears on the horizon and Benno persuades the prince to go hunting. Siegfried and Benno set off in the direction of the flight of swans. 

SCENE 2 – Odette’s story
(An enchanted lakeside)

Siegfried and Benno follow the flock of swans deep into the forest and find them at an enchanted lake. As they draw their crossbows and take aim, a single swan lands. They are spellbound as the swan transforms into a beautiful maiden before their very eyes. She hastens to them and asks why they pursue her and her friends. Siegfried assures her that they mean them no harm as it is only swans that they are hunting. She replies that the swans they sought to slay are in fact herself and her friends and explains by telling her story:

»Shortly after my birth, my father died. My mother fell in love with a noble Baron and married him. My Stepfather Baron von Rothbart, (Red Beard), was an as an evil sorcerer and eventually killed my mother. My grandmother, a good fairy, wept so many bitter tears at her daughter’s fate, that they formed this lake. Baron von Rothbart bound my friends and I to him with a terrible curse by turning us into swans. My Grandmother’s powers were only strong enough to soften the curse. Hence we live on this lake as swans by day and only by night can we transform back into our human form as swan maidens. Grandmother also gave us magical crowns that protect us from any further harm by Rothbart as long as we wear them. Moreover, the day I find a man’s true love, I will place my crown at his feet, and the curse will be broken. But if this love is not true, I will be doomed to live the rest of my days as a swan.«

Prince Siegfried and Benno are deeply moved and swear never to hunt swans again. Odette invites them to spend the evening together with her and her swan maidens. As they dance the night away the Prince becomes utterly besotted with Odette and gradually she reciprocates. Benno, wary of this situation, tries to convince Siegfried to leave back to the castle with him, but Siegfried swears his eternal love to Odette. Remembering her fate she beseeches Siegfried to be true to his promise, only then will she be able to place her crown at his feet and break the curse. As the sun rises, Odette and her swan maidens transform back into swans and fly away.  

ACT 2SCENE 1 – Prince Siegfried’s Deception by Rothbart and his Promise Broken
(A magnificent hall in the castle)

The nobility assemble for the royal ball. Fanfares announce the four princesses from the royal houses of Aragon, Hungary, Naples and Russia. The Queen Mother presses Siegfried to make his choice of a bride. Suddenly an unexpected guest arrives. Baron von Rothbart is accompanied by an entourage of women in black swan masquerade, among them his daughter Odile who is an exact replica of Odette. Siegfried delights in dancing with her and completely falls under Odile’s captivating spell, spontaneously kisses her hand.This shocking break of etiquette infuriates the Queen Mother who immediately rebukes her son for his actions. This is the moment Baron von Rothbart was waiting for and quickly demands that Siegfried swears his eternal love for Odile in front of the court by asking her hand in marriage. Suddenly Odette appears outside the window of the hall frantically trying to warn Siegfried that he is being deceived but she is too late. Siegfried, intoxicated with Odile, pledges his oath to marry her. He instantly realizes he has been tricked and broken his promise to Odette.  Grief-stricken he hurries back to the lake.

SCENE 2 – Love’s triumph
(The enchanted lakeside)

Odette is distraught at Siegfried’s betrayal and her swan maidens try to comfort her. Rothbart arrives with his entourage of black swans to inform Odette that as Siegfried has broken his promise, with the break of dawn tomorrow morning she will be transformed into a swan forever. Siegfried arrives and tries to rescue Odette, but the vengeful Rothbart insists that he must fulfill his pledge to marry his daughter Odile and Siegfried is taken away by the black swans. The swan maidens urge Odette to forget Siegfried and to save herself, but she wants to see him one last time. Grandmother uses her powers to free Siegfried from Rothbart’s wrath and return him to Odette for one last meeting. A storm begins. Siegfried enters and begs Odette for forgiveness saying that he was tricked. Odette forgives him and resigns herself to death rather than accept her fate. She removes her protective crown, places it at his feet and declares her love to him. Rothbart seizes the moment to do away with the now vulnerable Odette once and for all, but Siegfried jumps to her protection. Rothbart stands back appeased knowing Odette is doomed and takes his leave.  Siegfried reconfirms his undying love for Odette and chooses to die alongside her.  Siegfried takes Odette into his arms and as the storm reaches its climax, Grandmother invites them into her lake, no longer a place of tears and sadness but a sanctuary of happiness and freedom. The lake bursts its banks consuming Odette and Siegfried who are united in love for eternity.