To celebrate the coming-of-age of Prince Siegfried, the countess organises a ball in his honour. Her son should marry a suitable wife before assuming his rightful place on the throne. The evening before the planned celebrations, however, the prince discovers the meaning of true love. While out hunting swans with his best friend, Benno, the two young men observe how the birds are transformed into swan maidens. Siegfried falls in love with one of these, the beautiful Odette. He intends to break the curse with which the evil wizard Rotbart has bound the maiden to himself by declaring an oath of eternal love. The next evening the wizard foils Siegfried’s plan. The young couple’s love seems doomed; but in the end Rotbart fails to destroy the bond of true love, and cannot separate those who are destined for one another.
World premiere in 1877 in Moscow
New creation for the Semperoper Ballett in 2009
Two worlds coexisting within each other. A man and a woman united by
their love, doomed by a spell of fate. Tchaikovsky’s immaculate music.
White tutus and pointe shoes. A timeless classic. «Swan Lake» – the
ballet of ballets.
It’s hard to believe that «Swan Lake» was the
greatest disappointment in the career of composer Tchaikovsky: the 1877
premiere in Moscow was a total disaster for both the press and the
public. The ballet was «so weak that it can scarcely be believed»,
criticized the St. Petersburg newspapers; a female patron of Tchaikovsky
found everything to be «very ugly» and the ballet «choreographically
The artistic failure of the first «Swan Lake»
choreographer Wenzel Reisinger – who did not find any resonance
whatsoever with the music and who asserted that Tchaikovsky’s music
simply could not be applied to dance – also overshadowed the fame of the
composer. He was not able to enjoy experiencing the fairy-tale-like
resurrection of his music while he was still alive. Only as late as in
1895, eighteen years after the unfortunate premiere, two visionaries
from St. Petersburg guaranteed the immortality of ballet and music:
Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.
A secret of this ballet’s effect can
also certainly be found here: Two choreographers share the work on one
piece. Petipa remained true to the strategy that he had tried out in
many ballets, with a clear separation into 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: Odile, the black
swan, an embodiment of a powerful, tempting, extroverted woman. Odette,
the white swan, is a poetically exaggerated expression of introverted
female tenderness and vulnerability. Between them, the love of a man who
fails at the decisive moment and loses everything!
ACT 1 SCENE 1 - Prince Siegfried’s Coming of Age celebration
(In the courtyard of a Saxon castle) Prince Siegfried is celebrating his Coming of Age 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 Princess. She tells her son that since he has now come of age, the time has come that he must marry and so be crowned as monarch. To this end she has arranged a magnificent 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 set aside by the Young Court 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. Wolfgang is concerned that the Young Court should prepare for the responsibilities of the following day and the party disperses. Siegfried and Benno set off in the direction of the flight of swans.
SCENE 2 - Odette’s story
(A lakeside) Siegfried and Benno follow the flock of swans deep into the forest and find them at a lake. As they draw their crossbows and take aim a single swan arrives. They are spellbound when it is enveloped with a mysterious light. As they gaze the swan transforms into a beautiful Swan Maiden. 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 were indeed herself and her friends and explains by telling her story: Shortly after my birth, my father died. My mother, a good fairy, fell in love with a noble Baron and married him. My Stepfather Baron von Rotbart (Red Beard) revealed himself as an evil sorcerer and destroyed my mother. My grandmother wept so many bitter tears at her daughter’s fate, that they formed this lake. Baron von Rotbart bound my friends and myself to him under a terrible curse that turned us into swans. My Grandmother’s fairy powers were strong enough only to soften the curse. So, we live as swans by day but as Swan Maidens in the night. She also protects us with these crowns. Their magic means that as long as we wear them, von Rotbart can harm us no further. But more than this, the day that I find a man’s true love, I will place my crown at his feet, and the curse will be broken. Siegfried and Benno are deeply moved and swear never to hunt swans again. She invites them to spend the evening together with her and her Swan Maidens. As they dance the Prince falls passionately in love with Odette and gradually she responds. Siegfried swears that she will ever be his one and only true love. Remembering her fate, she tells him that at tomorrow’s Ball he must pass the test of love and keep his promise to her. Only then will she be able to place her crown at his feet. If he fails, they will never see one another again. As the sun rises, Odette and her Swan Maidens transform back into swans and fly away.
ACT 2 SCENE 1 - Siegfried’s Deception by Rotbart and his promise broken
(A magnificent hall in the castle) The nobility assemble for the ball. Fanfares announce the four princesses from the royal houses of Aragon, Hungary, Naples and Russia. The Dowager Princess presses Siegfried to make his choice of a bride. Suddenly the fanfares announce an unexpected guest. Baron von Rotbart arrives accompanied by a group of women in swan masquerade, among them his daughter Odile. Their dance delights the court. Siegfried is fascinated by Odile’s beauty and personality. She begins to remind him of Odette. Soon he can no longer resist and surrenders to the power of his feelings, spontaneously kissing her hand. This break of etiquette shocks the Dowager Princess, who rebukes him for it, as it is only his betrothed he can embrace. Siegfried declares his love for Odile. Rotbart demands that he swears that his love for Odile is eternal. Just as Siegfried makes his oath, Odette appears to him. Horrified he realises that Rotbart’s deception has led him to break his promise to Odette. He abandons the devastated court to return to the lake to find her.
SCENE 2 - Love’s triumph
(The lakeside) The Swan Maidens are eagerly waiting for Odette to bring good news of Siegfried at the Ball. When she appears she is entirely distraught and tells them that Siegfried has broken his promise. As they try to comfort her Rotbart arrives with his entourage and humiliates Odette. Siegfried comes upon them and tries to rescue her but is forced away by the Black Swans, followed by a vengeful Rotbart. The Swan Maidens urge Odette to forget Siegfried and to save herself, but she is determined to stay with him. Grandmother uses her powers to free Siegfried from Rotbart’s wrath and return him to Odette. She confronts him with his powerlessness in the face of Odette and Siegfried’s true love. Now that the mortal oath has been broken, Odette and Siegfried are unable to be together in this life. Grandmother calls them into the lake, no longer a place of tears but a place of love, where they can be united for eternity.
Narrative after the original sources
Choreography and Director after Lew Iwanow and Marius Petipa
Pjotr I. Tschaikowsky
Mise en scène
Francine Watson Coleman
Odette / Odile
Benno von Sommerstein
Baron von Rotbart
Generously supported by the Semperoper Foundation