Like Christmas, Swan Lake comes once a year, at least from American Ballet Theatre in the Metropolitan Opera House. Like Christmas, it is a wonderful event. To some of us, Swan Lake is unstaling. You are hooked from the opening notes of the oboe. You reenter that world of Swan Lake.
And if you don’t want to reenter? Well, you have other balletic choices under the sun.
I will concentrate on music in this post (unsurprisingly). The old question is, Can a conductor conduct a ballet the way he wants, as if he were performing the music in concert? Or must he bow to the needs, or perceived needs, of the dancers?
I have raised this question with various conductors over the years. Esa-Pekka Salonen said he was fired from a ballet job when he would not bow to the dancers. “I made them fall on their butts,” he said.
That’s no good, we can agree.
But Gianandrea Noseda told me that he makes a point of conducting ballet music the way it ought to go, period. He once had a tussle with a company over this question. Eventually, the dancers and others appreciated his stand for musical values, saying that it strengthened the dancing.
Tchaikovsky is vulnerable to poor conducting and poor playing. The great mistake people make is to make him la-di-da—airy-fairy. Let me quote from my “New York Chronicle” of December 2018:
“Why do people sneer at Tchaikovsky?” I sometimes pose this question, and I posed it to Valery Gergiev in an interview many years ago. He said, “Too often, Tchaikovsky is performed in an insipid way.” This Russian conductor actually used that fairly sophisticated English word, “insipid.” At Carnegie Hall recently, he conducted the complete Nutcracker. He led his Mariinsky Orchestra, from Saint Petersburg. . . .
Conducting The Nutcracker, Gergiev was very tough-minded—rigorous. He was as rigorous as he would have been with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or a study by Elliott Carter. There was very little sugar on the sugar plums—just a dusting. I love this approach, but even I would have appreciated a little more warmth now and then. Still, Tchaikovsky was very well served, and The Nutcracker was utterly satisfying, often thrilling.
Time to return to Swan Lake—which was performed by ABT at the Met on Tuesday night. Charles Barker conducted the orchestra.
In my judgment, the Prologue, Act I, and most of Act II were far too sleepy—overly languid, you might say, or even limp. Tempos were slow. Playing was a little sloppy, or approximate. The music was stubbornly moderate, innocuous—dull, frankly.
“This is why people don’t like Tchaikovsky, or think they don’t, and don’t like ballet, or think they don’t,” I thought. There was a whiff of perfume about the music. It was lacking in stringency.
Things perked up when the Cygnettes entered in Act II to dance their pas de quatre. There was a spark, and a sparkle, in the playing, and in the dancing, too.
Tchaikovsky’s score, like many of his scores, provides ample solo opportunities for “first-deskmen,” as we used to call them (principals). Swan Lake can seem practically an oboe concerto. ABT’s oboe came through, as did its trumpet and others.
In this post, I have been citing interviews with conductors. I once asked Andris Nelsons, the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who once played trumpet in the pit for the Latvian National Opera, “What do trumpets in operas do? What music do they have to play?” Nelsons said, “Well, they announce things.”
Ha, so true. By the way, there is some serious heralding in Swan Lake. (And you can concoct your own joke about a trumpeter swan.)
On Tuesday night, a very happy thing happened in Act III: Swan Lake woke up. Musically, it certainly did. The score had new vitality, new purpose, new élan. I could have used more pomp and swagger, but never mind. A waltz had the gift of unslowness. The dancing, all around, had new vitality, just like the music. Surely those two are linked? The audience responded accordingly—with bursts of excited cheering.
It was as though someone had remembered to turn on the electricity—to plug in a cord or something. And speaking of electricity: there was real storminess in Act IV’s storm.
The part of Odette/Odile was danced by Christine Shevchenko, from Odessa, who has been with ABT since 2007. She was both neat and melting, as befits the part. Her prince was James Whiteside, who looked like a prince indeed. I’m not talking about a still photo. I’m talking about the way one carries oneself, of course. Calvin Royal III was von Rothbart in the ballroom—exhibiting bad-guy charisma.
So, Swan Lake has come again. I wonder if you can stand one last quotation, from a conductor in an interview. Late in Lorin Maazel’s career, I remarked to him that he still seemed to enjoy conducting very, very familiar music—Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, for example. “Is it still glorious and thrilling to you?” “Oh, it’s as glorious and thrilling as the day it was written. If you become jaded because of overexposure, the problem is yours, not the composer’s.”