Nuñez and Muntagirov light up The Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake

Royal Opera House, London
March 6, 2024

Liam Scarlett’s production of Swan Lake could be seen as an ideal fit for the Royal Ballet. It sits comfortably in the traditional mode but with no suggestion of being either old or dusty.

The narrative is given a twist and an anchor with Von Rothbart having a human form as a high-ranking palace official in addition to his sorcerer guise. The Prince’s friend, Benno, is back in a desirable role which includes the Act 1 pas de trois with the Prince’s two sisters as well as a major part in Act 3. Scarlett’s skill in structuring the corps de ballet transforms the Act 1 waltz into symphony in movement while in Act 4, he uses intricate pattering to blend drama and poetry in the swan formations.

A scene from Liam Scarlett’s Swan Lake by The Royal Ballet
Photo ROH/Tristram Kenton

The production is packed with fine dance for all from corps de ballet to principals. The Royal Ballet currently has a fine cohort of principal dancers and audiences are spoilt for choice. The opening night of this long season of Swan Lakes was given to Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov who, befitting their status, gave magnificent performances.

Swan Lake is the ballerina’s ballet and Nuñez was perfection from her first grand jeté to her final death plunge. Sorrowful and cautious in Act 2, she danced through the familiar steps, every pose photo finished and allowing just enough emotion as she tentatively learns to trust Siegfried.

Muntagirov lives the role from the moment he steps on the stage. Peripheral for much of the dance activities in Act 1, he has centre stage moments in his confrontation with Von Rothbart and an uneasy relationship with his mother who demands his commitment to marriage. These inner conflicts and his yearning for love are expressed eloquently in his lyrical solo of controlled adage as the scene changes to a lakeside bathed in moonlight.

Marianela Nuñez as Odette in Swan Lake
Photo ROH/Bill Cooper

John Macfarlane’s designs are truly magnificent. The ballroom is eye wateringly impressive with plenty of glitz and each national troupe battling to out-costume the others. In Act 1, the park outside the castle gates is typically English and the dresses with hints of period are fluid and enhance the movement. The white acts in contrast are other worldly. Around the solid pile of rocks centre stage, the intense darkness is both impenetrable and liminal, transporting us to a spirit world. It brings the exquisite feathery tutus into sharp relief and creates a magic world enhanced by David Finn’s decisive lighting.

Act 3 is the showcase for technical wizardry. Nuñez was icy cold and as brilliant as cut crystal, holding her balance for frozen seconds and whizzing through 32 fouettés. Muntagirov executed flawless entrechats, cabrioles and tours and his entrance in the coda was turbo charged, soaring as a man besotted with love.

It was a clever move by Scarlett to retain Frederick Ashton’s Neapolitan duet. Its wit and charm contrast so well with the pomp and pageantry and Madison Bailey and Taisuke Nakao were right on the button.

Marianela Nuñez as Odile and Vadim Muntagirov as Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake
Photo ROH/Bill Cooper

Isabella Gasparini,  Sae Maeda and Luca Acri, as Benno, danced the Pas de Trois in Act 1, also getting a second, newly choreographed, trio in Act 3. Acri excelled with engaging personality and a brilliant high-energy performance.  The sisters, like well bred aristocrats, danced superbly but with a little more restraint, with Maeda bringing extra warmth and charm.

Gary Avis excels in villainous roles. As Von Rothbart, he stalked the palace with a look that would sour milk then transformed to the monstrous sorcerer never missing an opportunity for malevolence.

The denouncement and the dissolving of the palace is beautifully achieved to lead to the pathos of the final act. Here, Nuñez opened her heart and the final duet with Muntagirov had all the emotion necessary to reach the tragic heights the ballet deserves. It was an evening to indulge the senses accompanied by strong playing in the pit masterfully led by Koen Kessels.

Mixed in with other programmes, Swan Lake is at The Royal Opera House to June 28, 2024.