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|Ballets by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky|
Swan Lake (Russian: Лебединое озеро, Lebedinoye ozero) ballet, Op. 20, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, was composed in 1875–1876. The scenario, initially in four acts, was fashioned from Russian folk tales and tells the story of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer's curse. The choreographer of the original production was Julius Reisinger. The ballet was premiered by the Bolshoi Ballet on 4 March [O.S. 20 February] 1877 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Although it is presented in many different versions, most ballet companies base their stagings both choreographically and musically on the 1895 revival of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, first staged for the Imperial Ballet on 15 January 1895, at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. For this revival, Tchaikovsky's score was revised by the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre's chief conductor and composer Riccardo Drigo.[a 1]
Many critics have disputed the original source of the Swan Lake story. The Russian ballet patriarch Fyodor Lopukhov has called Swan Lake a "national ballet" because of its swans, who originate from Russian lyrically romantic sources, while many of the movements of the corps de ballet originated from Slavonic ring-dances. According to Lopukhov, "both the plot of Swan Lake, the image of the Swan and the very idea of a faithful love are essentially Russian". The libretto is based on a story by the German author Johann Karl August Musäus, "Der geraubte Schleier" (The Stolen Veil), though this story provides only the general outline of the plot of Swan Lake. The Russian folktale "The White Duck" also bears some resemblance to the story of the ballet, and may have been another possible source. The contemporaries of Tchaikovsky recalled the composer taking great interest in the life story of Bavarian King Ludwig II, whose tragic life had supposedly been marked by the sign of Swan and who—either consciously or not—was chosen as the prototype of the dreamer Prince Siegfried.
The origins of the ballet Swan Lake are rather obscured, and since there are very few records concerning the first production of the work to have survived, there can only be speculation about who the author of the original libretto was. The most authoritative theory appears to be that it was written by Vladimir Petrovich Begichev, director of the Moscow Imperial Theatres during the time that the ballet was originally produced, and possibly Vasily Geltser, Danseur of the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre. However, Geltser was in all probability merely the first person to copy the scenario for publication, as a surviving copy bears his name. Since the first published libretto of the ballet and the actual music composed by Tchaikovsky do not correspond in many places, we may infer that the first actual published libretto was possibly crafted by a newspaper writer who had viewed the initial rehearsals, as new productions of operas and ballets were always reported in the newspapers of Imperial Russia, along with their respective scenarios.
According to two of Tchaikovsky's relatives—his nephew Yuri Lvovich Davydov and his niece Anna Meck-Davydova—the composer had earlier created a little ballet called The Lake of the Swans at their home in 1871. This ballet featured the famous Leitmotif known as the Swan's Theme (or Song of the Swans ). Begichev commissioned the score of Swan Lake from Tchaikovsky in 1875 for a rather modest fee of 800 rubles, and soon Begichev began to choose artists that would participate in the creation of the ballet. The choreographer assigned to the production was the Czech Julius Reisinger (1827–1892), who had been engaged as balletmaster to the Ballet of the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre (today known as the Bolshoi Ballet) since 1873. It is not known what sort of collaborative processes were involved between Tchaikovsky and Reisinger. It seems that initially Tchaikovsky worked without complete knowledge of Reisinger’s specific requirements. Tchaikovsky likely had some form of instruction in composing Swan Lake, as he had to know what sort of dances would be required. But unlike the instructions that Tchaikovsky received for the scores of The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, no such written instruction is known to have survived. When Reisinger began choreographing after the score was completed, he demanded some changes from Tchaikovsky. Whether by demanding the addition or removal of a dance, Reisinger made it clear that he was to be a very large part in the creation of this piece. Although the two artists were required to collaborate, each seemed to prefer working as independently of the other as possible.
From around the time of the turn of the 19th century until the beginning of the 1890s, scores for ballets were almost always written by composers known as "specialists": composers who were highly skilled at scoring the light, decorative, melodious, and rhythmically clear music that was at that time in vogue for ballet. Tchaikovsky studied the music of these "specialists", such as the Italian Cesare Pugni and the Austrian Ludwig Minkus, before setting to work on Swan Lake. Tchaikovsky had a rather negative opinion of the "specialist" ballet music until he studied it in detail, being impressed by the nearly limitless variety of infectious melodies their scores contained. Tchaikovsky most admired the ballet music of such composers as Léo Delibes, Adolphe Adam, and later, Riccardo Drigo. He would later write to his protégé, the composer Sergei Taneyev, "I listened to the Delibes ballet 'Sylvia'...what charm, what elegance, what wealth of melody, rhythm, and harmony. I was ashamed, for if I had known of this music then, I would not have written 'Swan Lake'". Tchaikovsky most admired Adam's 1844 score for Giselle, which featured the use of the technique known as Leitmotif: associating certain themes with certain characters or moods, a technique he would use in Swan Lake, and later, The Sleeping Beauty.
Tchaikovsky drew on previous compositions for his Swan Lake score. He made use of material from The Voyevoda, an opera that he had abandoned in 1868. The Grand adage (a.k.a. the Love Duet) from the second scene of Swan Lake was fashioned from an aria from that opera, as was the Valse des fiancées from the third scene. Another number which included a theme from The Voyevoda was the Entr'acte of the fourth scene. By April 1876 the score was complete, and rehearsals began. Soon Reisinger began setting certain numbers aside that he dubbed "unsuitable for ballet." Reisinger even began choreographing dances to other composers' music, but Tchaikovsky protested, and his pieces were reinstated.
Tchaikovsky's excitement with Swan Lake is evident from the speed with which he composed: commissioned in the spring of 1875, the piece was created within one full year. His letters to Sergei Taneyev from August 1875 indicate, however, that it was not only his excitement that compelled him to create it so quickly but his wish to finish it as soon as possible, so as to allow him to start on an opera. Respectively, he created scores of the first three numbers of the ballet, then the orchestration in the fall and winter, and was still struggling with the instrumentation in the spring. By April 1876 the work was complete. Tchaikovsky’s mention of a draft suggests the presence of some sort of abstract but no such draft has ever been seen. Tchaikovsky wrote various letters to friends expressing his longstanding desire to work with this type of music, and his excitement concerning his current stimulating, albeit laborious task.
Moscow Première (World Première)
St. Petersburg Première
Other Notable Productions
|Rôle||Moscow 1877||Moscow 1880||St. Petersburg 1895||Moscow 1901||London 1911|
|Princess||Olga Nikolayeva||Giuseppina Cecchetti|
|Siegfried||Victor Gillert||Alfred Bekefi||Pavel Gerdt||Mikhail Mordkin||Vaslav Nijinsky|
|Benno||Sergey Nikitin||Aleksandr Oblakov|
|Odette||Pelageya Karpakova||Yevdokiya Kalmїkova||Pierina Legnani||Adelaide Giuri||Mathilde Kschessinska|
|Von Rothbart||Sergey Sokolov||Aleksey Bulgakov||K. Kubakin|
|Odile||Pierina Legnani||Mathilde Kschessinska|
The première of Swan Lake on Friday, 4 March 1877, was given as a benefit performance for the ballerina Pelageya Karpakova (also known as Polina Karpakova), who performed the role of Odette, with the Bolshoi Theatre's Première danseur Victor Gillert as Prince Siegfried. Karpakova likely also danced the part Odile, although it is not known for certain.
The Russian ballerina Anna Sobeshchanskaya — for whom the original (1877) rôle of Odette was intended — was pulled from the première performance when a governing official in Moscow complained about her, stating that she had accepted several pieces of expensive jewelry from him, only to then marry a fellow danseur and sell the pieces for cash. Sobeshchanskaya was replaced by Pelageya Karpakova who danced the rôle of the Swan Queen until the former was reinstated by Petipa.
The première was not well-received, with near unanimous criticism concerning the dancers, orchestra, and décor. Unfortunately Tchaikovsky's masterful score was lost in the debacle of the poor production, and though there were a few critics who recognised its virtues, most considered it to be far too complicated for ballet. Most of the critics were not themselves familiar with ballet or music but rather with spoken melodrama. Critics considered Tchaikovsky's music "too noisy, too 'Wagnerian' and too symphonic". The critics also found fault with Reisinger's choreography which they thought was "unimaginative and altogether unmemorable".
The production was unsuccessful due to several reasons. The German origins of the story of Swan Lake were "treated with suspicion while the tale itself was regarded as 'stupid' with unpronounceable surnames for its characters". The dancer of Odette (and probably Odile though this has never been proved for certain) was a secondary soloist and "not particularly convincing"
"The poverty of the production, meaning the décor and costumes, the absence of outstanding performers, the Balletmaster's weakness of imagination, and, finally, the orchestra...all of this together permitted (Tchaikovsky) with good reason to cast the blame for the failure on others."—Modest Tchaikovsky, brother of the composer
Though the original composition of Swan Lake was initially received negatively, with audiences and critics claiming that the music was too complex to be a ballet piece, currently the work is seen as one of Tchaikovsky’s most valuable, and surged him into the realm of the most important ballet composers.
In spite of the poor reaction to the première, the ballet nevertheless continued to be performed. On 26 April 1877 the prima ballerina of the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre Anna Sobeshchanskaya made her début as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, and from the start she was completely dissatisfied with the production of the ballet, but most of all with Reisinger's choreography and Tchaikovsky's music. Sobeshchanskaya travelled to St. Petersburg to have Marius Petipa—Premier Maître de Ballet of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres—choreograph a new pas de deux to replace the Pas de six that functioned as the third act's Grand Pas. For a ballerina to request a supplemental pas or variation was standard practice in 19th century ballet, and often these "custom-made" dances quite literally became the legal property of the ballerina they were composed for.
Petipa choreographed Sobeshchanskaya's pas de deux to music composed by Ludwig Minkus, who held the post of Ballet composer to the St Petersburg Imperial Theatres. The piece was a standard pas de deux classique that consisted of a short entrée, the grand adage, a variation for the dancer, a variation for the ballerina, and a coda.
Word of this change soon found its way to Tchaikovsky, who became very angry, stating that, whether the ballet is good or bad, he alone shall be held responsible for its music. He then agreed to compose a new pas de deux for the ballerina, but soon a problem arose: Sobeshchanskaya had no reservations about performing a pas to Tchaikovsky's new music, but she wanted to retain Petipa's choreography, and she had no wish to travel to St. Petersburg again to have the Ballet Master arrange a new pas for her. In light of this, Tchaikovsky agreed to compose a pas that would correspond to Minkus' music to such a degree that the ballerina would not even be required to rehearse. Sobeshchanskaya was so pleased with Tchaikovsky's new version of the Minkus music that she requested he compose for her an additional variation, which he did.
Until 1953 this pas de deux was thought to be lost, until an accidentally discovered repétiteur was found in the archives of the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre among the orchestral parts used for Alexander Gorsky's revival of Le Corsaire (Gorsky had included the piece in his version of Le Corsaire staged in 1912). In 1960 George Balanchine choreographed a pas de deux to this music for the Ballerina Violette Verdy, and the Danseur Conrad Ludlow under the title Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, as it is still known and performed today.
Julius Reisinger left Moscow in 1879, and his successor as Balletmaster was Joseph Peter Hansen. Hansen made considerable efforts throughout the late 1870s/early 1880s to salvage Swan Lake, and on 13 January 1880, he presented a new production of the ballet for his own benefit performance. The part of Odette/Odile was danced by Evdokia Kalmykova, a student of the Moscow Imperial Ballet School, with Alfred Bekefi as Prince Siegfried. This production was far more well-received than the original, though it was by no means a great success. Hansen presented another version of Swan Lake on 28 October 1882, again with Kalmykova as Odette/Odile. For this production Hansen arranged a Grand Pas for the ballroom scene which he titled La Cosmopolitana. This was taken from the European section of the Grand Pas d'action known as The Allegory of the Continents from Marius Petipa's 1875 ballet The Bandits to the music of Ludwig Minkus. Hansen's version of Swan Lake was given only four times, the final performance being on 2 January 1883, and soon the ballet was dropped from the repertory altogether.
In all, Swan Lake was given a total of forty-one performances between its première and the final performance of 1883 — a rather lengthy run for a ballet that was so poorly received upon its premiere. Hansen would go on to become Balletmaster to the Alhambra Theatre in London, and on 1 December 1884, he presented a one-act ballet titled The Swans, which was inspired by the second scene of Swan Lake. The music was composed by the Alhambra Theatre's chef d'orchestre Georges Jacoby.
The second scene of Swan Lake was then presented on 21 February in Prague by the Ballet of the National Theatre in a version mounted by the Balletmaster August Berger. The ballet was given during two concerts which were conducted by Tchaikovsky. The composer noted in his diary that he experienced "a moment of absolute happiness" when the ballet was performed. Berger's production followed the 1877 libretto, though the names of Prince Siegfried and Benno were changed to Jaroslav and Zdeňek, with the rôle of Benno danced by a female dancer en travestie. The rôle of Prince Siegfried was danced by Berger himself with the Ballerina Giulietta Paltriniera-Bergrova as Odette. Berger's production was only given eight performances, and was even planned for production at the Fantasia Garden in Moscow in 1893, but it never materialised.
During the late 1880s and early 1890s, Petipa and Vsevolozhsky considered reviving Swan Lake and were in talks with Tchaikovsky about doing so. However, Tchaikovsky died on 6 November 1893, just when plans to revive Swan Lake were beginning to come to fruition. It remains uncertain whether Tchaikovsky was even going to revise the music for the prospected revival of Swan Lake. Whatever the case, as a result of Tchaikovsky's death, Drigo was forced to revise the score himself, but not before receiving approval from Modest. There are major differences between Drigo's and Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake score. (Today, it is Riccardo Drigo's revision of Tchaikovsky's score as done for Petipa and Ivanov's 1895 revival, and not Tchaikovsky's original score of 1877, that many—though by no means all—ballet companies use when performing Swan Lake.)
In February 1894, two memorial concerts planned by Vsevolozhsky were given in honor of Tchaikovsky. The production included the second Act of Swan Lake, choreographed by Lev Ivanov, Second Balletmaster to the Imperial Ballet. Ivanov's choreography for the memorial concert was unanimously hailed as wonderful.
The Ballerina who danced Odette and Odile was the Italian virtuosa Pierina Legnani, and it was because of her great talent that the prospected revival of Swan Lake was planned for her benefit performance in the 1894-1895 season. She had made her début with the Imperial Ballet in Cinderella, produced in December 1893 (choreographed by Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, and Enrico Cecchetti to the music of Baron Boris Fitinhof-Schell). Her performance demonstrated her phenomenal technique, climaxing in her variation from the final tableau no fewer than thirty-two fouettés en tournant (the most ever performed at that time) during the grand pas. The dazzled public roared with demands for an encore, and the Ballerina repeated her variation, this time performing twenty-eight fouettés en tournant. However, the death of Tsar Alexander III on 1 November 1894 and the period of official mourning that followed it brought all ballet performances and rehearsals to a close for some time, and as a result all efforts were able to be concentrated on the pre-production of the revival of Swan Lake. Ivanov and Petipa chose to collaborate on the production, with Ivanov retaining his dances for the second Act while choreographing the fourth, and with Petipa staging the first and third Acts.
Tchaikovsky's younger brother Modest was called upon to make the required changes to the ballet's libretto, the most prominent being his revision of the ballet's finale; instead of the lovers simply drowning at the hand of the wicked Von Rothbart as in the original 1877 scenario, Odette commits suicide by drowning herself, with Prince Siegfried choosing to die as well, rather than live without her, and soon the lovers' spirits are reunited in an apotheosis. Aside from the revision of the libretto the ballet was changed from four acts to three—with Act II becoming Act I-Scene 2.
All was ready by the beginning of 1895, and the ballet had its première on Friday, 27 January. Pierina Legnani danced Odette/Odile, with Pavel Gerdt as Prince Siegfried, Alexei Bulgakov as Von Rothbart, and Alexander Oblakov as Benno.
The première of the Petipa/Ivanov/Drigo was quite a success, though not as much of one as it has been in modern times. Most of the reviews in the St. Petersburg newspapers were positive.
Unlike the première of The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake did not dominate the repertory of the Mariinsky Theatre in its first season. It was given only sixteen performances between the première and the 1895-1896 season, and was not performed at all in 1897. Even more surprising, the ballet was performed only four times in 1898 and 1899. The ballet belonged solely to Legnani until she left St. Petersburg for her native Italy in 1901. After her departure, the ballet was taken over by Mathilde Kschessinskaya, who was as much celebrated in the rôle as was her Italian predecessor.
Throughout the long and complex performance history of Swan Lake the 1895 edition of Petipa, Ivanov, and Drigo has served as the version from which many stagings have been based. Nearly every balletmaster or choreographer who has re-staged Swan Lake has sought to make modifications to the ballet's scenario, while still maintaining to a considerable extent the traditional choreography for the dances, which is regarded as virtually sacrosanct. Likewise, over time the rôle of Siegfried has become far more prominent, due largely to the evolution of ballet technique.
Several notable productions have diverged from the original and its 1895 revival:
Swan Lake is scored for the typical late 19th-century large orchestra:
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By 1895 Benno von Sommerstern became just "Benno", and Odette "Queen of the Swans". Also Baron von Stein, his wife, and Freiherr von Schwarzfels and his wife were no longer identified on the program. The sovereign or ruling Princess is often rendered "Queen Mother". Rothbart ("Redbeard") may also be spelled Rotbart.
Princess Odette is the lead ballerina role. Von Rothbart's daughter Odile is danced by the same ballerina; this facilitates the scene in which Odile, disguised as Odette, tricks Prince Siegfried into being unfaithful. Odette also appears in many adaptations of the ballet.
Odette is an enchanted princess under a spell of the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart; she has been transformed into a swan by day and can only regain her human form at night. She has many companions under the same spell, who have made her their queen, hence her title "The Swan Queen." She is forced to live by a lake that was magically formed by her grieving mother's tears when Rothbart kidnapped her; Rothbart's reasons for kidnapping Odette and enchanting her are unknown in the ballet. The only way for the spell to be broken is by the power of eternal love between Odette and a young man who will remain faithful to her, for if the vow of eternal love is broken, she will remain a swan forever.
One day, the young Prince Siegfried ventures upon the lake while out hunting and sees Odette transform from her swan form into her human form. He falls in love with her and she with him and after a night at the lake together, Siegfried vows to love Odette for all eternity. With Siegfried's love, the love of one who has never loved before, the spell can be broken. But all hope seems to vanish when Siegfried is tricked into declaring his love for Rothbart's daughter, Odile, condemning Odette to remain under Rothbart's power. The only way Odette can be freed now is if she dies, for she would rather die than live without Siegfried and forever as a swan. After giving Siegfried her forgiveness, he declares that he will die with her. When Rothbart appears, Odette throws herself into the lake and Siegfried follows her. In the climax of their sacrifice, Rothbart's powers are destroyed and the spell is finally broken; Odette's companions are freed from the enchantment. As the sun rises, Siegfried and Odette ascend into Heaven together, united in love for all eternity.
Prince Siegfried is the lead male ballet dancer role. Like Odette and Von Rothbart, he also appears in many adaptations of the ballet, although an interesting fact of his role in the ballet's adaptations is that he has a different name in almost every one, although he retains some or all of his characteristics.
Siegfried is a young Prince, full of bright spirit and enthusiasm and seems to have little interest in his role as a Prince. His favourite hobby is hunting and he often hunts with his best friend Benno. He is celebrating his 21st birthday with his friends and tutor, but the celebrations are interrupted and almost ruined by the arrival of his mother, the Queen. After presenting him with a new crossbow, she tells him that it is time for him to settle down and marry. Siegfried, however, has no intention to marry because he is not in love and is enjoying life as it is, but his mother makes it clear that he is expected to choose a bride at an upcoming Royal Ball before she departs, leaving Siegfried depressed by what is expected of him. However, things then take an ironic turn. A flock of swans flies over the castle and armed with their crossbows, Siegfried heads into the forest with Benno and their companions.
Deep in the forest, Siegfried and his friends arrive at a lake and Siegfried spots a beautiful swan wearing a crown swimming towards the lakeside. But before he can shoot it, the swan transforms into the most beautiful girl he has ever seen; Princess Odette, the Queen of the Swans. Struck by her beauty, Siegfried falls in love with her at once and she tells him her story, explaining that she is under a spell of the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart. It is at this point in the ballet that Siegfried's carefree spirit is overcome by his growth to manhood out of his love for Odette. When the sorcerer appears, Siegfried tries to kill him but Odette intercedes, explaining that Rothbart's death will only make the spell permanent if it is not already broken. Siegfried is able to stop Benno and his other companions from shooting the Swan Maidens and sends them away so he can stay at the lake with Odette. They spend the night dancing together, falling more and more in love and Siegfried vows to love Odette for eternity, promising to save her from Rothbart's evil enchantment. He invites her to attend the Ball at his castle and promises to choose her as his bride. When dawn breaks, Odette is forced to return to the lake as a swan, leaving Siegfried alone in despair.
On the night of the Ball, Siegfried is thinking of nothing but Odette. His mother introduces him to various potential brides, but he rejects them all because he is in love with Odette. He continues to wait for her and suddenly, two more guests arrive and Siegfried is joyful to see that Odette appears, indeed, to have arrived. But the mystery guests are actually Rothbart and his daughter Odile in disguise. It is here that everything takes a turn for the worst. Rothbart has magically disguised Odile in the shape and form of Odette to trick Siegfried into breaking his vow. Siegfried falls for Rothbart's deception and pledges eternal love to Odile, thinking she is Odette. Triumphant, Rothbart reveals his trick and declares that Odette is now forever in his power. Horrified to discover that he has been tricked into breaking his promise to Odette, Siegfried flees the Ball in haste in search of her.
Siegfried follows Odette back to the lake, finds her amongst her companions and begs her to forgive him, swearing that he loves her only. She forgives him, but explains that she is now under Rothbart's spell forever and the only way she can escape the enchantment is if she dies. Rothbart appears to part the lovers and reminds Siegfried of his vow to Odile. Siegfried declares he would rather die with Odette than marry Odile and when Odette throws herself into the lake, Siegfried follows her. In the climax of their sacrifice, Rothbart and his powers are destroyed and Odette's companions are finally freed from the spell. As the sun rises, Siegfried and Odette ascend to Heaven together, united in love for all eternity.
Odile is the daughter of Von Rothbart, who is willing to follow in her father's footsteps. She only appears in the third act, dressed in black and magically disguised as Odette in order to help her father trick Siegfried into breaking his vow of love to Odette. In some productions, Odile is known as the Black Swan and, rather than magically disguised as her, is Odette's evil twin or double; an example of this type of portrayal is seen in the production by the Bolshoi Ballet. There are also some productions where Odette and Odile are danced by two different ballerinas!
Rothbart is the central antagonist in the ballet. Rothbart is rarely seen in human form as he appears as a giant owl in the second and fourth acts. His human form is seen once in the third act with his daughter Odile, when she dances with the Prince Siegfried.
Rothbart is a powerful sorcerer, who casts a spell on Odette that turns her into a swan every day and returns her to human form at night. The reason for Rothbart's curse upon Odette is unknown; several versions, including two feature films, have suggested reasons, but none is typically explained by the ballet.
When Rothbart realises that Odette has fallen in love with Prince Siegfried, he tries to intervene by tricking Siegfried into declaring his love for his daughter Odile. The plan succeeds, yet in the end, Rothbart is not triumphant. When Siegfried and Odette make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of their love by throwing themselves into the lake, Rothbart's powers are overcome and he is destroyed.
However, his fate is different in some versions as there are productions where Rothbart is triumphant and survives. One example is the Bolshoi Ballet's version, where he is portrayed as the Evil Genius and plays a wicked game of fate with Siegfried, which he wins as in the end, Siegfried is the one to lose everything. In the second American Ballet Theatre production of Swan Lake, he is portrayed by two dancers. One of them depicts him as young and handsome; it is this von Rothbart that is able to lure Odette and transform her into a swan (this is shown during the introduction to the ballet in a danced prologue especially created by choreographer Kevin McKenzie). He is also able to entice the Prince to dance with Odile, and thus seal Odette's doom. The other von Rothbart, a repulsive, reptilian-like creature, reveals himself only after he has performed an evil deed, such as transforming Odette into a swan. In this version, the lovers' joint suicide inspires the rest of von Rothbart's imprisoned swans to turn on him and overcome his spell, which ultimately defeats him.
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Swan Lake is generally presented in either four Acts, four Scenes (primarily outside Russia and Eastern Europe) or three Acts, four Scenes (primarily in Russia and Eastern Europe).
A dark forest
This scene is only used in some versions. This scene accompanied by the Overture is the actual transformation scene in which Princess Odette is first turned into a swan.
A magnificent park before a palace.
Prince Siegfried is celebrating his birthday with his tutor, friends and peasants. The revelries are interrupted by Siegfried’s mother, the Princess, who is concerned about her son’s carefree lifestyle. She tells him that he must choose a bride at the royal ball the following evening. Siegfried is upset that he cannot marry for love. His friend Benno and tutor try to lift his troubled mood. As evening falls, Benno sees a flock of swans flying overhead and suggests they go on a hunt. Siegfried and his friends take their crossbows and set off in pursuit of the swans.
A lakeside clearing in a forest by the ruins of a chapel. A moonlit night.
Siegfried has become separated from his friends. He arrives at the lakeside clearing, just as a flock of swans land nearby. He aims his crossbow at the swans, but freezes when one of them transforms into a beautiful maiden, Odette. At first, she is terrified of Siegfried. When he promises not to harm her, she tells him that she is the Swan Queen Odette. She and her companions are victims of a terrible spell cast by the evil owl-like sorcerer Von Rothbart. By day they are turned into swans and only at night, by the side of the enchanted lake – created from the tears of Odette's mother – do they return to human form. The spell can only be broken if one who has never loved before swears to love Odette forever. Von Rothbart suddenly appears. Siegfried threatens to kill him but Odette intercedes; If Von Rothbart dies before the spell is broken, it can never be undone.
As Von Rothbart disappears, the swan maidens fill the clearing. Benno and his companions also arrive and aim their crossbows at the maidens; Siegfried stops them just in time and dismisses them. Now, alone with Odette and the swan-maidens, Siegfried sets about winning Odette’s trust. They fall in love with each other. But as dawn arrives, the evil spell draws Odette and her companions back to the lake and they are turned into swans again.
An opulent hall in the palace.
Guests arrive at the palace for a costume ball. Siegfried's mother commands him to dance with six princesses and choose one as a bride. Siegfried complains that he does not love any of them. Von Rothbart arrives in disguise with his daughter Odile. He has transformed Odile so that she appears identical to Odette in all respects except that she wears black rather than white. The prince mistakes her for Odette and dances with her. Odette appears as a vision and vainly tries to warn Siegfried that he is being deceived. But Siegfried remains oblivious and proclaims to the court that he intends to make Odile his wife. Von Rothbart shows Siegfried a magical vision of Odette and he realises his mistake. Grief-stricken, Siegfried hurries back to the lake.
By the lakeside.
Odette is distraught at Siegfried’s betrayal. The swan-maidens try to comfort her, but she is resigned to death. Siegfried returns to the lake and finds Odette. He makes a passionate apology. She forgives him and the pair reaffirm their love. Von Rothbart appears and insists that Siegfried fulfill his pledge to marry Odile, after which Odette will be transformed into a swan forever. Siegfried chooses to die alongside Odette and they leap into the lake and are united in death. This breaks Von Rothbart's spell over the swan maidens, causing him to lose his power over them and he dies.
Many different endings exist, ranging from romantic to tragic.
The score used in this comparison is Tchaikovsky's score, which may be different from Drigo's score, which is commonly performed today. The titles for each number are taken from the original published score. Some of the numbers are titled simply as musical indications, those that are not are translated from their original French titles.
Moderato assai — Allegro non troppo — Tempo I
Pas de deux for Mme. Anna Sobeshchanskaya fashioned from the original music by Léon Minkus (AKA the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux)
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Video recordings of the ballet: