ACT II: Some hours later. By the lake. As Prince Siegfried enters the forest to hunt, he suddenly sees a magnificent swan in flight. He carefully takes aim, but, to his astonishment, the bird transforms into a most beautiful girl, and he withdraws into the trees to observe her. Unable to restrain his curiosity, he steps out, only to startle and frighten her. He assures her he will do no harm and asks her to explain the marvel he has just seen. Impressed by his gentleness, Odette unburdens the story of her plight. She tells him she is a Princess of high birth who fell under the spell of an evil sorcerer, and now her fate is to be a swan; only in hours of darkness may she assume her human guise. Indeed, this very lake is filled with her mother's tears. She tells him she is condemned for eternity, and only if a virgin youth swears eternal fidelity to her and marries her can she find release. Only then can the spell be broken. But, if he should forswear her, then she must remain a swan forever. At that moment, the sorcerer appears. The Prince in his passion reaches for his crossbow, but Odette immediately protects the sorcerer with her body, for she knows that if he is killed before the spell is broken, she too will die. The sorcerer disappears, and Odette slips away into the forest. Siegfried realizes his destiny is changed. Dawn approaches and Odette is compelled by the spell to return to her guise as a swan. Siegfried is left distraught.
ACT III: The next night, The Great Hall. Guests from many royal houses assemble for the birthday ball, including six princesses and their retinues, whom the Queen Mother has chosen as eligible maidens for her son's hand. The Queen Mother commands the entertainment to begin, then invites the princesses to dance. Prince Siegfried dances with each of the beautiful young maidens in turn. The Queen Mother urges Siegfried to make a decision, but, haunted by the memory of Odette, he refuses, to his mother's consternation. A fanfare announces the arrival of the Baron Von Rothbart with his daughter Odile. Siegfried, who is dazzled by Odile's beauty and seduced by her resemblance to Odette, declares his love and fidelity. Rothbart and Odile triumphantly reveal their deception, and Siegfried realizes he is the victim of an evil plot. He rushes into the night.
ACT IV: The lakeside. That night. The swan-maidens are anxious
at the disappearance of Odette. She appears and tells of Rothbart's treachery;
before dawn, she intends to die. A great storm rages. Siegfried, bursting
into the glade, discovers her and begs her forgiveness.
Apotheosis: The lovers are united in life after death.
|The Origins of Swan Lake
This most revered of classical ballets did not appear in a blaze of glory, and even the exact origins of the ballet are uncertain. The Petipa/Ivanov version of Swan Lake that we consider the "standard" today was in fact created after Tchaikovsky’s death and was greatly altered from the original concept. Many of the features of Swan Lake that we believe to be from the original production (e.g. the White Swan pas de deux) were the result of revisions after the Petipa/Ivanov version. There is surprisingly little that was written down during the creation of the music or choreography. All we have to go on are personal recollections and memoirs that were written a long time after the event and thus subject to some skepticism and much debate among scholars.
It is known that Tchaikovsky was commissioned by Vladimir Petrovich Begichev, the intendant of the Russian Imperial Theatres in Moscow and a friend of Tchaikovsky, to write a score for Swan Lake in May 1875 for the sum of 800 roubles. It was Begichev who authored at least the initial programme of the ballet. He, along with Vasily Fedorovich Geltser, a dancer in the Moscow company, are credited with writing the libretto for the ballet, though many contend that Geltser was probably no more than the copyist. The first published libretto of Swan Lake did not correspond exactly to the musical lay out and was probably produced by a staff writer who based it on observations of rehearsals in progress. It is highly likely that Tchaikovsky had a good deal of influence over the story’s development. Legends of swans were presumably familiar to Tchaikovsky and his artistic friends, who no doubt discussed the idea of the swan as a symbol of womanhood at its purest.
The legend of the Swan-Maiden goes back for centuries, appearing in differing forms in both eastern and western literature. Women who turn into birds and vice versa were popular themes, and the swan was particularly favored due to its grace when swimming in the water. The ancient Greeks considered the swan to the bird closest to the Muses. When Apollo was born at Delos, the event was celebrated by flights of circling swans.
The Tales of the Thousand and One Nights tells the story of Hassan of Bassorah, who visits a place inhabited by bird-maidens. When they take off their feather garments, the bird-maidens are transformed into beautiful women. Hassan captures the clothes of one of the maidens in order to keep her in human form as his wife. She is able to regain her feathers and flies away from him. Hassan sets out on a quest to regain his wife and after many adventures succeeds in finding her.
Sweet Mikhail Ivanovich the Rover is a Slav tale that begins with Mikhail the Rover who is about to shoot a swan that warns him "Shoot not, else ill-fortune will doom thee for evermore!" On landing the swan turns into a beautiful maiden. When Mikhail tries to kiss her she warns that she is an infidel. However, if he takes her to the holy city of Kiev, then she might be received by the church and thus free to marry him. So they set out. In a similar South German legend a swan speaks to a forester who is about to kill her. The beautiful maiden in this case says that she would be his if he could keep her existence a secret for one year. He fails and thus looses her.
Celtic folk-lore brings us The Legend of the Children of Lir. When King Lir’s first wife dies, he marries a wicked woman Arife. Jealous of Lir’s children from his first wife, Arife turns them all into swans.
The complete scenario of Swan Lake is not to be found in any of these legends, but many parallels do exist. Other possible sources of inspiration could have been Johann Karl August Musäus’ Der geraubte Schleier, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans and Alexandre Pushkin’s Tzar Saltan, the story of a prince who saves the life of a wounded swan who later reappears as a woman to marry him. There are also elements of the story that are traditional in many ballets. One cannot discount the influence, at least on Tchaikovsky, of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, the story of an heroic Swan Prince, a man with a mysterious past who arrives on a magical swan-boat. Tchaikovsky himself was an admirer of Wagner and reviewed his concerts, including the first Bayreuth Festival. He particularly admired Lohengrin, calling it "an excellent opera, written by a first-class master" that contained "some of the most beautiful pages in contemporary music."
Rehearsals for the first performance in Moscow began in March 1876, before Tchaikovsky had finished the score, and went on for an incredible 11 months. Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modeste, "If you could have seen how comical the ballet master looked, composing the dances in a most serious and concentrated manner, to the accompaniment of a little fiddle. At the same time it was a pleasure to watch the male and female dancers smiling at the future audience and looking forward to the possibility of jumping, pirouetting and turning about in the execution of their holy duty. Everybody in the theater is delighted with my music!"
This delight in Tchaikovsky’s music was not long lived. The structure and emotional content was so in advance of what they were used to at the time that his music was soon labeled as ‘undanceable’. Even the conductor deemed it altogether too complex and difficult.
The Moscow company at this time was going through an undistinguished period and lacked a ballet master with a creative drive to propel the company forwards. The choreography of Lebedinoe Ozero (Swan Lake) was given to Julius (Wentzel) Reisinger (1827 - 92), an Austrian who was ballet master in Moscow from 1873-78. Reisinger’s contributions to the structure of the score are unknown. Although it was the tradition of the time for the ballet master to lay down a very clear ground plan that the composer was to follow, evidence points to composer and choreographer working separately. After initially deciding on the type and placement of dances, Tchaikovsky composed his music and Reisinger set about the choreography after the music was written. By many accounts Reisinger was baffled by the score and had the dancers compose their own variations.
Little is written of Reisinger today except for the failure of his Swan Lake. A critic of the day wrote "Mr. Reisinger’s dances are weak in the extreme.... Incoherent waving of the legs that continued through the course of four hours - is this not torture? The corps de ballet stamp up and down in the same place, waving their arms like a windmill’s vanes - and the soloists jump about the stage in gymnastic steps." The designs were borrowed from other productions or made cheaply. Conceived by three different men, who did not work together, the result was a shabby and incoherent look.
The choice of ballerina to perform Odette seems to have been somewhat political. The reigning ballerina, Anna Sobeshchanskaya, had offended the Governor General of Moscow by accepting jewels from him, then marrying a dancer, Stanislav Gillert, who promptly sold the jewels. The role was unexpectedly given to the lesser dancer, Pelegya Mikhailovna Karpakova, as a benefit performance. The offending Stanislav Gillert, although not notably a gifted dancer, was given the role of Siegfried. It is not known who danced the role of Odile as the program was printed with three asterisks. This was no doubt to promote the mystery about the identity of Odile, but leaves us today wondering if Karpakova took both roles or if Odile fell to another dancer.
Anna Sobeshchanskaya was permitted to dance Odette at the fourth performance of the ballet. Having no confidence in Reisinger’s talents, she went to St. Petersburg to seek the help of the illustrious choreographer Marius Petipa. She requested that he create a new third act pas de deux for her, which he did to the music of Ludwig Minkus. Tchaikovsky was appalled to learn of her plan to insert another’s music in his score. After long discussions he agreed to write additional music, basing it "bar for bar, note for note" on the Minkus music so that Petipa’s choreography could be retained. So thrilled was Sobeshchanskaya with Tchaikovsky’s composition that she requested an additional variation, which he composed for her. This is the music that Balanchine has since used as the accompaniment to his Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.