For 10 days, through Feb. 28, the War Memorial Opera House is filled to capacity – 3,126 seats and about 250 in standing room – because of the revival of a 7-year-old production of a 139-year-old ballet. That’s staying power!
The 1877 Bolshoi Theater premiere was followed in 1895 in St. Petersburg by the Marius Petipa-Lev Ivanov version, which became the defining choreography globally and for all time. When San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson presented the version now revived in a box-office riot, it too was based on the classic, but with significant variations, engaging a group of remarkable artists.
At the performance I saw at the Sunday matinee (on Feb. 21), my original admiration held true for the physical production and the company’s talent in depth – the stunning entrance of the swans in the manner of the grand pas classique from Petipa’s “La Bayadère,” appearing one by one, the dancers in white tutus filling the stage in a serpentine pattern, 60 legs and 60 arms moving as one – as did my regret over the lack of palpable passion that must surpass all the white-ballet classicism, but rarely does in Tomasson’s choreography.
And yet, the overall impression justifies raves as dancers from principals to the corps, Jonathan Fensom’s scenery and costumes, Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, a very loud but brilliant orchestral performance under the baton of Martin West, concertmaster Cordula Merks’ violin solos, Eric Sung’s cello, and Adam Luftman’s trumpet all contributed to the kind of experience that many years ago turned a child into a balletomane. Yes, “Swan Lake” was my “first,” even as at today’s matinee, there were many very young children watching totally engrossed, taking the first step on a lifelong journey.
As the all-important role of Odette-Odile rotates among the company’s finest ballerinas, on Sunday, it was Mathilde Froustey’s turn and the French star, who joined SFB as a principal dancer three years ago, gave a brilliant, affecting performance. Along with a body shaped to perfection and rock-solid technique (her pointe work received several justified ovations), Froustey also has a rare unshowy, natural elegance both charming and memorable. Her 180-degree change of character into the Black Swan seductress in the third act was also amazing.
She had a strong, supportive partner in Luke Ingham’s Prince Siegfried (with exemplary lifts) and a scary-brutal warlock in Sean Bennett’s Von Rothbart. Wei Wang shone in the Act I pas de trois, Ellen Rose Hummel, Lauren Parrott, Julia Rowe, and Emma Rubinowitz executed the cygnets’ pas de quatre with bravura.
In the Act III ballroom parade of prospective but rejected fiancées for the prince, Hummel returned as the Neapolitan princess, Dores André and Sasha De Sola were the Russian Princesses, with virtuoso dancing behind them by James Sofranko and Hansuke Yamamoto.
Between the traditional tragic ending and the newfangled happy ending in some productions where the prince kills the warlock and the lovers live happily ever after, Tomasson takes the middle road, as the lovers perish, but then appear upstage in the distance, Odette transformed into human form in some postmortal dimension.