This particular iteration of the world’s most famous ballet has had a sad and chequered short life. The first revival of Liam Scarlett’s production of Swan Lake, almost exactly two years’ ago, was ended by the onset of coronavirus and the few performances prefacing that untimely end happened while Scarlett (then The Royal Ballet’s Artist in Residence) was under suspension during an investigation into his conduct: he was subsequently dismissed and a year later took an action that led to his death.

Swan Lake
© ROH | Bill Cooper

This further renewal of Scarlett’s ballet came on the day of a tube strike, which left  gaps in a sold-out auditorium and, as if to remind us of the reason for the 2020 postponement, The Royal Ballet’s star dancer, Marianela Núñez (always so wonderful as Odette/Odile) succumbed to Covid prior to the opening. And, of course, this first night came just days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

This awful backdrop cast an extra cloud over the stormy lakeside landscape of a production that is, in every way, a compelling and opulent successor to the much-loved version by Anthony Dowell that had ruled the swan’s roost at Covent Garden for almost thirty years. Scarlett’s staging stays true to the Petipa/Ivanov traditions of Acts 2 and 3 but he has stamped an indelible mark on new scenarios and choreography for the opening and closing acts. As legacies go, this fine production should keep the excellence of Scarlett’s creativity in the consciousness of everyone who loves ballet for many years to come.

Much of the ballet’s distinctive quality lies in John Macfarlane’s magnificent designs, which by emphasising diagonal lines play with, and enhance, perspective, as, for example, when the swans (the corps de ballet in dazzling form) seem to fade into the moon-filled vortex over that dark lake. Rarely has a set looked so much like a work of art, which is unsurprising since Macfarlane painted much of it by hand. A seamless transition between acts one and two is superbly covered by set transitions during the Prince’s soliloquy.

Vadim Muntagirov (Siegfried)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Prior to the performance, Vadim Muntagirov took to Instagram to dedicate his performance as Siegfried to the Ukrainian people, stating that he would be thinking of them as he danced, and those noble thoughts were wrapped up in impeccable and assured dancing, combining the gentle lyricism of that soliloquy with powerful virtuosity, doubling-up on triple and double tours in his “Black Swan” variation, and deceptively soft landings.

Muntagirov is also a selfless partner, always sensitive and attentive to the primary job of making his ballerina appear at her best. Yasmine Naghdi was an outstanding replacement for Núñez although despite her previous experiences of dancing with Muntagirov, I struggled to relate to the necessary chemistry that is needed to make the narrative soar. They were both technically superb in the Black Swan pas de deux, although it does seem odd that Siegfried is turned towards the window when the vision of Odette is pleading with him not to dishonour her by falling for Odile’s deception. It seemed impossible that he cannot see her although perhaps it indicates that he was so captivated by Odile that he really only had eyes for her.

Yasmine Naghdi (Odette)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

The orchestra, conducted by Koen Kessels, gave an excellent performance although there were some unexpected sounds from the trumpets in both the Act 3 fanfare and the coda for the Black Swan pas de deux. This is effectively a trio here since Von Rothbart is ever-present, goading Siegfried and guiding Odile. At times his arm is offered as if a branch for Odile to perch upon. Scarlett’s prologue explains the backstory of Odette’s enchantment by Von Rothbart (similar to the scene in American Ballet Theatre’s production). In another twist to the norm, Von Rothbart is not a grotesque sorcerer but the Queen’s mysterious, leather-coated adviser, a role played with sinister menace by Bennet Gartside.

Gone are the townsfolk of Act 1, which now takes place in the palace gardens, entirely populated by aristocracy and soldiers. The pas de trois was danced exquisitely by James Hay, as Benno, accompanying Isabella Gasparini and Meaghan Grace Hinkis as the prince’s sisters. Most of the national dances were refreshed by Scarlett, although the ebullient legacy of Frederick Ashton’s Neapolitan duet was retained, energetically performed here by Yuhui Choe and Luca Acri. The four princesses, presented unsuccessfully as potential brides for Siegfried, are given prominence, each introducing their dancers in stereotypical style, although the stilted Spanish dance seemed as Iberian as a wilted frankfurter. 

Odette sacrifices herself to save Siegfried, leading to a heart-breaking finale as the prince carried her lifeless body from the lake while the apparition of the swan princess hovered in the sky above. On the day that Kharkiv's opera house was bombed, this ending seemed a metaphor for culture being ravaged by viral and human attack, yet still watched over by the unbreakable spirit of the arts.