Sunday, January 25, 2015

"Swan Lake", at Bolshoi, shown as a Fandango event, offers "tragic" ending without the usual Tchaikovsky triumph; an implied political protest?

Today, I attended a Fathom broadcast of “Swan Lake” by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Op. 20, originally composed in 1875-1876 (which the composer was in his mid 30s). 
Wikipedia explains that Tchaikovsky questioned the practice of “specialty composition” of ballet, and took the work as symphonic in scope.  However, there are various versions of both the choreography and music, one of the most controversial having been developed in 1895 by Petipa, Ivanov and Drigo.
The broadcast today was said to be live from the Bolshoi in Moscow, which would be 8 hours ahead.  Since it started at 1 PM, it must have been performed at 9 PM tonight in Moscow, which is late.
The choreography is by Yuri Grigorovich, based on Marius Petipa.  There were pre-show and intermission interviews by Katya Novikova.  The cast comprises Denis Rodkin as Prince Siegfried, Svetlana Zahkarova as the fated Odette.Odile, Artemy Belyakov as the sorcerer, and Igor Tsvirko as The Fool. The Bolshoi Theater Orchestra was conducted by Pavel Sorokin.
As presented, the action was compressed into two acts, with several scenes.  The basic controversy concerns the tragic ending, which according to the notes Tchaikovsky wanted, but which was not allowed to be shown (for “propaganda” reasons) until 2001.  The story incorporates the idea of Odette’s having a doppelganger, Odile, and prince Siegried’s marrying Odile when Odette has been turned into a swan.  At the end, Siegfried realizes he has been duped, and apparently drowns himself.
The music, as performed today, dies away quietly into a soft ending.  The usual performance end in great triumph, with the music switching its main theme to the Picardy B Major and ending in a kind of empty yet powerful triumph.  A number of horror and dramatic films recently have played the doppelganger idea, and the most important is, of course, Darren Aronofsky’s own “Black Swan” (reviewed on the Movies blog Dec. 3, 2010). In that film, the triumphant music crashes at the end, with great irony as the doppelganger ballerina dies on a public ballet stage.  The triumphant music actually works in combination with horror and tragedy, as if to hollow it out.  The film (along with Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood”) is a favorite among many younger classical musicians. 
I think if you want to play the quiet ending to the stage action, fine.  But then play the 5-minute orchestra suite conclusion, with the closing bombast, during the bows, to give the audience the right effect. 
In the performance above, of the conclusion of the Suite. Tonu Kalum conducts the University of North Carolina Orchestra (at Chapel Hill) in Memorial Hall at UNC in December 2012, where a college orchestra plays the music like a major city orchestra would.  This interpretation gets the majestic conclusion and the effect exactly right. Note the drawing out of the final drumbeat before the last octave crashes.  

As shown, the Bolshoi performance today seems almost like a political protest, against Valdimir Putin’s aggression (in the Ukraine) and support of the “anti-gay propaganda law”, which seems predicated in many ways by Russia’s low birth rate, and the fear that young adults will be persuaded by western “propaganda” not to have the children and big families that the country needs.  That presumes adults can’t think for themselves and are so easily influenced.  Imagine the ending:  instead of fertility (in the marriage in the happy ending where the sorcerer is defeated and the real Odette returns from “being” a swan), the prince is himself sterile and suicidal, as is the “swan”, a caricature of what Putin fears is happening to Russia. 
There is a full length version, 2014, on YouTube with the Bolshoi, ending with the triumphant music, here. So why did Bolshoi change the music for Fathom? It does appear though, that in the visuals, at the very end the prince keeps Odette from the Sorcerer.
Much of the rest of the music seems episodic, with many short numbers (even though Tchaikovsky wanted his ballet music to have more form and seriousness).  There were some irritating interruptions for applauses. At one point, a team "flower" dancer actually fell.   
The pre-show did include a view of the Bolshoi outside, and often there are light shows. 

Wikipedia attribution link for image of Bolshoi at night.

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