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Act IV problems


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#1 Mel Johnson

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Posted 05 August 2001 - 08:22 AM

Traditionally, dating back at least as far as the 1895 production, the last act of Swan Lake has been a bugbear of productions, going from lugubrious to the occasionally unintentionally ludicrous. The music has been supplemented by various interpolations and rearrangements, and the thing still doesn't work very well. What's the cause? Anybody?

#2 Melissa

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Posted 06 August 2001 - 11:15 AM

I too am bewildered by the problematic Act IV. Could it be that it's anti-climactic following the high drama of Act III?

One problem that many productions face in staging ACT IV is what to do with Odette and Siegfried or, more specifically, how should Von Rothbart's spell be broken. Should the lovers drown themselves or should Siegfried reaffirmation of love for Odette do the trick?

#3 Manhattnik

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Posted 06 August 2001 - 12:43 PM

Call me hopelessly old-fashioned but Von R's spell should be broken when Odette and Siegfried take their plunge off the cliff. That's one thing Kevin McKenzie did get right, although at the wrong moment.

I think the old David Blair Act IV that ABT used to do is just perfect, and I wish they'd blow the dust off it and bring it back.

#4 doug

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Posted 06 August 2001 - 10:39 PM

I'd really like to see the David Blair staging of Act IV. Act IV seems always to have been a problem: the revivers in 1895 spent a lot of time trying to deal with it and make it work. I don't like the musical deletions and interpolations they made. I love the melancholy Dance of the Little Swans that was cut. I prefer the sort of ending when Siegfried is left alone and Odette is doomed to be a swan (I know not everyone likes it this way); I feel it matches the music - the very ambiguous ending on a unison 'B' in the orchestra.

#5 felursus

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Posted 07 August 2001 - 12:32 AM

Reaffirmation of love can't do the trick: Siegfried was unfaithful (well stupid, as he can't tell a white feather from a black feather), so the only way Siegfried can redeem himself is by dying for Odette. She can only be released from her curse by dying as well. Rothbart should die once they sacrifice themselves because not only have they escaped from his curse, they have broken his power. (Killing Rothbart a la Soviet style doesn't end the curse either.) In the Ashton version (later used by Makarova for Festival Ballet), Odette wants to kill herself but is prevented by the big swans. After Siegfried arrives (and is forgiven), Odette sends the other swans off and might have followed them into a life of swandom but for the arrival of Rothbart who is then challenged by Siegfried. Aware that Siegfried can never win a fight against Von Rothbart, the lovers decide to die together. There is a suggestion that the swans then kill Rothbart (whose powers have fled with the ending of the curse).

I guess Act IV has been interpreted so many different ways that choreographers can have a field day with it - thus leaving it wide open to be abused. I remember a Festival Ballet version (Beryl Grey) that happened to premiere during the Easter season that ended with the swans in the pattern of a huge cross on the floor with the "resurrection" of Siegfried and Odette. One would have had to be a visitor from Mars or from some remote location where there were no Christians to have missed the point of that staging!

#6 Mel Johnson

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Posted 10 August 2001 - 06:37 AM

One of the things working against Act IV, maybe, is the same sort of thing working against Act II in a lot of musical comedies - how do we tie all this off and finish, already? Last act problems are almost a cliché in the production history of musicals, and some have "solved" the problem by making loooong one-acts out of them.

Some productions of Swan have ended with Act III, even, when Siegfried runs from the scene back to the lake.

#7 doug

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Posted 20 August 2001 - 06:13 PM

This is a little rambling, but: the aesthetic of what is considered 'serious' in full-length ballets and what is acceptable on stage (mime, melodrama, etc.) has obviously changed drastically from the Victorian times. I think this is another reason why Act IV is so difficult to bring off. The music is also very powerful, so powerful that it was toned down significantly, in my opinion, by the 1895 revivers through cuts and omissions.

The 1895 version included mimed conversation and a pas de deux that was really a pas d'action, in which the lovers conversed about the situation and brought some sense of closure to it.

There followed a final action scene in which the lovers commited suicide and Rothbart was destroyed; this is similar, isn't it, to the end of GOTTERDAMERUNG, with the characters dying or committing suicide? The singing stops early on and the music continues during the action scenes. Same in SWAN LAKE - the dancing stops, but the action continues.

This ending is still acceptable in the GOTTERDAMERUNG. Is it unacceptable in SWAN LAKE or ballet in general? Or is it the melodrama that we don't want to see? I'm not sure of the answers, but the larger question may be whether tastes have changed so much that 19th century ballets can no longer be presented as intended by their creators?

SWAN LAKE Act IV is a very good example of the difficulties that changing tastes present.

#8 Richard Jones

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Posted 29 August 2001 - 04:25 AM

I agree about the need to include the dance of the little swans in Act IV. The music is quintessentially Russian, and conveys exactly the right mood for that point in the drama. In Tchaikovsky’s original score it provided a telling dance movement surrounded by a welter of action music. The basic problem with Act IV, I would have thought, is that Tchaikovsky produced a score containing wonderfully dramatic music, constructed with the sort of attention to musical balance that one would expect from a composer of his stature, but without the benefit of first-rate choreographic advice. His instincts were far in advance of other ballet composers of the time, but sadly he was not working in harness with a choreographer of the same talent or instincts. When the dancers complained that some of the score was ‘undanceable’ the Bolshoi authorities substituted music from other ballets - by Pugni – instead. (To make matters worse, the conductor for the first production in 1877 wasn’t great, and apparently had a bit of a struggle understanding Tchaikovsky’s score). The 1895 revisions were made after Tchaikovsky’s death to try and solve the director’s problems, but the music for the whole ballet was hacked about by Drigo who added his own touches here and there. This then created new problems by upsetting the musical balance. Further, there was the introduction of an apotheosis. I’ve read that the composer’s brother Modest was involved with this new interpretation of the ending; more than a bit sentimental in the view of some commentators (and I’d agree). From then on it seems directors have had a fine old time messing about with the whole ballet, but especially Act IV. It’s some time since I looked at Tchaikovsky’s original score, but from what I remember Act IV is packed with action music with precise stage directions relating to the original scenario. Musically, the dance of the little swans is in beautifully melancholic contrast.

The most recent performance of Swan Lake that I have seen was the staging by Derek Deane for English National Ballet (not his in-the-round arena version, but the staging which toured various theatres in the UK in his last season as AD). This is a good, dramatic, straightforward telling of the story, but when it comes to the ending Odette and Siegfried sail away into the heavens on what can only be described as a jet-propelled flying bed… tacky! I was sitting high enough in the theatre to be able to cut them out of my line of vision. This was much better. The rows of swans diagonally on the floor facing the direction (upstage) where O and S had met their fate matched perfectly (and sufficiently) the drama of Tchaikovsky’s score, ending on that enigmatic unison B, neither major nor minor (though the firmness of that B somehow reassures me of the love between O and S, despite the tragedy). The rest is left to our imaginations. (The point has been made about presenting 19th century drama before a 21st century audience, e.g. as for Wagner’s Ring. I have seen a staging of the Ring which could only be described as minimalist-abstract in its approach; the power of the music was able to assert itself). Not only do I find the apotheosis-vision in Swan Lake to be very sentimental, but the Soviet era ending where a fight with Rothbart might result in a severe case of dislocated wing for R (as in the Kirov production) strikes me as being unbelievably corny. Directors should trust Tchaikovsky and not try for over-statement. Surely the point is that it is a tragedy, which results in the death of the two lovers who are caught up in something they cannot control; this is especially true for Odette. (Siegfried needs a bit of analysis, given his background – his pensive solo at the end of Act I tells us that there is trouble ahead). The parallels with Romeo and Juliet are there, aren’t they? Imagine a contrived happy ending for that story…….

[ 08-29-2001: Message edited by: Richard Jones ]

#9 Mel Johnson

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Posted 29 August 2001 - 05:08 PM

Welcome, Richard, and thanks for the well-thought-out and well-musically-grounded commentary! The musically conscious are always a valuable addition to a ballet board! :)

One point that I feel I have to refute is the story that the original 1877 production contained music by other composers. This is a long-standing belief bolstered by Russian archival items which have become supplemented over the last thirty years by the discovery of the "other side of the conversation". Tchaikovsky insisted that all the music for the new ballet be his, and even composed new bits to replace the interpolations. What happened to the score after he wasn't around to hear, has not come to light yet, if any such evidences exist.

For an uproarious version of a happy ending for Romeo and Juliet, see the Royal Shakespeare Company's acting edition of Nicholas Nickleby!

#10 doug

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Posted 29 August 2001 - 07:07 PM

Thanks, Richard, for all your comments and information. I agree completely that Tchaikovsky was thinking far ahead of most composers (and choreographers) of his time and he would have benefited from a like-minded collaborator.

While I don't like the Drigo orchestrations, at least we know that he took the job very seriously. In his memoirs he stated that he was given the very ungrateful task of rearranging and reorchestrating parts of SWAN LAKE and tried his best to emulate the great composer, Tchaikovsky. Nevertheless, the 'salon' quality of his own orchestrations is very apparent, particularly in the interpolated variation for Odile in Act III.

I also agree that the Dance of the Little Swans in Act IV has just the right melancholy flavor, much more so than the interpolated Valse Bluette.

Re: Siegfried - it should be noted that he did not have a variation in Act I in the 1895 staging. In 1877, he appears to have danced the pas de deux that in 1895 would become the Black Swan pas de deux in Act III. So, all Siegfried solos in Act I of any 20th-century productions are further interpolations themselves and not part of Tchaikovsky's original conception.

#11 rg

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Posted 30 August 2001 - 08:40 AM

doug, do i read your post rightly about wanting to see the blair staging of act iv. do you have the makarova/nagy abt telecast? it's of the blair staging unless i'm totally off this morning. tho' w/ makarova in the lead all the formal pantomime passages are cut, the last act is pretty much there as blair staged it. it used to be marketed, along w/ the baryshnikov/makarova 'giselle' but both, distributed by 'bel canto' if mem. serves, are now off the market but they are 'around.'

#12 Alexandra

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Posted 30 August 2001 - 09:05 AM

Just a quick word to welcome Richard and thank you for that very informative post. More, please :) I loved the flying bed!

#13 doug

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Posted 30 August 2001 - 10:26 AM

Yes, rg, I'd like to see the Blair. Thanks for the info - I'll try and check it out.

#14 Mel Johnson

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Posted 30 August 2001 - 08:43 PM

As Blair staged it, it was pretty much the "old" Royal Ballet Act IV.

#15 felursus

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Posted 22 September 2001 - 12:05 AM

It wasn't just the Kirov who had a "happy ending" version - the Bolshoi did too. I remember finding it hysterically funny when first I saw it. It completely spoiled the emotion of Act IV. Rothbart seems to have been a weak sort whose magic deserts him when it counts. He doesn't just get a case of a badly dislocated wing, he loses it in the manner of a wing being torn off a roast chicken. (ouch!) Having lost the wing, he dies in agony, and the swans turn back into humans. Nice, Soviet ideological ending. :eek:


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