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Act IV problems

Mel Johnson

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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 ]

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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!

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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.

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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.'

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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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I wonder if Tchaikovsky was still getting his land legs with "Swan Lake," especially, as Richard points out (great post!) with no Petipa to guide him. I'm no musical expert, but it does seem to me that "Sleeping Beauty" and "Nutcracker" have a transparency and structure that "Swan Lake" for whatever reason -- interpolations or fussing with this part and that part -- doesn't have for me. When I listen to the latter two, it's as if the music is almost telling me what to see and how the action is unfolding. There are parts of the full-length "Swan Lake" where I'm emotionally moved and yet still not clear on what's supposed to be happening, and quite a few of those parts are in Act IV. (But "Swan Lake" is still my favorite. Go figure.)

I remember reading that Kenneth MacMillan was unhappy with the libretto of "The Prince of the Pagodas," but there was only so much tweaking he could do, because the tight construction of Britten's score would not permit it. "Swan Lake," on the other hand, perhaps offers too many allurements to those inclined to wholesale revision.

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I think that what appeals to us all in the music for Swan Lake is its colour; a strong dose of Russian passion! I agree that Sleeping Beauty has a transparency of structure (and fine scoring, inevitably), but the combination of the dark fatalism of some of the music of Swan Lake with the vulnerability of Odette is irresistable!

Prince of the Pagodas was originally a Cranko choreography. I think Cranko may have had strong control over the project; I seem to remember reading something about this.

I have re-discovered a programme I have of Swan Lake as performed in Prague in the 1994/5 season, using the 1982 production by Jiri Nemecek in collaboration with Olga Skalova. I haven’t seen the production; the programme was given to me by my son who was visiting Prague with fellow art college students at the time.

For the fourth act, the following summary is given (just love the translation!):

“In the middle of the night the swans are waiting for Odetta. She is coming with her heart broken. The Prince has not kept the oath. The Red-beard brings the wild storm. He is celebrating his victory but the Prince is coming back. He is begging Odetta and her mates to forgive him. He fights with the Red-beard for the last time. The love gives him superhuman strength and the Prince wins. However Odetta cannot be saved. Both lovers have to die because of love-betrayal. Prince’s victory over the Red-beard brings redemption to others. The swans have been transformed into the girls – they will live on and remember for ever the love of Prince and Odetta”.

It’s interesting to compare this with the Soviet version, because in 1982 Prague would still have been strongly under Soviet control. The programme states that Nemecek, who was trying to preserve the legacy of Petipa and Ivanov, staged the ballet in 1963 in collaboration with Ruzena Mazalova. This followed productions in Prague by Soviet artists.

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Not finding any information on the subject elsewhere (I'll bet Major Mel has something!) I'll give you my own thoughts:

1) after the confusion of Act III, the poor prince really can't tell black from white anymore, making it all the harder to find his own beloved swan queen among all the Odette/Odile lookalikes and heightening his state of angst as he tries to sort out good from evil, which thrills the audience with the .....

2) exciting visual choreography: black swans counterbalanced by white, traveling in opposite directions, encircling and prohibiting access to Odette, which initiates the .....

3) psychological effect, particularly as they auger the coming (usually) tragic climax, which promotes the idea that .....

4) everything in life is, after all, simply black and white -- and that is something that even a child can understand! :)

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Yes, they are cygnets (my daughter has danced the role several times, being of the shorter persuasion), although in Act II the same cygnets are never black, which is confusing, too.

Looking for the deeper meaning is what I do to reconcile the fairy tale with real life, as fairy stories often have a moral to them. Choreographers who revamp traditional ballets do the same, sometimes mercilessly toying with the elements of the original. Has anyone seen what James Kudelka did to Swan Lake?


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Thanks everyone!

I know in one upcoming version of Swan Lake, due to premier next year, the "stager" has been talking about making the four little swans black as well (in he second act.) So, the cygnets theory would make sense, though all the points listed do...

Thanks again!


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I have an odd feeling that Ivanov/Petipa may have cut the "Pas des Petits Cygnes" in Act IV because they ran out of rehearsal time! So here they were, stuck with these little swans and nothing else to explain their presence. I did see one production that had the Act II little swans in black, and they were always in the first quadrille of the corps. I've seen just about everything happen to this poor old ballet, which seems to be wrenched about partly because, "Everybody knows the original." Well, it's been so long since anybody did a standard version, that now there is a large audience that DOESN'T know what the original looks like. One of the most revolutionary things a company could do right now is produce a plain-vanilla Swan Lake, with no additions or corrections.

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the following sentence preceeds wiley's discussion of odette's return to the final lakeside scene in the 1895 production of the petipa/ivanov SWAN LAKE, it comes at the end of a paragraph about the choreographic figures in the last act's waltz:

'The rest of the waltz proceeds as sequence of episodes alternating the corps with soloists; the black swans enrich the complexity of Ivanov's figures to excellent effect (one wonders if the rose-colored swan maidens, contemplated by Petipa, would in fact have been any improvement).)'

real cygnets, i believe, are a kind of mousy brown hue, thus perhaps this was the color that the intended 'rose' hue was meant to suggest. i suppose we'll never quite know...

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