Ever since its Moscow premiere, in 1877, “Swan Lake” has been a work in progress. In 1895, two years after composer Tchaikovsky’s death, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov rechoreographed it for St. Petersburg, with some rearranging of the music. The concept of Odile as the Black Swan didn’t become a tradition until the 1940s. Every company artistic director puts his own stamp on the ballet.
Mikko Nissinen’s new production for Boston Ballet at the Opera House, with sets and costumes by Robert Perdziola, is a spellbinder, especially when the roles of Prince Siegfried and Odette/Odile are danced as gorgeously as they were by Jeffrey Cirio and Misa Kuranaga on Thursday night.
Credit Perdziola for opening up this “Swan Lake.” Like his design for Boston Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” his sets are painted flats, so everything feels light and the dancers have ample room to move. The castle park in which Siegfried celebrates his 21st birthday is spacious and a little wild, overseen by a towering ancient tree, the castle itself rising in the distance. Its grand hall is a panorama of tapestries and painted ceilings, warm but not heavy. The swans’ lake is a haze of midnight blue with a tiny crescent moon; there’s none of the claustrophobia of previous Boston Ballet versions. Perdziola’s costumes are similarly elegant and airy; Rothbart is no owl-headed sorcerer but a handsome dark prince. The national dances are a riot of color — yellow for the Neapolitan, blue for the Csárdás, red for the Mazurka.
The other major innovation in this “Swan Lake” is a kind of prequel. Traditionally the orchestra plays the Introduction with the curtain down; here, the curtain rises briefly, and we see Rothbart presenting himself to Odette and then abducting her. Most audience members will know the story of the ballet, but it’s nice to have something to look at straight off, and the episode is nicely staged.
Yet despite Nissinen’s goal of giving us a streamlined “Swan Lake,” Thursday night’s performance, with just one intermission, ran close to three hours. I’m still not convinced that restoring the third-act pas de cinq is a good idea. The 12 minutes of music are not Tchaikovsky’s best, the dancers have no connection to the rest of the act, and Nissinen’s choreography, though pleasing, doesn’t give them anything novel or virtuosic.
And the last act, as in so many productions of “Swan Lake,” is a bit of a puzzle. It’s not overblown. Even with a brief added duet for Odette and Siegfried, it runs just 20 minutes, and Nissinen’s choreography for that duet uses the vocabulary from their Act Two pas de deux to heart-stopping effect. But when Odette and Siegfried’s love for each other is too much for Rothbart and he collapses, shouldn’t the spell be broken? Instead, Odette throws herself into the lake, and Siegfried, after a moment’s reflection, follows her. That leaves the swans to hold the stage as the curtain falls. It appears they’re still enchanted.
On the other hand, anyone would be enchanted by Kuranaga and Cirio. Kuranaga in particular: She was a furtive animal in the second act, a slinky temptress in the third, with a fabulous set of 32 fouettés. For all her classical purity and clarity, she’s also spontaneous and memorably quirky. Cirio was a soft, poetic partner.
Lasha Khozashvili made for a commanding Rothbart, especially in his opening manège, but the character needs more to do if he’s to suggest Siegfried’s dark side. The Act One pas de trois, with Dusty Button, Whitney Jensen, and Roddy Doble, had a confident brio about it. And the corps and the Boston Ballet Orchestra, under Jonathan McPhee, cast their own spell throughout.