140 years ago this February, Tchaikovsky’s glorious ballet Swan Lake premiered at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. Based loosely on a Russian folk tale, the story follows a princess named Odette who was cursed and turned into a swan. Tchaikovsky’s score is melodic, hypnotic and over a century later, his music remains instantly recognisable. It’s hard to imagine anyone remaining unmoved by such a magical piece, let alone when it’s coupled with the graceful and skilful movements of the dancers who perform to it.
You might be surprised, then, to learn that the Swan Lake premiere was a flop. Choreographed by Julius Reisinger, the ballet was to be a benefit performance for a ballerina named Polina Karpakova. She took on the role of Odette that night, taking the place of fellow Russian Anna Sobeshchanskaya who had been forced to pull out. A love affair had soured and the resultant scandal involving gifts of expensive jewellery that had been sold rather than treasured sealed her fate.
That first night, the critics had a field day, not only complaining about the dancers but also the orchestra’s ability and the quality of the sets. Even Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music didn’t escape the chorus of disapproval. Some of the so-called experts at the time branded the work too complicated for ballet. Reisinger got it in the neck too; his choreography was deemed unimaginative and unmemorable. Even the characters’ names came under scrutiny, such was the pickiness. It’s a wonder that wasn’t the end of the production! Tchaikovsky’s brother waded in to the furore, claiming that his sibling had good reason to blame everything else but the music. However you look at it, as beginnings go it was disastrous.
Despite this, the producers retained the same staging and forty more performances were to take place over the next six years. Ironically, given that audiences found the piece too complex, the ballet still drew a crowd. The negativity began to ease with the reinstatement of Anna Sobeshchanskaya to the title role in April 1877. A prima donna in the modern sense of the word as well as prima ballerina, she demanded changes be made to the choreography and, to Tchaikovsky’s fury, to the music as well. A compromise was found and the production was saved.
Swan Lake limped on, and after a hiatus, talks commenced in the early 1890s for a revival. Tchaikovsky died before this could happen, and a couple of years later, an Italian composer Riccardo Drigo created an amended score, overseen by Tchaikovsky’s brother. It’s quite different though many ballet companies use Drigo’s over the original to this day.
Whichever version you prefer – original or altered – it is impossible to deny Swan Lake is one of the best known and best loved ballets the world has ever seen. Whether you’re a novice or a ballet veteran, Swan Lake won’t disappoint, no matter what those early critics would have you believe.