Swan Lake is ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, was composed in 1875–1876. The scenario, initially in four acts, was fashioned from Russian folk tales and tells the story of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer's curse. The choreographer of the original production was Julius Reisinger. The ballet was premiered by the Bolshoi Ballet on 4 March 1877 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, billed as The Lake of the Swans. Although it is presented in many different versions, most ballet companies base their stagings both choreographically and musically on the 1895 revival of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, first staged for the Imperial Ballet on 15 January 1895, at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. For this revival, Tchaikovsky's score was revised by the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre's chief conductor and composer Riccardo Drigo
Many critics have disputed the original source of the Swan Lake story. The Russian ballet patriarch Fyodor Lopukhov has called Swan Lake a "national ballet" because of its swans, who originate from Russian lyrically romantic sources, while many of the movements of the corps de ballet originated from Slavonic ring-dances. According to Lopukhov, "both the plot of Swan Lake, the image of the Swan and the very idea of a faithful love are essentially Russian". The libretto is based on a story by the German author Johann Karl August Musaus, "Der geraubte Schleier" (The Stolen Veil), though this story provides only the general outline of the plot of Swan Lake. The Russian folktale "The White Duck" also bears some resemblance to the story of the ballet, and may have been another possible source. The contemporaries of Tchaikovsky recalled the composer taking great interest in the life story of Bavarian King Ludwig II, whose tragic life had supposedly been marked by the sign of Swan and who—either consciously or not—was chosen as the prototype of the dreamer Prince Siegfried.
It is difficult to understand these days how it could have happened that the first show of the “Lake” in 1877, in Moscow’s Bolshoi, was a flop, and that it took many years for the ballet to achieve its worldwide cult status. The composer, Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, never lived to see the ultimate success of his creation.
The story begins in 1875, when Bolshoi commissions a ballet score from the young but already famous composer. It was not yet customary practice –despite Tchaikovsky fame and previous successes, which included four symphonies, the now famous Piano Concerto and “Eugene Onegin” opera, the Imperial Theatres of the time would normally employ the composers on Imperial payroll, such as Cesare Pugni, Ludwig Minkus, and Riccardo Drigo. Keeping that in mind, Tchaikovsky did not embark on the course of a revolution in the Russian ballet, and studied the classic ballet scores assiduously, planning to produce a score that would be in tune with the established tradition but at the same time would sound new and interesting. The task of composition occupied him from May 1875 to April 1876. The story was a knightly fairy tale, and historians still debate the literary origins –some opt for Heine, some for Musaeus, a German fairy-tale writer, some for Russian folklore fairy tales, some even for Pushkin.
The first show took place on February 20, 1877, and was a flop. The critics reviled the chief choreographer, Wentsel Reisinger, and were short on praise for Polina (Pelageya) Karpakova, the first interpreter of the main female part. The failure of the first show was detrimental for the immediate reputation of the ballet itself, and for quite some time nobody dared to stage it again.
The situation changed after Tchaikovsky’s death. In 1893, Mariinka decided to revive the “Swan Lake”. A new version of the libretto and the music was to be produced by Modest Tchaikovsky, the composer’s brother, Ivan Vsevolzhsky, the director of the Imperial Theatres himself, and by Riccardo Drigo. The latter used the original music as a source material for a completely new score. The choreography was supervised by Marius Petipa and his pupil Lev Ivanov. The tradition claims that while Petipa was the father of the unique choreography of the new ballet, its truly Russian singing character is there thanks to Ivanov. The lake and swan scenes, famous for their perfection, are undoubtedly his alone. It was Ivanov who came up with the idea of enchanted ladies with their criss-crossed arms and heads tilted to one side, which every spectator immediately recognized for birds that sit with their wings folded. The very magical world of the swan lake was created by Ivanov. Petipa’s are the scenes of courtly dances and festivities and their intricate lace of waltzes and various dances – Spanish, Hungarian, Polish. Petipa also created an antipode for Ivanov’s White Queen of Swans –its black twin Odile, and its beautiful black pas-de-deux of the second act.
It was this particular stage version that came to be admired as the pinnacle of Russian ballet. This production, as none other, was the perfect setting for many famous dancers to showcase their art. The Swan Lake is a unique and perfect creation, and despite the changing musical and dancing fashions, the performance of Odette and Odile parts is still considered a touchstone for the mettle of any serious dancer. The White Swan is truly a symbol of Russian Ballet, of its beauty and magnificence.
In an old German castle, the birthday of Prince Siegfried is being celebrated; today he comes of age. He is congratulated by his mother, the Princess Mother, friends and courtiers. In a majestic ceremony, Siegfried is made a knight. From this day on a sense of duty, valor will be the guiding principles in his life.
The last toasts are pronounced in his honor, young girls, his contemporaries, try to attract his attention, but Siegfried is overcome by emotions of a different order. He dreams of a pure, ideal love. The festivities draw to an end, the guests depart, leaving the prince alone with his thoughts in the gathering dusk. Night falls. Siegfried is conscious of the presence of a shadow at his side, it is as if some mysterious force is beckoning to him. It is the Evil Genius, or Fate itself, who has come to reveal some perturbing secrets to the Prince. Submitting to the powerful pull of his invisible companion’s presence and full of anxious foreboding, Siegfried succumbs to the ideal world of his dreams...
Lured by the Evil Genius, Siegfried finds himself on the banks of a mysterious lake. In the shimmering patches of moonlight on the water, visions of bewitched swan maidens rise up before him. Siegfried catches sight of Odette, the most beautiful of the maidens. He is spell-bound, deeply struck by her beauty. At long last, he has found his romantic ideal of love. He swears to Odette that he will love her forever and be faithful to her.
Prospective brides-to-be are arriving at the Princess Mother’s castle. The Prince must chose one of them to be his wife. But Siegfried can think of nothing but Odette and his meeting of her. He dances in an offhand way with the well-born maidens. Not one of them can compare to his ideal.
Suddenly, a mysterious knight arrives at the ball accompanied by a ravishingly beautiful young girl and a suite of black swans. It is the Evil Genius and Odile, Odette’s double. Struck by their resemblance, Siegfried hurries towards Odile. The Evil Genius is putting the Prince’s sentiments to the test. Siegfried is enchanted by the perfidious Odile who manages to disarm him of all his doubts. He announces Odile to be his chosen bride. At this very moment, the throne room is plunged in darkness and a vision of the beautiful Odette appears before the assembled company.
Siegfried realizes that he has become a plaything in the hands of Fate. Hoping to atone for his betrayal, he rushes in despair after the receding image of the white swan.
Night-time. A deep gloom overhangs the lake. Odette brings the tragic news; the Prince has broken his vow of faithfulness to her. Siegfried’s conscience is deeply troubled; he hurries towards Odette begging for her forgiveness. Odette forgives the youth but she is no longer mistress of her own fate.
The Evil Genius summons up a storm which disperses, plays havoc with, the heroes of our tale, making it impossible for them to unite. Made weak by his single combat with Fate, Siegfried tries in vain to hold on to the vanish image. As dawn breaks, he finds himself alone on the empty banks of the lake of his dreams.