When the curtain went up on the Boston Ballet's new production of the full-length "Swan Lake" last week at the Metropolitan Center, the impression was of a picture-frame stage with a scene painted long ago. The gold and brown tones of the castle-park of Act I glowed with the patina of an ancient oil painting lit by the rays of a late afternoon sun.
The scenery and costumes by British designer Julia Trevelyan Oman reflect the concent of time passing. This "Swan Lake" is set in the autumn, with colored leaves on the trees in Act I, ending in Act IV in a winter forest of a broken vow. The costumes are from a mid-19th-century period when women at court took hours to arrange the fussy details of ther stately gowns and men changed clothes with the events of each part of the day. Even the swan costumes in Act II are beige rather than pristine white, as if tinged from the smoke of a bonfire.
Poised at the center of this ballet is the Swan Queen. In her purity and elusiveness, with long neck and fluttering arms, she stands arched on one toe as the ideal beyond ordinary attainment. The role has remained the classic test for a ballerina for nearly 90 years, since the ballet was given its first successful performance in St. Petersburg.
The Boston Ballet cast three of its principal dancers as Odette-Odile to alternate in the seven Boston performances and three previews given on March 6-7 in Providence. I saw Laura Young and Elaine Bauer on two successive evenings. (The third Swan Queen was Marie-Christine Mouis, formerly a soloist with the Paris Opera Ballet and the newest member of the Boston Ballet).
Miss Young's strong technique has been perfected over the past few years in leading roles in "The Nutcracker" and "The Sleeping Beauty," also in the Boston Ballet repertory. This is not to diminish her acting skills. As Odette in Act II, she was the shy bird-maiden, uncertain of her right to happiness with the handsome Prince. As Odile, the daughter of the wicked magician Von Rothbart, she played the minx, flirting with the Prince and making him do her bidding. She capped the Act III pas de deux with the traditonal series of fouettes -- whipped turns on one leg. i counted 29 turns by Miss Young. (The record in 1894 by Pierina Legnani is 32.)
Miss Bauer presented the Swan Queen as a character of extremes. In Act II she is ethereal, so ready to leave the earth and her cruel enchantment that she seems a creature of the air. As the alter-ego Odette, she is pure evil, with glances of hate rather than seduction for the Prince. Although Miss Bauer embodies the expressive qualities, the difficult steps elude her. She substituted a circle of jumping turns for the fouettes, diminishing some of the effect of the expected technical fireworks.
Augustus Van Heerden (with Miss Young) and Donn Edwards (with Miss Bauer), also projected different characterizations as Prince Siegfried. Mr. Van Heerden was one of the group of friends in Act I, more human, more connected to life in his court and the surrounding society. Mr. Edwards looked like a Prince from the other world, even while partying with his comrades. This version of "Swan Lake" allows little dancing for the Prince until Act III. When Rudolf Nureyev joins the Boston Ballet for the two-week run of "Swan Lake" in London this summer, he will certainly add more variations for himself as the Prince.
Outstanding in the cast of more than 50 performers (the regular company augmented by the Boston Ballet Ensemble and extras) were Arthur Leeth as the menacing Von Rothbart, Stephanie Moy and Debra Mili as two-thirds of the Act I pas de trois and one- half of the precise little swan quartet in Act II, and Ron Cunningham as the wise old tutor in his charming, quavering dance.
The theme of maturity in this production reflects the coming of artistic age of the Boston Ballet in this, the 17th season. The success of this production is due partially to Violette Verdy who joined E. Virginia Williams as co- director of the company. Miss Verdy provided some of the choreography for Acts II and IV (the "white" scenes) and coached the corps de ballet, now a precise and flowing addition to every scene. Bruce Wells, resident choreographer, created the long chain of peasant dances in Act I and Act III national variations. The other special achievement of this "Swan Lake" was the melodic rendering of Tchaikovsky's score, conducted by Michael Sasson.