Tag Archives: torsten handler

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

24 Nov

After being beat over the head with the Siegfried stories that was the first three Swan Lakes, I was in need of something different.  Luckily, Karena lent me Patrice Bart’s production for the ‘Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin’ (one of these days I need to learn a little German; or at the very least, a German accent).  Going in, all I knew was that this version has an “interesting elaboration on the part of the Queen,” but I had no idea how truly different it would end up being!

Before getting into the nitty-gritty, after the first few minutes when it became clear that this was no ordinary Swan Lake, I pondered what makes a successful reinterpretation of a classic story, a topic I revisit in my head from time to time.  Sometimes, it doesn’t work…like Lacotte’s La Sylphide versus the Bournonville (which admittedly, I didn’t mind Lacotte’s version, but it’s the one I saw first and Ah dinnae know any better) but sometimes it’s glorious.  Though not ballet, West Side Story as a re-imagination of Romeo and Juliet is my favorite example that comes to mind, though it is most assured that Shakespeare fanatics would be horrified at the comparison.  It does seem to generate controversy and a “love-it-or-hate-it” result with little middle earth.  I’m sure that’s the case for Bart’s Swan Lake, because there are a number of artistic liberties that are sure to divide the flocks.

For starters, Bart removes his staging from a generic fairy tale setting with castles and sorcerers and places it in a specific era; my best guess is something similar to Edwardian, but a…German (?) equivalent, so we’re looking at late 19th century (some European history buff out there is cringing to death with my assessment).  I’m just basing my ballpark guess on the costuming and the fact that the name Siegfried is of Germanic origin, as is the surname ‘Von Sommerstein,’ which belongs to…Benno!  If I understand correctly, a ‘Von’ generally indicates nobility so we are to understand that Benno’s role is more significant in this production.  However, Benno isn’t the only one to be promoted—so is Von Rotbart (no ‘h’…and it’s Prime Minister von Rotbart to you!).  Even more important than any of the above though, is the Queen as this Swan Lake is largely told from her perspective.  From the opening overture where we see her sheltering the young prince, to a melancholic solo at the beginning of the second act where she sort of bereaves a painting of the prince, wondering why he fell in love with Odette…but I’m getting ahead of myself here, so I’ll rewind.

So it begins with the vignette of Siegfried’s childhood, with the Queen always at his side and it’s pretty clear that Siegfried has a sheltered upbringing with an overbearing mother.   After a little skip in time, it’s Siegfried’s twenty-first birthday and a sort of emancipation celebration at that because now, Siggy is a man!  The Queen isn’t particularly thrilled about it, though they do dance an Oedipal pas de deux to Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux so despite Siggy’s desire for freedom he is still fighting a sense of loyalty towards the Queen.  Unique in this scene is that we’re actually introduced to Von Rotbart, who is a consort of sorts to the Queen.  If I recall correctly, Von Rothbart (with an ‘h’) is typically introduced in Act II, when Siegfried goes to the lakeshore, so I found it an interesting choice to humanize Von Rotbart and give him more of a presence throughout the ballet.  In the first couple of scenes I feel in love with Bart’s choreography…while I’m weary of French tinkering a la Lacotte, I found his choreography to be imaginative and refreshing.  He gives interesting facings, quick footwork, will throw in a clockwise turn in a counterclockwise pattern and manipulates the classical vocabulary just enough to make it different but not foreign.

Anyway, we get to the lakeshore after Siggy refuses an invitation by Benno to join a hunt, and Siggy does his “woe is me” solo that is quite commonplace, though usually in a more idealistic context (as it’s typically established early on that he is to choose a bride).  Benno arrives to find Siggy and bring his birthday rifle (not a crossbow!), encouraging him to hunt but is pushed away.  Enter Odette, and the usual ensues…man sees bird, bird transforms into woman, man declares love for woman-bird, except this time there’s a short interaction afterward between Benno and Siegfried that indicates Benno is actually in love with Siegfried, who dismisses his advances and coldly rejects him.   Regardless, we’re left at the end of the first act with the usual “magic-spell-that-can-only-be-broken-by-true-love.”

As aforementioned, the beginning of the second act has an agonizing solo as she can’t bear the thought of Siegfried leaving her clutches for Odette, and during the ball the next day, she hatches a scheme with Von Rotbart to ensure the swan spell on Odette can’t be broken.  In a unique twist, she is the instigator of “Operation Odile” while Von Rotbart is her pawn.  They of course succeed, Odette appears and Siggy is grief-stricken when he realizes the extent to which the Queen is manipulating him as well as the betrayal of Benno, for as the sole witness of Siegfried’s swancapade, it was he who told the Queen (though this is never explicitly depicted in the ballet).  Talk about drama!  What makes this interesting is that Siegfried and Odette’s tryst is not as romantic as we’d like to believe…I thought of them as two souls in search of freedom, and a love between them happened to be the gateway to that.  In that sense, I neither saw Siegfried as a chivalrous hero nor Odette as a heartbroken, virtuous creature.  She almost selfishly refuses to reconcile with Siegfried in the end, never once making eye contact with him in their final pas de deux, rejecting him as quickly as he did to Benno.  The mercy a typical Odette shows at the end of the ballet I think is what can make it romantic and yet this production chooses to strip that away, making Odette a flawed character indeed.

Out of all the Swan Lake DVDs thus far, I’m going to go ahead and say this was by far my favorite, for many reasons.  I loved the 19th century setting, the humanization of the characters and the fleshing out thereof.  Most good stories have a multitude of fully formed characters and by actually making the Queen, Von Rotbart and Benno more significant, I felt that Bart’s production emphasized the story and not an idealistic romance between a man and an unobtainable woman, in a divertissement-loaded classical ballet.  Even the principal characters took part in the national dances, for example the Queen and Von Rotbart did the Russian dance, with Von Rotbart having this amazing solo with exceptionally nimble footwork.  Torsten Handler did an incredible job with it, in a very dare I say, sexy interpretation of the role, with an amazing save on the final pirouette that was a little off-kilter and could have been disastrous.  Here he is with the Queen, danced by Bettina Thiel who has a sublime regality to her movement:

Oliver Matz was wonderful as a boyish and confused Siegfried, who saw in his capability of hurting Odette, the loss of his innocence and perhaps a resemblance to the Queen’s lack of compassion that drove him mad (enough to strangle Von Rotbart and commit suicide!).  There were also moments in his earlier solos, like in the first act where he executed these gorgeous pirouettes a la seconde, EN DEDANS, which I believe are a hellish nightmare skill and I often call them “women’s work” because it’s more common in female variations, but this is the second Swan Lake to have them for the male so I fear an irrational, sexist attitude on my part is at fault.  Matz even horrified me because he did them in both directions, but I suppose I shall have to learn to take inspiration from it because his technique was superb.  Steffi Scherzer was his Odette/Odile, and while a bit cautious as the latter I thoroughly enjoyed her Odette, fragile, naïve, with an air of mystery.  Especially in the Odette variation by the lakeshore, she had some extraordinary balances that just sang (the variation begins about two minutes in) and her diagonal of perfectly controlled pirouettes made my jaw drop:

The above video isn’t the best example (ironically, because of the soloist swans), but a lot of credit is due to the corps de ballet in this particular DVD…I thought they were stupendous!  Just clean, efficient and magical…one of the finest corps de ballet performances I have seen (ever!).

If I had to describe this Swan Lake in one word, it would be “sophisticated.”  The characters, story, costumes, sets…it has so much going for it it’s hard for me to believe that someone wouldn’t delight in it…but inevitably some Swan Lake purists do and I’m sure many find Patrice Bart’s interpretation a bastardization of a timeless classic.  They might recommend a more canonical Swan Lake for the first time viewer, but I say to hell with that…watch ANY Swan Lake and make your own decisions!  It really doesn’t matter which one you see first because the one that makes the most important impression is the one that does—that’s all there is to it.