Possibly the most iconic of all classical ballets, Swan Lake takes the viewer into a dark fairy tale world of swans, sorcerers and romance, while also reaching deep into the realm of psychology.
The authors of the original 1877 libretto are uncertain, although they may have included Bolshoi Theatre manager Vladimir Petrovic Begichev, dancer Vasily Fedorovic Geltser and the composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky himself. There is also evidence that the story is based on German, Russian and other Northern European sources. Der Geraubte Schleier (The Stolen Veil) by the German author, Johann Karl August Musäus, broadly resembles the story. Some have also pointed to the swan as a particularly Russian symbol.
The 1895 revival, which is now the basis of all Swan Lake productions, featured a libretto significantly revised from the original story:
Act I: The Palace Grounds. Prince Siegfried and his friends are celebrating his birthday. His mother, the Queen, tells him that he must choose a bride at the ball the following night. Siegfried wants to marry for love, but reluctantly agrees to obey his mother. His friends and tutor try to lift his spirits. They set off on a hunt into the woods.
Act II: By the Lake. Siegfried arrives at the lakeside alone. A flock of swans lands nearby and just as Siegfried is about to shoot at one of them, it transforms into a beautiful woman. Odette is frightened by Siegfried, but he reassures her and she explains her plight. She is a princess who, along with her companions, has been transformed by the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart into a swan, except at night when they can return to human form by the lake. The spell will be broken if a youth, who has never loved before, swears to love her forever. Von Rothbart appears and Siegfried tries to kill him, but Odette protects him, as before the spell is broken, the sorcerer’s death would mean that the enchantment would become eternal.
Odette and Siegfried dance a pas de deux. As morning returns, all of the maidens turn back into swans.
Act III: The Palace Hall. At the ball, six princesses from around the world dance for Siegfried, hoping to be chosen as his bride. A disguised Von Rothbart and his daughter Odile arrive. Odile resembles Odette, although she is dressed in black. Siegfried dances a pas de deux with Odile and becomes infatuated with her. Odette appears as a vision to warn him, but the prince swears to marry Odile. Von Rothbart reveals a vision of Odette, and Siegfried is overwhelmed by grief as he realises his mistake. He hurries to the lakeside.
Act IV: By the Lake. Odette grieves over Siegfried’s betrayal. The other swan maidens try to comfort her. Siegfried finds Odette and they reaffirm their love. Von Rothbart tries to force Siegfried to marry Odile, confirming that Odette will remain a swan forever.
Alternate endings: A number of different endings exist for the final act. In the 1895 libretto, Siegfried and Odette die together in the lake and are carried up to heaven. Von Rothbart also dies and the swan maidens are set free. In the Mariinsky Ballet version, Siegfried fights and defeats Rothbart, and the lovers can live happily ever after. In the 1986 version choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev for the Paris Opera Ballet, Rothbart kills Siegfried and carries Odette away. There are many other variations on both happy and tragic endings.
Video: Swan Lake - Act II (Odette): Svetlana Zakharova, The Bolshoi Ballet.