A heartbreakingly tender story of illusion and betrayal, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake came to Norwich Theatre Royal on 9 February 2024. 

Presented by Raymond Gubbay under the artistic direction of Daniela Dimova, Varna International Ballet Orchestra from Bulgaria staged the world’s most romantic ballet to a sold-out audience. 

The performance, which was presented in two acts, opened with Prince Siegfried (Giovanni Pompei) reading a book about a swan fairy who fell in love with a noble knight. The pair bore a daughter, Odette (Mara Salvaggio), but the lovers died after being bewitched by an evil sorcerer’s spell. Siegried reads of how Odette flocked to the mountains, where she joined the other swan fairies who congregate around a lake of tears.  

The stage explodes into a riot of colour as the villagers arrive in the palace gardens to celebrate Prince Siegried’s coming of age. But the festivities are interrupted by the Sovereign Princess (Guilia Visalli), who reminds the prince that he must soon choose a bride. As the party ends and Siegfried returns to the fairytales of his books, he is galvanised to travel to the enchanted lake, and the Sovereign Princess orders the evil Baron von Rothbart (Konsta Roos) to follow him.  

The colour drains from the stage as a flock of swans glide onto the lake in an ethereal fog. The prince approaches the crowned swan and Odette tells him her story – how the evil sorcerer hovers over her, transforming into a kite, and relentlessly pursues her. Odette will only overcome the sorcerer’s curse when she falls in love with a worthy man. The prince swears his eternal faith and fidelity to Odette as dawn approaches.  

Eastern Daily Press: Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is a heartbreakingly tender story of illusion and betrayalPyotr Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is a heartbreakingly tender story of illusion and betrayal (Image: Varna International Ballet Orchestra)

In the second act, we return to the castle where Baron von Rothbart directs a decadent ball and bridal fair at the palace forum, as Prince Siegried is expected to choose his princess. But his mother is distraught when he refuses them all. The hall is suddenly filled with black and white swans in perfect formation – and the prince thinks he recognises Odette.  

But this is Odile – a temptress that seduces the prince, casting her spell with a bewitching pas de deux featuring a dizzying parade of fouettés. Odette is betrayed and the ballet reaches its apotheosis at the enchanted lake where a storm rages.  

The Varna International Ballet Orchestra’s performance of Swan Lake is a captivating and well-choreographed production brought to life by a 20-piece orchestra, conducted by Peter Tuleshkov. The harp, oboe and violin of Tchaikovsky’s sorrowful and sweet score amplified the quiet violence of this tragic romance. 

Mara Salvaggio’s dual performance of Odette and Odile was equally gorgeous and beguiling, with the dance of the black swan drawing audible gasps of delight from the audience. The preening swan maidens in their immaculately white tutus and featherhead pieces were exquisite in their movement.

This production featured fine dance performances from the male and female principals. Giovanni Pompeii’s Prince Siegfried was technically wonderful, though the emotional intensity of his performance could have been elevated at times.  

The pas de quatre performed by the cygnets (Llanos Igualada, Adrianna Carafa, Monica Alegre, Aurora Damele) was particularly enchanting. Another highlight was Roberta Pereira’s solo during the bridal fair, which saw a Spanish bullfight–inspired dance complete with matadors and red muletas.  

The production suffers somewhat from its austere and thin staging, with the set design primarily limited to a video backdrop signifying the transitions between the castle and the enchanted lake. The minimalist and subdued colour palette of the moon-lit lake captured the inconsolable blueness of the tragedy at the heart of this story, but the splendour of the castle ball might have been better executed with further embellishments. Though the opulent costumes, and particularly those worn by the swans and jesters, was well done.