Four years ago, when I was still on staff at The New York Times, I spent a month’s vacation in Australia and volunteered to blog on my encounters with the arts there. Whether for reasons of personnel, as I was told, or politics, as I suspect, the two items I filed were never posted. When the Australian Ballet announced its 50th-anniversary engagement at Lincoln Center, I realized I had a piece of unfinished business and asked to write about it for The Times (Touring Is a Tonic for Australians, June 10, 2012). One of the programs coming to Lincoln Center next week is the “Swan Lake” I saw in Melbourne. For the record, here’s what I wrote the next day.
MELBOURNE, Australia - See if this rings a bell: a youngish prince weds an innocent in a lavish celebration. Lurking in his background, though, is another woman. Once the situation becomes clear to the bride, she publicly unravels and descends into instability, to say the least.
Names like Charles and Diana and Camilla are never mentioned, but that’s the ripped-from-the-headlines plot of the Australian Ballet’s “Swan Lake,” playing at the Arts Center here, in a hall that feels like a little sister to the New York State Theater.
When Mathew Bourne reinvented “Swan Lake,” the Queen looked decidedly Elizabethan (the Second, that is) and Prince Siegfried was young and confused. In Graeme Murphy’s production, he is anything but: he clearly prefers his mistress, Baroness von Rothbart, to his new princess, Odette (Madeleine Eastoe on opening night, one of four Odettes this season). She is, predictably, the last to know, getting the message only when the Baroness greets the Prince warmly and snubs the bride in a gesture that drew gasps at Friday’s opening-night performance.
There are definitely three people in this marriage, so yes, it’s a bit crowded. The Prince literally dances between the two women before Odette shocks wedding guests and audience alike by kissing a courtier full on the mouth. Then, as Diana once said, she is “handed ’round like a tube of Smarties,” dancing from one man to another before being led off by two nuns in Sister Bertrille headgear to an asylum, where she fantasizes that she has become the queen of a corps of swans.
Throughout, there are nods to more traditional version. When Odette looks desperately through a window, it is not into a ballroom at Odile trying to usurp her place, but out the asylum window at the Baroness (Lynette Wills), who already has. (By the end Siegfried seems to genuinely regret his choices, in the manner of Albert in “Giselle,” but Odette is no longer an option.) The fouettes are there — 16 rather than 32 - but in the first-act mad scene. The score, in fact, is freely rearranged in a way Tchaikovsky might not recognize.
There was more Tchaikovsky across the way at Hamer Hall, where the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Oleg Caetani performed two concerts in a program titled “Russian Masterworks.” After an amuse-bouche — the Act I prelude “Dawn on the Moscow River” from Mussorgsky’s “Kovanshchina” — Steven Osborne was the soloist in Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, playing the Andante movement sensuously and the second Allegro with verve before putting down his bouquet of red roses to offer a bluesy, crowd-pleasing encore. The concert concluded with a rousing rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “Manfred” symphony.
The lobby of Hamer Hall, home of the orchestra and the site of large concerts in various genres, is dominated by “Paradise Garden,” a vast mural composed of more than 1,300 small botanicals by the Melbourne-born painter Sidney Nolan. It makes a fitting coda to the stunning retrospective of Nolan’s work, including the two series of Ned Kelly paintings for which he is best known, at the nearby Ian Potter Center of the National Gallery of Victoria.