Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is one of the indisputed greats in Romantic ballet scores, yet here it undergoes something of a visit to the dark side, with Clint Mansell setting out to map a ballerina’s total absorption into the role of the Black Swan.
As she takes on the principal role in the Swan Lake ballet, the character – played in the film by Natalie Portman – begins to assume all the dark tenets of the black swan, and her life and mind begin to unravel.
Mansell depicts the onset of mind loss and depravity with a clever score, often darkly coloured like its subject, that works by seducing the listener into thinking all is well before stoking their paranoia to the max.
It doesn’t take long. First number Nina’s Dream opens with Tchaikovsky’s source material liberally on display, the plangent oboe at once charming and graceful. Then, without warning, a chilly wind blows in, the strings’ bows bouncing away from their fingerboards as if suddenly entering a dead world. The mind’s eye sees skeletons hanging, an initially comforting scene turning to the horrors of Sleepy Hollow.
This places the listener on guard for the rest of the film and its soundtrack, so that it becomes difficult to enjoy the beauty of further gracefully contoured melodies without thinking they might be blown out of the water at any time. The balletic potential of this coming together of Tchaikovsky and Mansell is often fully realised, especially when the oboe is used. In the more comfortable passages, of which there are few, the likes of Mother Me combine this effectively with a Wendy Carlos-derived electronic coating around the edges of the score.
As the story progresses its score becomes ever darker, with Mansell himself exerting greater control on the music and its destiny. Night Of Terror is where everything spectacularly combusts, the music turning in on itself as splintered brass and shrill woodwind battle together, subside to a simple tolling harp, then suddenly spring forward again. The effect is disconcerting, Mansell keeping the tension ratcheted high. Tchaikovsky’s music appears again in a full orchestral tutti but the triumph is hollow and the emotion empty, when heard alongside these new horrors.
Finally the main theme, one of Tchaikovsky�s most famous, appears in Stumbled Beginnings, but by then the game is up. Mansell has successfully twisted the music around his own potters� wheel, and the transformation to the dark side is complete.
And yet there remains an elusive quality to this music. The balance between Mansell�s own music and Tchaikovsky�s fully charged score is a fragile one, and occasionally it becomes difficult to reconcile the spidery contours of the former with the red blooded orchestral romanticism of the latter. Yet when Mansell does achieve his ambitious project the results are striking indeed, a contrast to the stark beauty of his score for Moon, but no less effective.