Act I – The Prince’s Birthday
It is Prince Siegfried’s twenty-first birthday and he is celebrating with friends. The Queen arrives to give him his gift of a crossbow, and reminds him that he must choose a bride at the ball the next evening, as he is to become King. Siegfried, realizing that his carefree days are at an end, wants to be alone. His friend Benno suggests they go hunting to help him find solace.
Act II – The Lake
Prince Siegfried, Benno, and their friends arrive in the forest to hunt and Siegfried decides that he wants to be left alone. Siegfried enters a moonlit clearing by a lake and sees a magnificent swan in flight. He carefully takes aim with his crossbow, but, to his astonishment, the bird transforms into a beautiful woman, and he withdraws into the trees to observe her. Unable to resist his curiosity, he steps out, only to startle and frighten her. He assures her he will do her no harm and asks her to explain the marvel he has just seen. Odette tells him she is a Princess of high birth who fell under the spell of an evil sorcerer, cursing her to be a swan, and only assuming her human form in the hours of darkness. Indeed, this very lake is filled with her mother’s tears. She tells him she is condemned for eternity, and the spell can only be broken if her one true love swears his love for her. But if he should forswear her, then she must remain a swan forever. At that moment the sorcerer, Von Rothbart appears. The Prince, astonished, reaches for his crossbow, but Odette immediately protects the sorcerer for she knows that if he is killed before the spell is broken, she too will die. The sorcerer disappears, and Odette slips away into the forest. Siegfried realizes his fate is now entwined with hers. Dawn approaches and Odette is compelled by the spell to return to her guise as a swan. Siegfried is left awestruck.
Act III – The Ball
Heralds and trumpets announce the start of the ball. Eligible young princesses from all over the world arrive to be introduced to Prince Siegfried so that he may choose a bride. The prospective brides dance with Siegfried and the Queen reminds him that he must choose one for his wife. As Siegfried struggles with his responsibility to marry, his mind remains with Odette and he cannot choose. Trumpets announce an uninvited guest – Von Rothbart with his daughter Odile. After the presentation of national dances, Von Rothbart holds the court in thrall and Siegfried is seduced by the beautiful Odile, mistaking her for his love, Odette. Siegfried announces his intention to marry Odile and swears his true love to her, believing that it will break Von Rothbart’s curse. Von Rothbart and Odile laugh at Siegfried’s blunder, who realizes that he has been the victim of a terrible plot. The scene darkens, and Odette is seen weeping at the castle door. Grief-stricken, Siegfried rushes to the lakeside.
Act IV – The Lake
At the lake, Odette is surrounded by her fellow swans, mourning her fate. Siegfried bursts into the glade, discovers Odette and begs for her forgiveness. Odette tells Siegfried that because of his betrayal, she must now remain a swan forever. Siegfried, knowing that his destiny is forever changed, declares his true love for her one last time. As dawn approaches, Von Rothbart appears, and reminds him of his pledge to Odile, threatening the lovers. Their only course of action is to throw themselves into the lake. Upon their deaths, Von Rothbart is vanquished and his curse is broken.
The lovers are united forever in the hereafter.