Alexei Ratmansky's new ballet Opera, created for La Scala in Milan, generally pleased the critics, although elements in the audience were left perplexed judging by the furrowed brows and agitated discussions in the foyer after the first performance of 2014.
Most seemed disturbed by the music, which sits between contemporary and baroque – baroque opera being Ratmansky's theme for this piece – with three opera singers in the pit with the orchestra. Much music for modern ballets, mounted for repertoire companies, is familiar to our ears: Thom Willems's music for In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated with its rhythmic, disco-like throbbing, or Joby Talbot's Chroma which could be used as a film score. Leonid Desyatnikov's music for Opera is pure contemporary vocal music which might be familiar to an opera audience, but not to the ballet crowd. It also helps to follow the Metastasio and Goldoni texts that he has set, which gives sense to the “wailing” of the singers – as one man proudly shouted out while putting on his coat.
Critics, who hopefully have greater insights due to a wider experience of theatre and dance genres, didn't seem to have a problem with the score, and generally appreciated Ratmansky's choreography.
Laura Chappelle, writing in the Financial Times, said, “His immense skill is evident in Opera,” though she had doubts about the ability of the cast and Ratmansky's choreography for this piece: “It is repetitive, however, and the four principals lack the qualities that often inspire Ratmansky.” The principals were Emanuela Montanari, Mick Zeni, Beatrice Carbone and Roberto Bolle.
The Corriere della Sera‘s Valeria Crippa wrote, “A creation that is a fine example of how history and culture, (our eighteenth century), may be reflected in a contemporary choreographic and musical way.”
Tatyana Kuznetsova in the Russian daily Kommersant, was less sure about the work, saying that Ratmansky “has not decided what degree of freedom and what dose of irony he can afford in dealing with such serious material”, and that some of the choreography was “monotonous”. Il Sole 24 Ore‘s Marianna Peluso summed up her review by saying, “A beautiful ballet, intellectual, and magnificent, but unfortunately without a soul. This was, however, Ratmansky's aim. Romantics beware.”
Roslyn Sulcas's detailed review for the New York Times, stated, “The piece shows his dazzling range of balletic invention and mastery of composition. The solos or pas de deux often have counterpoints by small groups from the ensemble, who subtly echo or accentuate the movements of the principals, often forming exquisite frieze-like stage pictures. The duos are full of drama and poetry, with skimming, skater-like partnering that frequently amazes.” She had some reservations, “On first sight, at least, it often feels like Mr. Ratmansky is filling the music, and finding solutions to its difficulties, rather than being propelled by a clear vision,” but as she concludes, “Perhaps there is too much in Opera to take in on a single viewing. It takes time to learn to see the new.” Which is exactly what I did: returned for a second viewing.
I wrote a review which can only be described as a rave, but I was unsure of its objectivity. I was at the absolute première, a couple of days before the official opening, which was attended by two-thousand “Under 30s”. Their enthusiasm was catching, but was it really a ballet “here to stay”?
Well, after a second viewing, I think it most certainly is. The dancers are freer now, and play more with their interpretations; and Roberto Bolle is either playing with the choreography, introducing a second thought from Ratmansky, or including something left out for safety's sake on the first night: last night he produced sixteen pirouettes à la seconde to the right, while he changed spot, through 360 degrees, to the left! An extraordinary effect, and feat, which I have never seen before, but hope to see again.
Mark Stanley's lighting is extremely subtle and refined, and sculpts the sumptuous costumes designed by Oscar-winning Colleen Atwood. The ballet is presented in front of striking 16 metres by 9 metre-high projections, created by Wendall Harrington.
And as for Ratmansky's choreography, there are always new details to discover. His multilayer approach is exciting and complex, and when he lets his Roman centurions loose, after their precision marching, it is difficult to know where to look. Poor Roberto Bolle has a punisher role which demands that after his solo of turns and spins, he enters a long and sustained pas de deux with Beatrice Carbone, full of slow-motion lifts. He is suitably proud and elegant, resplendent in red, peacocking his way around the stage. Carbone has a big smile, and manages effortlessly to illuminate La Scala's vast auditorium, and is a strong, though graceful, dancer. Mick Zeni is assured and macho in his glorious warrior outfit, and if Bolle is the spinner of the piece, Zeni's the leaper. The quartet is completed by Emanuela Montanari, an elegant ballerina with a pleasing personality.
So yes, I'm convinced. Not 100%, there are a few longueurs, and the fact the Ratmansky was rushed for time during the rehearsal period, probably explains this. It's to be hoped that he'll come back and tune his Opera up. It's worth it.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.