Natalia Osipova took my breath away with her extraordinary portrayal of Juliet in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet at Teatro della Scala. The whole company shone, the soloists were excellent, and Claudio Coviello – once again standing in for an ailing Ivan Vasiliev – was very fine as her Romeo, but Osipova rose above the others. She threw off technical difficulty with nonchalance and, most importantly, created a perfect arc in her performance from the wide-eyed leaps of the teenager we first meet through to the heartbreaking action of the final scene.
Her jumps, which seem to come without preparation as she suddenly appears out of nowhere floating above the stage, are perfectly suited to her first scene as she teases the Nurse and plays with her old doll. She moves around the stage like a bouncy ball, radiant and as full of life as anyone could possibly be. This gives her a wonderfully long way to travel until the final moment where life drains from her body. With Paris she is hesitant, though not petulant, and doesn’t once meet his gaze. In fact, apart from the nurse, she looks almost no one in the eye, even her parents. That is, until her gaze alights on Romeo and, literally, she can’t take her eyes off him.
The balcony scene pas de deux was passionate and joyful and Osipova’s positions seem to be more precise (Royal Ballet?) so her dancing is clean and controlled though the effect is abandoned and free. She mesmerised everyone in the theatre sitting motionlessly on her bed, finding her resolve to go to Friar Laurence for the vial of sleeping potion, in MacMillan’s genial piece of no-motion choreography. The last scene is truly heart-breaking as she discovers Romeo’s corpse and pummels him, hugs him, and cries out to the universe to help her make him live again. As a great admirer of Carla Fracci, I have no problem in saying that here too is a dancer who can act these emotions realistically and communicate them to a vast auditorium. It’s a “you’ve either got it, or you ain’t” quality and boys, she’s got it!
Claudio Coviello still has some way to go to match the intensity of Osipova, but he is making enormous leaps ahead with each performance he gives. He does it all: yearns, flirts, kisses, is passionate, is desperate, is tender, but he needs to project it a little more so it reads at the back of the house. His dancing is elegant and he’s also an honest dancer. Always a joy to watch.
The rest of the company were in fine form. Is the La Scala Ballet cleaning up its act and finally seeming like the international company it has recently sometimes only pretended to be? Good news for dancers and audiences alike. Walter Madau was superb as Mercutio – great death throws – and his pal Benvolio was played with bravura by Christian Fagetti who is one of those dancers who seems to fill all the available space around him. Massimo Garon was a noble Tybalt and Riccardo Massimi as Paris was suitably refined and made a handsome figure. The presence of Zhang Xian on the podium should also be underlined. She has been in Milan since 2009 as conductor of the Orchestra Verdi, but here was making her début conducting the La Scala Orchestra, and they played lusciously, with extremely virile timpani and thrilling colours.
And while on the subject of colours, this production – replacing in 2010 the very chic designs of Franca Squarciapino and Ezio Frigerio – was criticized by many for being, well, a little kitsch? Gaudy? Like a child’s cardboard cut-out theatre set? Well, this was the first time that I had seen the production and yes, after Squarcapino’s soft pastel shades for the costumes and Frigerio’s strong Catholic black and gold set, it was a surprise to have such a large palette of bold Renaissance colours, and naturalistic Verona marble. But if you are changing a production why create one similar to the previous version. And Odette Nicoletti and Mauro Carosi’s designs are more subtle than they look. A variously lit wall which acts as a front-cloth covering the width and height of the proscenium surely represents the insurmountable divisions between the warring families. The costumes, straight out of a Veronese painting, are vivid and lively at the start, but soon after the ballroom scene they start to pall, mirroring the action. And copying ‘Juliet’s balcony’ and other corners of Verona’s architecture in these days of hi-tech abstract sets is, maybe, quite bold, and for this member of the audience, refreshingly direct and unpretentious.