Starting on a positive note: the Stravinsky Evening at La Scala, with Petrushka and Le sacre du printemps, was an unmitigated success, thoroughly enjoyable and received a long, standing ovation from the first night crowd.
Now the niggle: why is it that people think that it’s ok to talk during overtures and interludes? If no one is singing or dancing, then while we twiddle our thumbs as we wait, we might as have a chat to pass the time. La Scala has managed to grab the services of several heavy-weight orchestral conductors during its ballet season; for the Stravinsky, Zubin Mehta was on the podium. This was serious music making. Even if the composer is Minkus it is irritating when the chatterers get going, but heck, this is Stravinsky and, you know what, his music is pretty incredible. Though, of course, you wouldn’t know if you talked through it.
The woman seated next to me even excitedly underlined to her friend that it was Mehta in the pit, as in, “We’re in for something special tonight!” However, this didn’t stop her from yakking away every time the frontcloth flew in.
When the dancers were dancing, the only annoyance came from the habitual mismanagement of smartphones: the occasional flash, and distracted middle-aged punters, with their screen brightness set for midday on the beach in August. Kids really should show their parents how to use the things.
Back to ballet…
Petrushka in its original version, with sets and costumes by Alexandre Benois and choreography by Michel Fokine, has a frisson like that of Le Spectre de la rose, where to appreciate it fully you must be willing to immerse yourself in its world. Those who insist on watching from the outside, tut-tutting that it’s dated, cannot expect to get much out of it. I’ve never understand why this logic is applied to Petit’s Carmen or Grigorovich’s Spartacus yet not to Giselle or La Sylphide. Things are what they are, and some appeal to us more at different times in our lives – or never – and I don’t want the Bernini statues I love to turn into Damian Hirst or my Bach to become Bacharach. When I watch a BBC adaption of Jane Austen it irritates me when they try too hard to ‘sex it up’… it doesn’t need it.
So too here, with this little gem of a ballet. Little in terms of length, but not content. In his book, Baryshnikov at Work, one of the most famous interpreters of Petrushka says,
As a ballet, Petrushka remains a perfectly fashioned puzzle, a complicated psychological – even political – drama. Structurally it is beautifully made. Theatrically it has enormous range.
At La Scala, the very complicated crowd scenes were well handled and carefully set by the choreographer’s granddaughter, Isabelle Fokine. The dancing Cossacks were (understandably) cautious, which took away some of the buzz, but Vittoria Valerio was excellent as one of the street dancers with her secure fouettes.
The main trio was Maurizio Licitra, Nicoletta Manni and Mick Zeni. Licitra, with Nijinsky’s spectre hovering around him, may have had Baryshnikov’s words in his head:
The dancer must be able to project an extraordinary variety of feelings—joy, anger, pain, dejection, humiliation, triumph, glee—and characterize all these feelings in the manner of a straw doll. The challenge is almost insurmountable.
Almost. Licitra was poignant and expressive as Petrushka with his pleading, mittened hands seemingly detached from his body. His leaps of joy in the blue room contrasting touchingly with his limp despair at rejection.
Manni, (who had Tamara Karsavina looking over her shoulder), was, as ever, technically strong, though lacked perkiness as the Ballerina. Mick Zeni’s Moor was a well-judged performance, never descending into grotesque Eisenstein faces as the role already has him in blackface and playing with coconuts. Enough. His large-scale macho gestures contrast with the effete Petrushka. It’s the reason that the empty-headed Ballerina is attracted to him.
La Scala’s resident lighting designer, Marco Filibeck, gave the stage a greyish blue hue which suggested that snow was on its way, but it was over bright, like looking at a 24/7 supermarket at night. It also showed up the shabbiness of some of the sets which had been rented from Birmingham Royal Ballet. Kinder lighting would have made everything more involving and intriguing.
Glen Tetley’s Le sacre du printemps is a full-body workout for the company, especially for the men whose painted-on six-packs slowly trickled down into their leopard-spotted shorts. The choreography may not be the most memorable, but the overall effect is powerful. Nino Sutera was at his virtuosic best as The Chosen One, and the fact that he’s slight of stature made the ‘attack’ by the tribe seem cruel in the extreme. The first pair of dancers was Gabriele Corrado and Virna Toppi. Corrado was the strong, silent type, broody and contained, and a robust partner; Toppi, though, lacked punch. Of the secondary couples, Gioacchino Starace stood out, oozing personality, and his ear to ear grin during the applause showed that he’d loved it, as had the audience.
The long applause turned into a standing ovation as the curtain opened to reveal Mehta together with the entire orchestra onstage. Rarely has the orchestra been heard in such electrifying form for an evening of ballet.
Photographs by Brescia and Amisano © Teatro alla Scala.