In the ‘60s, A Midsummer Night's Dream was all the rage: Benjamin Britten's opera premiered in 1960, Balanchine's ballet opened in 1962, Ashton's The Dream came along in 1964, and Peter Hall's film (with future Dames Diana Rigg, Helen Mirren, and Judi Dench, among the cast) was in 1968.
It was no passing fad. Both ballets are now set firmly in the repertoire, the opera is constantly staged, and film and television versions pop up like plastic bottles in the Pacific.
Balanchine's ballet first came to La Scala in 2003 as a vehicle for Alessandra Ferri who was the theatre's ‘prima ballerina assoluta'. Her Oberon was Roberto Bolle. It has proved a success for La Scala's Ballet Company, and has been staged many times and taken on international tours. Now it has been revived — by Patricia Neary, as always — for the last time.
Ashton's version has a slapstick approach to the humour and a greater erotic element to the relationships. Balanchine is more detached, though there is certainly humour, and Balanchine's Bottom remains firmly outside Titania's bower. He doesn't have much time for the mechanicals, and he uses them only to get Bottom into the story and take him offstage when his scenes are through. The rest of the storytelling is eloquent, especially for a choreographer who rarely told stories.
Two outstanding actress-dancers on the opening night were Emanuela Montanari as Helena and Mariafrancesca Garritano as Hermia. Montanari, with her hair down in the first act, looked like Catherine Zeta-Jones en pointe. She has poise and grace, and dances beautifully. Garritano's arc of emotions from happy in love, to desperate in rejection, and back, was precisely judged with a sure technique which gave her full rein to express Hermia's changing mood. Virna Toppi made a strong impression as a statuesque Hippolyta.
Titania is played by Principal Dancer Nicoletta Manni, who is an assured and regal dancer, though tends to stay too much within her comfort zone, with a range of expressions going from A to… well, she doesn't reach Z. She needs a choreographer she trusts who can create a safe space where she can experiment in going further, and risk giving more. She has so many excellent qualities; a great asset to the company.
Manni danced both the first act and the second act pas de deux, a La Scala peculiarity. Balanchine had a separate couple for the second act pas, which represents perfect love, in contrast to the confusions and jealousies seen in the first act. At La Scala, from when Neary first set the ballet, only Ferri has danced it this way, the other Titanias appear in the second act along with their first act Cavalier.
Manni's Cavalier, confusingly looked as though he could have been Oberon's brother. Nicola Del Freo, (Oberon) and Marco Agostino (the Cavalier) look alike on stage, and had similar coloured costumes, so those in the upper galleries undoubtedly had a bewildering evening.
Del Freo was an excellent Oberon. He's an honest dancer with clean legwork – all multiple beats and sissonnes – beautiful feet, and a noble air. Agostino, too, was an admirable partner. Antonino Sutera, as Puck, jumps around the stage with glee and abandon, grinning widely, though a shade more mischievousness would have rounded off his character.
The company danced with discipline and apparent joy which, a decade or so ago, wasn't always the case. It is good to see them looking comfortable on stage and dancing so well. The orchestra was that of La Scala's Academy and they almost played better than the theatre's own orchestra: no one missed the habitual grimace-inducing sounds from the brass section.
Luisa Spinatelli's gorgeously detailed costumes were often unfortunately lit, with coloured gels cancelling the subtle work in colour and texture, so only with the lighting for the applause did we see them in their full glory.
A truly satisfying evening at the ballet and, to misquote Puck, these shadows did not offend, and we gave them our hands with much pleasure.
Photo credits: Sogno di una notte di mezza estate, choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust
Photos by Marco Brescia and Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala
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.