Svetlana Zakharova and Roberto Bolle have both danced the lead roles in John Neumeier's La Dame aux Camélias, but never together. La Scala united its two Étoiles for the opening of its ballet season. Usually a new production marks the event, but there is nothing new about Jürgen Rose's slightly dusty sets, though his costumes remain vivid, especially a little purple dress that is clutched by Monsieur Duval (Mick Zeni) for much of the three-act ballet which faithfully follows the design of Dumas' novel, a story told in flashback. Marguerite's dress is being auctioned off with the rest of the deceased courtesan's belongings to pay off her debts.
When the action moves back in time to Marguerite and Armand's first encounter it is delightful to find the often cool and spiky Svetlana Zakharova, wearing that little purple dress, so radiantly warm and playful. She is not an ideal Marguerite lacking the abandon of Alessandra Ferri — who danced the role the last time the ballet was presented at La Scala — the smoky sensuality of Isabelle Ciaravola, and the striking pathos and intense communication of Marcia Haydée, but her interpretation is truly felt, beautifully danced and she is always magical to watch, whatever she's dancing.
Her Armand Duval was Roberto Bolle, who appeared at La Scala with Ferri in a series of performances that marked her intended farewell to the Italian public. No-one cuts a more dashing figure in a dress coat than Bolle and it's a look he's becoming accustomed to after appearing as Onegin here a couple of months ago. It fits him well as he's a noble dancer of class and ease, technically fluent, and an attentive and strong partner — certainly more than just his famous pretty face.
John Neumeier's choreography is demanding with it's tricky lifts, and sometimes Zakharova and Bolle seemed cautious which took away from the outward recklessness that these pas de deux cry out for. And then there are those dresses, puffed out with layers of tulle, which means that the man is often blinded as he moves around the stage bearing the ballerina aloft. Zakharova ripped her second act white dress at the back, and for most of the act a white tulle tail peeped out from under her skirt; as did Nicoletta Manni, in an alternative cast, who had a large rip under the front of her bodice like an albino kangaroo.
Manni, while not always convincing as an actor, can be a superb dancer, and here her assuredness took her through challenging passages with aplomb. Yet it was her (on stage and off) partner who was a revelation. Timofej Andrijashenko is a young Russian dancer from Riga who arrived in Italy when he was 14 to study dance in Genoa. Although on paper he is still a member of the corps de ballet — and not even a permanent member — he has been trusted with many principal roles. He was outstandingly good and of the four main dancers I saw, was the most complete. He rivals Bolle for self-confident swagger (as he did in Onegin), and his various technical feats were not only impressive but expressive. He is a convincing actor, passing the test of kneeling just arm's length from the audience (on a ramp across the orchestra pit) with no dance moves to hide behind, yet he remained authentic and credible.
In the pas de deux, Manni and Andrijashenko's moves are more attuned than those of Zakharova-Bolle – maybe because they know each other's' proportions and dynamics thoroughly having danced together so often, or maybe they had more rehearsal time. Whatever, their success was no less than that of the opening night cast.
Like Italian governments, La Scala's ballet company changes figureheads frequently, which has led to some alarming ups and downs in quality over the years. Recently the company has got back into its stride and currently boasts many excellent soloists, not only with all the necessary technical requirements for affronting their roles, but also with lively personalities.
Dumas' novel begins with the narrator stating:
In my opinion, it is impossible to create characters until one has spent a long time in studying men.
Dancers, often so tied up with the physical aspect, may forget the necessity of ‘studying' others – how they move, react, breathe… La Scala is blessed with several dancing actors.
Mick Zeni — always excellent — as Monsieur Duval was weighty in his interpretation though this wasn't enough to save the endless duet between his character and Marguerite. This ballet has been around for 40 years, so Neumeier must feel that its rhythms are right, but a few judicial snips might give more momentum to the drama.
Manni was Manon on the first night. The story within a story has Marguerite visiting the theatre and seeing a ballet of Manon Lescaut. As Neumeier says,
Moved by Manon's plight but disgusted by her infidelity, she refused to accept Manon as her own reflection.
The characters from the ballet, though, continually return to haunt her. Manni was spot on in her pert flirtyness, and tragic as she reached the end of her story. Marco Agostino was also impressive technically as Des Grieux.
Armand's friend Gaston Rieux was playfully played by Gioacchino Starace who dazzled both with his dancing and his over-sized grin, and was equalled by Christian Fagetti in the alternative cast. Antonella Albano and Martina Arduino were both delightful as the courtesan Prudence and perfect matches for the two Gastons.
Vanessa Vestita impressed as Olympia, Armand's dalliance to provoke Marguerite's jealousy, and Antonino Sutera was bumbly and cuddly as the Comte de N. in both casts.
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.