Balanchine's The Nutcracker is new to La Scala, in fact, new to Italy. And how the Scala regulars were relishing in the opportunity to grumble and mutter “humbug” during the interval. It's certainly different from the Nureyev production which was seen in Milan for many years, and light-years away from the strange version by Nacho Duato that the theatre endured four years ago but which has already been consigned to La Scala's extensive bin in the sky.
Balanchine's version is danced less than Nureyev's in the first act, and it has a less original storyline than Peter Wright's versions for The Royal Ballet and the Birmingham Royal Ballet, but if you accept that it starts with lots of mime, and group ‘walking' dances, and slowly moves its way toward the pas de deux finale — the dancing only kicking in with the snowflakes — it is a beautifully crafted piece of theatre. And if the acting scenes are handled as well as they were at La Scala, with charming and not vomit-inducing children, with realistic interactions among the guests, and subtle background stories being played out, it is an absolute joy to witness.
There are, of course, two dancing spots in the first scene when Drosselmeier – here sporting a bizarre Harpo Marx wig — brings Harlequin and Columbine, and the Soldier, out from their boxes. Tempi throughout were often slower that at the New York City Ballet, and that took the wind out of the sails of the Harlequin and Columbine number, but Valerio Lunadei was exciting as the Soldier as was Mattia Semperboni in a second cast.
Designer Margherita Palli has largely followed the spirit of the NYCB production in the first scene with some ravishing costumes for the guests, especially for the little boys in a dark palette of velvet knickerbocker suits; her snow scene is dazzlingly bright and crisp; but her land of the sweets was disappointingly flat. Where her designs in the programme show a shopfront inspired by Vienna's Apotheke zum weissen Engel (here called “La Gourmandise”), which I imagine was to fade in transparency to reveal the shop behind as the gauze was raised, we were immediately in the shop as the curtain opened. And while her shop design was full of predominantly pink and green goodies — blancmanges, cupcakes, gateaux, bowls of fruit — all in enticing detail, there was a wall of pink. The elements were all there, and La Scala has some excellent scene painters, so I suspect the look may have been down to overenthusiastic lighting by Marco Filibeck which didn't let the designs speak for themselves. Oddly — though maybe someone knows an historical reason for this — the ‘throne' for Marie (not Clara in this version) and her Prince is a scallop shell decorated with a starfish, a conch shell and has two pearls as seats… in the land of the sweets?
Palli's elegant colouring of the first act costumes was thrown to the wind in this act which sees groups of costumes for hot chocolate, tea, marzipan, candy canes and so on go from stylised (marzipan) to feebly commonplace (tea) with colours ranging from almost fluorescent to subtly shaded pastels, so that when they all shared the stage it looked a real muddle.
The first night Sugarplum was Nicoletta Manni, who was as calm and assured as ever, notwithstanding the difficulty of the role. Timofej Andrijashenko, poised as her Cavalier, doesn't get much chance to shine but was dashing and dignified. Beatrice Carbone was radiant as the mother, Frau Stahlbaum, possessing a face that easily projects to the whole house. Andrea Crescenzi as Tea was magnificent with each grand jeté à la seconde seeming ever-higher and easier, Nicola Del Freo was confident with his hoop as Candy Cane, Vittoria Valerio made Marzipan's steps seem effortless, and Samuele Berbenni hit just the right tone as Mother Ginger in Palli's glorious, mouth-watering costume.
It was Martina Arduino, though, who stole the show as Dewdrop, being the only one to really capture the Balanchine style. Her off-balances were daring, her epaulement and stretched-back neck opened up her dancing to the gods, and her port de bras was ample and extreme without being excessive. She's either been doing secret classes in New York, shrewdly studying videos of the great Balanchine ballerinas, or has stumbled on a technique she just happens to be perfect for.
Less than 24 hours later, Arduino found herself as the Sugarplum Fairy and showed off brisk turns before a deep and pliable cambré during the final pas de deux, with little head movements keeping the upper body free and supple. She also has great charm and has become a firm audience favourite. Her Cavalier was Del Freo whose pirouette sequence was musical and exuberant.
This second cast found Crescenzi this time as Candy Cane and he caught the spirit of the solo perfectly with the cute wiggle when jumping through his Hula Hoop, and he was literally bent double in his leaps through the hoop for the ballet's finale. Riccardo Massimi as Dr Stahlbaum maintained his period elegance during his good-humoured play with the children and Gaia Andreanò made a convincing debut as Dewdrop.
Company Director Frédéric Olivieri's approach to casting seems to use the occasional reduced-price performances as an opportunity to test out new talent. It worked marvellously well with Don Quixote before the summer last year, and he got it right again with the third cast which debuted in the first performance of this year.
Caterina Bianchi and Mattia Semperboni took the two main roles. Both have had notable successes during 2018 — Bianchi as the Queen of the Dryads in Don Quixote and Semperboni as Alì the slave in Le Corsaire. They appeared wonderfully confident and glided through the technical difficulties without a hitch. She is a musical-box ballerina with perfect proportions and must be a joy to partner; he has grace combined with impressive pyrotechnic thrills. La Scala has a new pair of leading dancers.
Massimi and Emanuela Montanari were delicious as Hot Chocolate in their dreadful costumes — good on paper, horrendous on stage — Crescenzi repeated his crowd-pleasing Tea, Andreanò was a near-perfect marzipan shepherdess and we'll surely see much more of her in coming seasons. Regrettably, Lunadei came into trouble with his hoop a few times and it remained trapped under his feet for the final pose, but as they say in Italian, “Non tutte le ciambelle riescono col buco”, literally, “Not all doughnuts come out with a hole” or rather… things don't always turn out as planned.
As with all good meals I've left the coffee until last. All three casts offered supple, graceful dancers as Coffee. Maria Celeste Losa and Francesca Podini were both superb, but Paola Giovenzana was sensuous as well as sinuous and she's another name to note.
The best Marie/Prince pairing — the children Chiara Ferraioli and Edoardo Russo — were whisked off into the sky in a giant gingerbread sleigh with, unfortunately, all its supporting cables clearly illuminated, as was the rope pulling up the Christmas tree transformation in the first act. Come on La Scala, nowadays the magic can seem real.
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.