If there is a ballet that belongs to La Scala, it’s Rudolf Nureyev’s production of The Sleeping Beauty, created for the ballet company in 1966 with Carla Fracci and Nureyev in the main roles. It was performed 152 times until 2007, when Tchaikovsky’s score fell silent for eight years until awoken by Alexei Ratmansky when he brought his reconstructed version to Milan in September 2015.
Ratmansky’s version was generally disliked by many of the dancers of the company (frustrated with having to keep their legs lower, executing chainé turns on demi-pointe, and many other period technical adjustments which gave the production such charm), a section of the audience used to seeing Nureyev’s version, and a few critics. It was, however, adored, or at least appreciated, by other critics (including me) and by the vast majority of the public. While it might be correct to bring Nureyev’s version home, being that the Ratmansky production cost six-million dollars (divided between La Scala and the American Ballet Theatre, which coincidentally was performing the Ratmansky at the same time as the La Scala run) it would have been agreeable to have seen it at least one more time.
So Franca Squarciapino’s glorious costumes from 1993 were back, and she still is given credit for the scenery too, though it is clearly the work of her husband, Ezio Frigerio (as with the versions in Paris and Moscow). What shadowy backstage goings-on are happening here is anyone’s guess.
The version lacks bite, with little atmosphere and slapdash storytelling. Florence Clerc remounted the production. Baby Aurora is passed around like… well… a lightweight plastic doll. The pulling of a stage-wide length of thread from a spindle outside the palace gates by Carabosse and her cronies is interrupted by the Lilac Fairy ambling on and raising a hand which, oddly, makes Carabosse collapse (die?) and she’s dragged offstage – the thread doesn’t snap (which I remember it doing) and there’s no puff of smoke or flash of lightning even. When the Lilac Fairy casts her spell and the court sleeps there is no mystery: the lights dim and two gates slide in and slowly and noisily bounce to a close. Carabosse’s entrance to present to Aurora the flowers that conceal the needle – something crucial to the storyline, I would have thought – is so far downstage right that a third of the house couldn’t have seen it. There’s lots of running about, pretending not to see someone: the Prince looks everywhere off stage except towards the Lilac Fairy standing bang in the middle of it (a pantomime “she’s behind you!” moment); or again, the Prince fails to see Aurora, laying directly under a light, as he continues to prod the sleeping courtiers in the darkness around her. The lighting is perhaps the biggest culprit with there often being too much of it leaving nothing to the imagination.
While on lighting, there are some odd colours at La Scala which result in Aurora’s pink vision-scene tutu turning lavender under blue lights, and the final pas de deux white costumes becoming tinged with greenish-grey whenever the dancers come downstage.
After that gripe, there is, of course, much that is good. The idiosyncratic and almost against-the-music choreography of the prince’s solo – Roberto Bolle can be seen dancing it on Youtube – is a six-minute test of endurance and technique for any dancer. Then there are Nureyev’s wonderous, complex interlacing patterns for the corps de ballet, which continue throughout, culminating in the complete madness of the finale which sees the entire company, in pairs, all doing the same intricate steps, including the main couple who join in soon after their exhausting pas de deux. In fact, it’s so demanding that once, when I saw it in Paris, Sylvie Guillem and Laurent Hilaire remained to the sides looking on – I imagine it was Madame Non’s idea. ‘Rudi’ would have exploded.
There was much good dancing in Milan, but also some disappointments. Polina Semionova is a star, and she has a high-wattage presence, but she’s not an Aurora. She appears too strong and has little cambré or epaulement, making her somewhat rigid, which doesn’t evoke the spirit of a young girl at all. She does have a soft port de bras with flowing wrists, but her descents from pointe to floor for the series of arabesque penchée were jerky (as compared with the slow, controlled lowering of the foot by Nicoletta Manni, and especially by Martina Arduino in alternative casts).
Young Timofej Andrijashenko as Prince Désiré was dancing at the limit of his technique. The many double tours (it was Nureyev challenging Nureyev after all) finished awkwardly, without his feet arriving in the proud fifth-position that Nureyev demanded, and his turns were often off-axis. His jetés though were virile and he’s the perfect prince in proportion and bearing, so maybe it was just a little too much, too soon.
Beatrice Carbone was wonderful as Carabosse with clear mime and flashing, evil eyes. Another of La Scala’s ‘faces’, Emanuela Montanari, was the Lilac Fairy, but unusually she was lost in the crowd with a costume and wig that toned in too much with the ladies of the court. A rose-coloured spot could have picked her out, but it is the fault of the costume design. Again, after Aurora has pricked her finger, Carabosse’s short-lived victory is curtailed not by a magical figure in a tutu shimmering across the stage in a pas de bourrée, but a woman in a long frock walking on stage. The children in the audience didn’t get it.
Nicola Del Freo and Virna Toppi were very fine as the lead couple of the pas de cinq; she looked radiant, and both were firmly in control. In fact, I couldn’t help but think how good a prince Del Freo would make. He was down for one performance only together with Martina Arduino as Aurora. Of the three princes I saw, he was perhaps the most satisfying with a noble bearing combined with physical panache. He passed Nureyev’s six-minute test with flying colours, as did Coviello in another cast who mixed poise with artistic legato, letting the solo breathe instead of it being purely a technical exercise. Surprisingly unsure was Arduino who is usually super-prepared, as in her stunning debut as Kitri last year where she looked as though she’d been dancing it a lifetime. She is physically suited to the role, and her face glowed with delight until she pricked her finger, but there was little exceptional in her dancing until the final pas de deux when she bloomed; maybe she has already danced this piece elsewhere. As this was her only performance, she didn’t get the opportunity to build on the experience of her debut, which is a pity, but something of a rule for La Scala’s ballet company, which dances little: there were just seven performances of The Sleeping Beauty to go round. From the beginning of November until mid-January 2020 The Royal Ballet will perform the same ballet 24 times.
Nicoletta Manni has a technique that lets her do as she chooses: balances are interrupted only by the need to move on to the next step; renversés are held to the limit of the impossible; and as the lead fairy (dancing to the Lilac Fairy’s music) she sustained her positions with so much aplomb during the coda that the orchestra started grinding to a halt. Impressive though it was, the tendency to slow the music down so much – the opposite to what Ratmansky achieved, giving Tchaikovsky’s music some much-needed mouth to mouth resuscitation – can make the music, and consequently the dancing, seem leaden. Manni was also Aurora on the second night, and she has never been so sunny and warm on stage. She was quite a formidable Aurora, towering over Coviello as her prince, but believable and assured throughout.
Most of the fairies passed largely unnoticed; ‘ok’ but not arresting. As the ‘Canary Fairy’, Agnese Di Clemente and Antonella Albano were fluttery, fast and perfectly cast, and Maria Celeste Losa and Alessandra Vassallo were both excellent as the ‘Finger Fairy’, alight with energy, eyes sparkling like glitter balls, with electricity seeming to shoot out of their fingers. Losa is also one of the few in the company who uses her wrists expressively, making the contrast with her violent finger-pointing even greater.
My tolerance threshold is very low when it comes to the cats, but two of the three couples I saw nailed the comic timing and were sweet without being sickly: Federico Fresi with Antonella Albano and Andrea Crescenzi with Daniela Cavalleri – Cavalleri hilariously withered like a Looney Tunes character when Crescenzi hit her over the head.
La Scala fielded all its best dancers for the video recording with principal dancer Claudio Coviello as the Bluebird who was supple and light in the air, with clean, precise footwork. His Princess Florine was Vittoria Valerio, a music box ballerina who communicates with the entire auditorium and always dances with elegant honesty.
Another cast saw the always reliable principal Antonino Sutera as the Bluebird, though I wish he’d turn down his fixed grin once in a while, with the dainty Agnese Di Clemente as the Princess, and yet another featured Federico Fresi who always excels in such virtuoso roles with Camilla Cerulli making a first-rate debut.
The first-night cast was filmed and the performances will be transmitted on Italian television on New Year’s Eve.
All photos © Brescia e Amisano, Teatro alla Scala 2019
Opening night cast, 26 June 2019 (photographed):
|Princess Aurora||Polina Semionova|
|Prince Désiré||Timofej Andrijashenko|
|King Florestan XXIV||Alessandro Grillo|
|The Queen||Marta Romagna|
|The Lilac Fairy||Emanuela Montanari|
|Seven Fairies||Martina Arduino, Alessandra Vassallo, Gaia Andreanò, Caterina Bianchi, Agnese Di Clemente, Maria Celeste Losa, Nicoletta Manni|
|Their Knights||Gabriele Corrado, Christian Fagetti, Andrea Risso, Andrea Crescenzi, Mattia Semperboni, Emanuele Cazzato, Walter Madau|
|Four Princes||Marco Agostino, Gioacchino Starace, Edoardo Caporaletti, Nicola Del Freo|
|Princess’s friends||Vittoria Valerio, Alessandra Vassallo, Gaia Andreanò, Christelle Cennerelli, Marta Gerani, Caterina Bianchi, Alessia Auriemma, Agnese Di Clemente|
|The Countess||Deborah Gismondi|
|The Duke||Giuseppe Conte|
|Pas de cinq||Virna Toppi, Nicola Del Freo, Alessandra Vassallo, Gaia Andreanò, Caterina Bianchi|
|Puss in boots||Federico Fresi|
|The white cat||Antonella Albano|
|Princess Florine||Vittoria Valerio|
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.