La Scala's commission of a score from the prominent Italian composer Fabio Vacchi was ambitious in its scale and subject.
The new dance work, Madina, choreographed by Mauro Bigonzetti, sees the orchestra spilling over into the first boxes near the stage, with the chorus, two singers, an actor and a large group of dancers filling the performance space which also uses upper levels of the scenery toward the back of the stage. The five percussionists have their usual paraphernalia with castanets, tam-tams and tom-toms, a swannee whistle, a thunder sheet and even a lion's roar. It's a bold project, especially with so many people involved in times of Covid (which also delayed its planned opening in March 2020) and much of the enthusiastic applause at the end of the work's single eighty-minute act was surely for the commitment of all involved.
The work itself is not wholly successful, and its convoluted plot requires reading the programme notes before curtain up, and even that doesn't join up all the dots. Yet the story of a would-be suicide bomber who ends up being despised by both those who sent her and those she was meant to kill, is an important and unusual subject for a dance work in an opera house, but its messages could easily be lost or even misinterpreted. The frequent sequences of violence against female characters are maybe a little too drawn-out, especially the long and brutal duet between Madina (a courageous and breath-taking Antonella Albano) and her uncle, Kamzan (Roberto Bolle unexpectedly wearing his evil face), a guerrilla leader.
Madina is based Emmanuelle de Villepin's 2008 novel La ragazza che non voleva morire (The Girl Who Didn't Want to Die). Madina's rape, as well as that of her friend who is also murdered, by the soldiers of an invading army and the loss of her parents from enemy bombing, makes her the perfect subject for brainwashing by her uncle who joined the terrorists in the mountains after his wife and children were killed. Her uncle's 80-year-old father, Sultan, who brought Madina up tells his son that he's worse than the enemy for wanting Madina to become a suicide bomber. Choosing not to kill or be killed, she throws off her suicide belt when she is in a busy café in the heart of the city and is arrested. The two other main characters – her western aunt, Olga, and a journalist, Louis – arrive to help her, but she is sentenced to 20 years in prison.
In this already complicated scenario, a love affair develops between Olga and Louis, as well as various other side stories. More confusion (at least for this spectator) arises from the Sultan looking the same age as his son, and that the opposing factions look similar. The soprano and tenor (the excellent Anna-Doris Capitelli and Chuan Wang) inhabit two characters each, but the same as played by the dancers, thus giving them words. However, being that the vocal parts are so wide-ranging, the libretto displayed on the screen behind the seat in front is needed to understand fully what they are singing, which is not ideal when trying to watch the dancers too. The actor also interprets some of these same roles, resulting in danced, sung, and spoken versions of a single character. Interesting but not immediately obvious.
What comes across effectively though is an oppressive and forbidding atmosphere with the projections (mandatory these days, it seems) of flames and destruction, moody lighting, Bigonzetti's brusque, bold movements, the dark and highly percussive sounds that come from the pit, and the menacing attack of the vocal line.
Bigonzetti has created a passionate duet for the superb Martina Arduino and Gioacchino Starace as Olga and Louis, and coupé-jeté seemed to be the favourite step for Bolle's vindictive Kamzan. The always compelling Gabriele Corrado gave an authoritative account of Sultan, and the corps de ballet worked together with fervour. However, the scene that was difficult to watch was Kamzan abusing Madina with such violence that Albano was surely left with bruises: at one point she did a promenade on her head with Bolle twisting her around mercilessly by her legs. Maybe the day when ballets no longer have female characters thrown around like rag dolls will signal that a radical change in society has been attained.
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.