While theatre debuts are highly anticipated and hopefully thrilling, delusion and disappointment can arrive all too quickly after curtain up. Happily, there was nothing to disappoint in Alice Mariani's debut with La Scala Ballet this weekend, dancing Kitri in Don Quixote. She has only just joined the company, as a soloist, after ten years with Semperoper Ballett in Dresden. Company Director, Manuel Legris certainly had faith in her abilities by putting the newly arrived soloist in a leading role, while other dancers of the company who have already performed the part were left without a performance. His instincts were right: from the moment she roared onto the stage, eyes flashing around the auditorium and taking in all her colleagues, there was a frisson of excitement that continued throughout the performance.
Mariani has a beautifully engaging face and her dark hair and complexion make her a natural for Kitri. Her technique doesn't disappoint, and while she mixed in double turns with her thirty-two fouettés, she also possesses expressive feet and arms, and musicality that she used to her advantage in the third-act fan variation with an exceptionally slow retiré passé sequence that sped up breathtakingly. As an actress, her comic timing is spot on, and her sullenness never turns into petulant pouting. She really is a find!
Joining her, and making his debut as Basilio, was Mattia Semperboni who thrilled as Ali the Slave in Le Corsaire in Milan, and has just been promoted to soloist. He is a natural turner and he showed off his virtuoso repertoire of spins at every opportunity – faster pirouettes à la seconde in the third-act pas de deux coda would be difficult to imagine, yet he calmed them down to astonishingly slow-motion turns before remaining still in half-pointe. He has a cheeky look, and he and Mariani teased each other with their facial expressions as well as with Rudolf Nureyev's somewhat childish comic business.
Many of the ‘funny' moments in his production have become embarrassingly silly, as have some of the scenes where acting is fundamental. The prologue which sees Don Quixote in his house has comic moments mixed with pathos – such as when he heroically fights his own shadow – yet it has become boring, trite, and amateurish. Watching Robert Helpmann in Nureyev's film with the Australian Ballet should be obligatory preparation.
In this production, there is a great deal of stamping on other people's feet, many times Kitri tries to escape and is grabbed by her arm and pulled back, and there's the well-known sequence with Basilio trying to catch Kitri's leg. But when repeated moves are presented with the same dynamic and intention it merely looks as though the choreographer ran out of ideas: let's get this out of the way and get back to the dancing. Even slapstick must be based on truth.
Three of the performers managed to rescue their roles – Marco Messina was ideal as the prissy Gamache, Matteo Gavazzi was a cuddly Sancho Panza, and Massimo dalla Mora was splendid as Kitri's father.
Other notable performances came from Camilla Cerulli as a sparkling Amor, Vittoria Valerio and Agnese di Clemente who were fast and sure as Kitri's two friends, and Caterina Bianchi as Kitri's maid of honour who was serene and assured. Maybe Nureyev's major talent as a choreographer was his ability to move groups of dancers around in surprising and delightful ways, and here the corps de ballet was exhilaratingly well-drilled whether as gypsies, Dryads, as guests in the final act fandango, or as the townsfolk in the first act.
The production is a wonderful one, traditional and satisfying, with costumes by the great Anna Anni and sets by Raffaele del Savio. However, there's a need to go back to basics with some of the storytelling and rediscover the original intentions which have become confused and vague with time. This production is one of the company's ‘cavallo di battaglia' or pièce de resistance, and rightly so, and Alice Mariani and Mattia Semperboni are promising interpreters to continue to infuse it with excitement.
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.