Dominque Meyer, La Scala’s director, said recently, “We have to accept a new logic, without fear or hysteria, just working day by day, with medical bulletins in hand and rapidly changing the rehearsal schedules.” Even his level-headed approach must have been tested by the continuous postponements, reprogramming and eventual cancellation of many of the performances of the theatre’s new production of La Bayadère. The opening night itself was delayed.
Finally, with continually mutating casts, La Bayadère was back on stage at the end of January, replacing a planned triple bill of contemporary choreography.
The 24 shades in the final white act were reduced to 18, the parrot dancers went from 12 to eight to six, the children were taken out of the production even before opening night, and Svetlana Zakharova had to bring her own Solor to replace the Covid-positive one in Milan. She arrived from Moscow with Jacopo Tissi, her partner from Diamonds that was broadcast in cinemas from the Bolshoi Theatre just a few days earlier. Tissi has recently become a principal dancer with the Bolshoi and, as he was born just outside Milan and trained at La Scala’s ballet school, he was warmly welcomed. Milan, like London, was heavily bombed during the second world war – La Scala took a direct hit – and there was the Italian equivalent of the Blitz spirit among the spectators. The long and rapturous applause during the curtain call had strong “we made it” undertones.
The ballet came together much better than the performance for the unfortunate video recording on the first night, which was the equivalent of filming a dress rehearsal being that so many rehearsals in the studio and on stage were cancelled. There were wobbly shades, a dropped drum, hands steadying unstable final poses, unruly scarfs (and not just the one that Nikiya and Solor use) and so on. After a month of waiting – and rehearsing – there was more assurance, even if no one quite knew who they might find in front of them when they went on stage.
Claudio Coviello and Vittoria Valerio were thrust into many casts as Solor and Nikiya as the domino effect of positive testing knocked out many of their colleagues. Maybe it’s not Coviello’s ideal role, but he is a secure presence in any production, and Valerio is a wispy, carillon ballerina who is always delightful to watch. Some of their thunder was stolen by Alice Mariani as Gamzatti. She joined the company as a soloist, coming from Semperoper Ballett in Dresden at the beginning of this season. She was a fiery and fearless Kitri in her first outing with the Ballet of La Scala and here she was no less, proving herself not only as a confident and accomplished dancer but also as a fine actress – if looks could kill, Nikiya would have died long before being bitten by the snake.
Jacopo Tissi has the softest of jumps, his height gives him authority, and he is a dependable partner. The star, however, was certainly Svetlana Zakharova who, at 42, can dance the role like few others. She has a warmth about her in the first two acts that was lacking a decade ago, and the ampleness of her port de bras heightens her portrayal of both desperation and passion. Although she doesn’t literally light up the stage, that is the effect she has from the moment she enters – there was a palpable tingle of anticipation in the audience as the harp began playing her entrance music and an ovation as her beautifully arched foot appeared from behind the scenery.
Conductor Kevin Rhodes returned from his base across the pond to complete the run of performances. His thrilling presence in the pit continued onto the stage as he rushed up and downstage during the applause even faster than the dancers. His irresistible personality infected both the orchestra and the company of dancers – this time an infection that didn’t need prevention with a vaccine.