The revival of George Balanchine’s Jewels at La Scala showed the company in top-notch form, finally shedding off the insecurities arising from cancelled premieres, last minutes Covid-related cast changes, and the lack of physical training and rehearsals due to lockdowns. c
The first performance I saw was mainly filled with school students – 16-ish. I was warned by a concerned usher as I entered the foyer. But it was a great audience. After the exaggerated clapping as the conductor entered the pit, and some extra-loud shh-shushing, there was absolute silence during the three acts and even if some were using their phones they were savvy enough to keep the screen dimmed, unlike the spotlights illuminating the auditorium coming from the phones of older patrons who insist on taking out-of-focus snaps with flash. The almost expected applause on the opening of the second act as the green of emeralds passes to the red of rubies – the English opera director Anthony Besch once told me that lifting the tabs on a predominantly red set was a guarantee of applause – was matched as the curtain opened on the white diamonds of the third act, and one diamond beamed with an ear-to-ear grin.
Peter Harvey designed the original production of Jewels in 1967 for the New York City Ballet, and in 2004 he was commissioned by them to redesign it. He created a giant brooch crowning the proscenium with loosely scattered chips of glass on a gauze backdrop that change colour according to the lighting. Decadent drapes form the wings. This is the scenery seen at La Scala (and at the Mariinsky Theatre and the Semperoper in Dresden, among others). Karinska’s magnificent costumes are perfect and unchanged with the romantic tulle skirts with peacock feather detail for Emeralds, vivacious velvet tunics for Rubies, and short, soft, classical tutus for Diamonds. All are finished with jewel-encrusted bodices or necklaces with giant gems that put the Crown Jewels to shame.
The ‘false’ ending of the Emeralds act is disliked by some, with its big pose towards the end being applauded as the music continues. It feels like an afterthought, and indeed it was an afterthought by Balanchine when he added the four-minute coda in 1976. The Mariinsky leaves it out altogether (though it does perform the pas de deux that Balanchine added in the same year) preferring to finish on a climax. The slow withdrawal of the women during the coda as the seven final dancers walk simply up and down the stage, leaving the three men alone, slowly kneeling and gesturing towards something unknown in the distance, downstage left, returns the mood to the wistful and questioning atmosphere from the opening. It is a poetic conclusion.
Of the many fine casts, Vittoria Valerio with her beautifully turned-out feet and captivating way of phrasing her movements stood out, as did Alice Mariani as the second ballerina, dancing to the languorous flute melody from Gabriel Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande suite. She hopscotched her way through joyful remembrances of childhood as well as finding suspensions and slow-motion turns at every opportunity during the languid, contemplative moments. On a different night, Valerio danced this role and had one of those heaven-sent balances on the last arabesque position of the solo which she broke only because the music had moved on. Nicola Del Freo was, as always, technically impressive.
Balanchine used Igor Stravinsky’s whimsical and jazz-flavoured Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra for Rubies. The score gave Balanchine lots to play with and there are ironic winks to the audience almost continually with the choreography’s playful trotting and jogging, the exuberant jumps with the male lead racing ahead of his pack of friends like a number from West Side Story, the jazzy pushing forward of the hips, and the references to the fad dances of the ‘40s and ‘50s. (An interesting side note: the Capriccio was first used as ballet music when Léonide Massine choreographed it in 1947 at La Scala.) Maria Celeste Losa was superb as the solo ‘ruby’, long and slender and supple, and in the same role at another performance was Alice Mariani who oozed fun and wit. Agnese Di Clemente and Virna Toppi both danced the various pas de deux winningly, and Claudio Coviello in the pas de deux was in fine form and full of pizzazz.
Diamonds celebrates Russian imperial ballet style with nods to Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and so on, and is set to Tchaikovsky’s grand Symphony No 3. This is Balanchine choreographing on bended knee in front of the great choreographer who dominated his artistic formation at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg and then at the Mariinsky Theatre – Marius Petipa. It is regal with slightly self-satisfied dancers parading to form the most delightful series of interlacing patterns. Diamonds has the longest and grandest finale imaginable with pose after pose after pose and always leaves this spectator with a permanent grin during the ballet’s final ten minutes.
The central couple was superlative, with Nicoletta Manni, whose aloof nature gives her the aura of a tsarina, and Timofej Andrijashenko, who has a natural princely manner. Their dancing reflected their demeanour, which was bold (yet detailed), graceful, and assured at every turn.
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.