The return to La Scala of Rudolf Nureyev’s Nutcracker after 16 years gives back a well-loved production after the theatre flirted with versions by Duato and Balanchine, and it marks another step in artistic director Manuel Legris’ path to return Nureyev’s ballets to La Scala.
Certainly Nureyev’s performances and productions have dominated the theatre’s programming since October 1965 – four years after he defected to the West – when he first set foot on the Milanese stage with Margot Fonteyn as his Juliet during a tour by The Royal Ballet. A year later he was back, again with Fonteyn, when La Scala put on Frederick Ashton’s 1963 piece, Marguerite and Armand, billed in Milan as Margherita e Armando. It was in that same year, 1966, that he created his own version of The Sleeping Beauty for the theatre, and he danced in it with Carla Fracci. After Nureyev’s death in 1993, La Scala mounted a sumptuous new production by Franca Squarciapino (replacing that of Nicholas Georgiadis) which went onstage for the first anniversary of his death, with Viviana Durante and current company director, Manuel Legris in the leading roles. Legris’ ties with Nureyev are many, including the numerous collaborations when Nureyev was his boss in Paris – it was Nureyev who promoted Legris to étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet when he was 21.
Legris’ enthusiasm for the works of the ballet legend is therefore not surprising, though reseeing his production of Nutcracker after so many years was something of a delusion. It didn’t seem to fizz into life and whether that had something to do with the casting, the staging, the choreography, or seeing it from row R, I’m not quite sure. I remember it being so thoroughly charming and I rated it alongside Peter Wright’s version for The Royal Ballet, which I love.
Some of the reasons it didn’t quite come off were obvious. The lack of believability was one. The grandparents, who pass from the wheelchair to the entrechat, were straight off the stage of an am-dram production, with head wobbling and hand trembling and a wince-inducing “look how funny we’re being” attitude – a low point. The inability to ‘sell it’ is another problem. While Broadway pizzazz would be overselling, La Scala is a big house, and as there are no words to colour the drama, everything needs to come from the bodies and faces of the dancers. Those bodies are often beautiful but, I ask, where are the eyes and the smiles? Even if the intention is well thought through, the choreography becomes just a series of steps if that intention is not communicated effectively to the gallery. As for Nicholas Georgiadis’ rats, they look as motheaten as ever – though they are quite sweet and funny in their bagginess, though whether that’s the intention isn’t clear.
Moan over and on to the good, and there was much.
The dances in the second act and the corps de ballet featured pieces, especially the intricate waltz of the flowers and complex snowflake flurries, were exuberant, and the children were mercifully un-cutesy and danced Nureyev’s challenging choreography with obvious joy. The Russian dance, though, with the accidental headbutting and drunken stumbling, can’t have ever been funny, can it? Domenico di Cristo, a soloist in his mid-twenties, was a convincing and engaging Fritz, and Vittoria Valerio was graceful and precise in the pas de trois pastorale. She’s a musical box ballerina with the most expressive feet and finds pleasing aplomb in her positions at every appropriate opportunity.
While on expressive feet: Claudio Coviello was the Prince and Drosselmeyer – a double role. I’ve mentioned his beautifully arched feet before, and his lower body work was extremely pleasing with speed that matched Nureyev’s demands. But as Drosselmeyer, the dark side of the character didn’t come through. Clara, full of adolescent curiosity, is drawn to her godfather Drosselmeyer, and he certainly pays more attention to her than he does the other children and young adults. When he turns into her Prince (in her dream) she places this middle-aged man (some may say dirty-old man) on a pedestal, beautiful and young in white tights. Maybe the sinister undercurrent has been ‘cancelled’?
Clara was played by the young soloist Agnese Di Clemente who is a beautiful ballerina to see, with ‘old-fashioned’ proportions (more of a Maximova than a Guillem) though she had some uncertainty with the choreography, and it felt as though she was running after, rather than driving, the bus. For example, the pas de deux begins with the Prince and Clara with hand in raised hand – she’s on pointe and he’s in high demi-pointe – and they slowly raise their downstage (left) leg in arabesque. It’s an exposed moment, and Di Clemente came down from the position and rose up again while Coviello gamely held the pose. She’s a promising talent, though not quite fully formed.
One of the biggest physical challenges for the couple is the infamous pose in the pas de deux.
Vassily Vainonen’s version of The Nutcracker created for the Kirov Ballet in 1934 was the one that Nureyev grew up with and danced. Much of Nureyev’s production is drawn from this. The idiosyncratic final pose at the end of the adagio of the pas de deux where Clara lays on the Prince’s 90-degree leg held in an ecarté/arabesque mix depending on the height of the ballerina and the colliding hip problem (rehearsals must be extensive just for this quick pose) is not a Nureyev perversion – there is a photo of him in that position with Nina Vyroubova in 1961. It can sometimes look ungainly, often unstable, though in this occasion the position was fine… but fleeting.
Nutcracker – a photo album from La Scala
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.