In 2021, the director of the La Scala ballet company, Manuel Legris, had the idea to invite Carla Fracci to give a short masterclass during preparations for Giselle, which was rehearsed during a period of Covid restrictions, and filmed without an audience. Little did Legris know that the ballerina he so much admired had been diagnosed with cancer three years previously. A few months after the Giselle masterclass her coffin was placed in La Scala's foyer, and thousands filed past, often with white flowers to lay on the marble floor. The following day her funeral was transmitted live on Italy's main television channel.
Fracci and Legris had known each other for many years from when they shared the stage in galas around the world – he was a recently-promoted principal dancer with the Paris Opera Ballet, and she was in her fifties – though they never danced together.
Legris, who has shown great respect for the history of the La Scala company, wanted to mount a gala to honour Fracci, and the first Gala Fracci was mounted the year after she died. This year saw the second annual gala at La Scala.
Fracci's name was linked with Michail Fokin's Le Spectre de la rose from the moment she graduated from La Scala's school when the 18-year-old was chosen to dance the piece on the main stage with the established star Mario Pistoni after a performance of La sonnambula with Maria Callas. There are videos of her in the piece: in 1959 with John Gilpin as the Rose in the BBC studios in London; an exquisite film with Paolo Bortoluzzi from 1972; and there is a video from 1998, shortly before her 62nd birthday, when she and 23-year-old rising star Roberto Bolle danced the piece in Toyko.
Le Spectre de la rose opened the Gala Fracci with Letizia Masini and Jacopo Tissi. Masini was ‘ok'… all the right steps, and studied well, but she lacked the heart of the role and from the halfway point in the stalls it was hard to see a girl remembering with delight her first ball, and the tiredness after her emotional evening. Tissi, however, was something else. He's a tall, broad-shouldered dancer, yet was delicate and ornately baroque with a soft port de bras, emanating a gentleness as delicate as a rose's perfume. He has an easy 180° jeté which isn't forced and has a silent landing, so it was entirely in keeping with the spirit of the work. It is the best thing I have seen him do.
A pas de deux from Roland Petit's 1953 ballet Le loup saw Martina Arduino and Marco Agostino (with wolf fangs) tentatively finding love – a young girl is tricked into marrying a wolf, then falls in love with him, but eventually they are both slain by outraged villagers. In this bizarre but tender piece, they both trod the fine line between rendering it comic or melodramatic, with skill.
Maybe as a tribute to Pierre Lacotte, who died in April, there followed a pas de deux from his reconstruction of Maria Taglioni's Le papillon – part of the romantic repertoire so central to Fracci's career. Nicola Del Freo was fine, but here the surprise was a remarkable Linda Giubelli who was sensitive to all the nuances of style that is essential to give this repertoire life, yet is often disregarded or minimalised by many dancers – do they find it old-fashioned? Do they feel silly? Lacotte would surely have been delighted with Giubelli's many changes of epaulement, her fleet footwork, and the angle of her head and position of her arms taken right out of a 19th-century print.
John Neumeier's La dame aux camélias has become a regular fixture in the annual programming at La Scala, often with Roberto Bolle as Armand Duval and Svetlana Zakharova – La Scala's guest étoile since 2008 until recent events blocked her appearances at the theatre – as Marguerite. For the gala, Bolle and La Scala principal dancer Nicoletta Manni danced the complex pas de deux from the second act. Apart from a few battles with some meddling tulle, it was a satisfying interpretation.
Legris created Verdi Suite for the company during the pandemic, giving many opportunities to many of the company's dancers to do their thing – something sorely needed as the dancers started returning to the rehearsal studies after months of grand pliés in their kitchens. The connection with Fracci here is that she often danced in the opera ballets for the opening of the season performances, one of the most well-remembered occasions being in Verdi's I vespri siciliani (which was also filmed) with Patrick Dupond and the La Scala company. Legris has put together a suite of Verdi's ballet music and on this occasion Alice Mariani, Maria Celeste Losa, Claudio Coviello, Federico Fresi, Mattia Semperboni, Caterina Bianchi, and Gabriele Corrado were all given moments to shine, and shine they did.
Fracci performed Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune with several partners after a collaboration with Ann Hutchinson Guest who recreated Nijinsky's choreography from Laban notation. Here, however, a version by Amedeo Amodio (who danced with Fracci as well as choreographing for her) was performed with Agnese Di Clemente and Domenico Di Cristo – both excellent. Di Cristo is a convincing actor, and with long elongated movements he conveyed his fascination, attraction, and reverence for the divine creature in skin-coloured Lycra. Amodio gives his faun the animalistic twitches of a meerkat, puzzled tilts of the head, and to stir the sleeping girl he nuzzles against her. Di Clemente quickly comes to realise the power she has over the ingenuous faun and was suitably sensual and silky.
Michael Fokine's ballet Le Pavillon d'Armide in 1907 saw Anna Pavlova as Armida with Vaslav Nijinsky as her salve. Here the connection with Fracci is less obvious (though she and John Neumeier, who choreographed the solo from Le Pavillon d'Armide represented in the gala, were fond of each other) but the Nijinsky connection links it with the previous piece on the programme, and it allowed Legris to invite an Italian principal dancer to dance at La Scala for the first time – Davide Dato, who was promoted by Legris when he directed the company in Vienna. The ‘Danse siamoise' has been danced by Dato in Vienna several times, and he was splendid, making a secure, impressive house debut.
Two repertoire classics were represented toward the end of the programme with first-rate performances of selections from Swan Lake and Raymonda. The ‘black swan pas de trois' from Nureyev's Swan Lake, a version of the ballet that recently returned to La Scala's repertoire, was danced by Nicoletta Manni and Timofej Andrijashenko, with a splendid Christian Fagetti as Rothbart, together with Act III character dances for the corps de ballet.
Raymonda's Act III Pas classique hongrois concluded the gala with convincing performances from Martina Arduino and Navrin Turnbull. Turnbull is ‘one to watch'. The young Australian dancer finished his training under Legris at Vienna State Ballet's school, and after a brief period in Munich joined La Scala as a soloist in 2021. He doesn't have a personality that leaps off the stage, but is cooly assured and dances with class.
Between Swan Lake and Raymonda came Christopher Wheeldon's After the Rain to music by Arvo Pärt – the choreographer, composer and title having nothing to do with Carla Fracci, but oddly, the piece displayed something of her magic that was missing elsewhere. Alessandra Ferri and Bolle danced the pas de deux, with Bolle's solid partnering showing why he has been chosen by many ballerinas to accompany them for their farewell performances… including Ferri herself in 2007 with Romeo and Juliet with the American Ballet Theatre, and La Dame aux Camélias at La Scala. Ferri's comeback years have crowned her career with intelligence, warmth, and depth of interpretation. In After the Rain she ‘does nothing' (yes, it's harder than it looks, with lots of controlled slow-motion movements, but there are no tricksy ‘wow' moments) – she ‘just is'. That was something that Fracci could do – be motionless yet magnetic.
GALA FRACCI 2023
Le Spectre de la rose
La Dame aux camélias
L'Après-midi d'un Faune
Le Pavillon d'Armide
After the Rain
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.