Lyric Theatre, QPAC
November 7, 2018

A debut tour to Australia by a major ballet company is an event to be celebrated and on Wednesday, Brisbane had the pleasure of welcoming the Ballet Company of Teatro Alla Scala in Milan to the Lyric Theatre.

La Scala Ballet is one of the world’s leading companies with a history reaching back to the 18th century. For its first visit to Australia, it is showcasing the virtuosity and artistry of its dancers with two guaranteed crowd-pleasers, Don Quixote and Giselle. The season opened with a performance of Don Q, and it was a sparkling debut, received with standing ovations.

Nicoletta Manni as Kitri and Leonid Sarafanov as Basilio. Photograph © Darren Thomas

Don Quixote is a 19th century work, choreographed by Petipa in 1869. Rudolf Nureyev revived it in 1966 and it is his version in La Scala Ballet’s repertoire, much loved by ballet audiences for its winning mix of technical bravura, exuberance and comic touches. La Scala Ballet brought the world of a fantastical Spain brilliantly to life with their sophisticated dance, music, costumes and sets, energetically accompanied by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Coleman.

Act 1 opens in the archetypal village square and very quickly the principals are introduced, Kitri (Nicoletta Manni) and her true-love, Basilio (Leonid Sarafanov, on loan from the Mikhalovsky Theatre). Their solos and double-work were delivered with precision, panache and a sense of mischief. The lighting was bright and the busy scene crackled with a playful sexual energy, young people dancing, laughing and flirting together. The dancing featured superb elevation and dynamism in the various leaps, jetes and pirouttes. This is the realm of comedy where the goal is bringing the lovers together in marriage.

Act 2 changes the mood. It takes place at night and strange dreams emerge. The act is divided in two, the first part deals with Kitri and Basilio’s encounter with a band of gypsies. Here the virtuoso solo performed by the king of the gypsies (Andrea Pujatti) featured deep knee bends and earthbound squats in contrast to the jumping and leaping of Act 1. The effect was no less virile or exciting.

Then the scene melts into Don Quixote’s vision of the queen of the Dryads (actually Kitri) accompanied by her wood nymphs, and the shift in lighting and staging here from sinister moonlight to a sun-dappled glade canopied with leaves was pure theatrical magic. This episode comes from Petipa’s original and it features formal symmetry of line and position from the female ensemble. For all that Nureyev introduced greater naturalism to his Don Q, including steps derived from Spanish folk dance, he was forever a classicist, as shown by the retaining of this anomalous but charming ‘white ballet’.

Act 3 wraps up the story. Kitri’s father finally gives the lovers his blessing and Kitri and Basilio are united in love. The best music from the score appears in this act, as does the most heroic and challenging pas de deux of the night. The curtain falls on the whole company dancing together and there is a joyous feeling of life moving along, the eternal cycles of love, birth and death playing on.

Nicoletta Manni as Dulcinea. Photograph © Darren Thomas

For all the vivacity and commitment that the company brought to the stage, Don Quixote remains a strange story. The characters of the Don himself, Sancha Panza and Gamache (the rival for Kitri’s hand) provide the slapstick, but they are pantomime figures who not very funny and not central to the action. The success of the work relies on the strength of the principals who have to carry the entire performance. Manni and Sarafanov were an excellent duo. There was a chemistry between them as could be seen in their exchanged glances, and they were natural and relaxed in their roles.

Sarafanov was an assured technician in the male variations that Nureyev developed for his own technical brilliance and a likeable stage presence, although his placement was losing tightness in the Act 3 pas de deux. Manni’s technique was impeccable throughout. She dominated the stage for practically the entire length of the work, taking the lead also in the ‘white ballet’ of Act 2. She had expressive, long arms, a sharp line and a confident musicality. Her turns were crisp and her balance strong – a series of fouettés with sharp double pirouettes in the Act 3 pas de deux were executed with impressive clarity.

Above all, Manni had a wonderful smile. The part of Kitri is often interpreted as a bold coquette, but Manni made her softer than that holding eye-contact and smiling openly at her fellow dancers. This effect was especially touching in the way she gazed kindly at the poor old Don, lost in his reverie of the Dryads. It was a smile that reached out into the auditorium and pulled all eyes on her, captivating the entire house.

The set designs (Raffaele Del Salvo) and costumes (Anna Anni) also worked to smooth over narrative shortcomings by creating their own drama and interest. The production is alive with visual interest, always beautiful to watch. Italians are associated with beauty and vitality and La Scala Ballet brought a distinctively Italian flair to their opening night. Highly recommended.

Teatro alla Scala Balla Company performs Don Quixote, November 9, 10, 11 and 17,  and Giselle, November 14 – 16 and 18 at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC


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