One day a fragile Giselle, next a frisky Kitri then, on the third day, back to the fragile Giselle.
That was the challenge for the principal dancer, Nicoletta Manni.
The marathon seemed impossible but Manni’s performances in Don Quixote and Giselle on the last three days of Teatro alla Scala ballet company’s season in Australia was extraordinary, not just for her stamina and resilience, but her acting skills.
A principal artist of La Scala since 2014, Manni flew through Nureyev’s tricky choreography in Don Q, and expressed the three stages of Giselle – romance, betrayal and forgiveness – in a convincing interpretation and with flawless technique.
In the final days of the season she danced with two very different partners – both guest artists – Leonid Sarafanov as Basilio and David Hallberg as Albrecht.
La Scala’s production of Don Q, staged by Nureyev in Milan in 1980 is a mosaic of intricate allegro, multiple pas de chat, charisma and clownish mime. Nureyev’s Basilio dominated the stage to such an extent that he was once described as a “tipsy monkey” who danced with sparkling audacity.
Sarafanov’s Basilio was more compact and calmer than most Basilios but his sense of humour was evident as he negotiated Nureyev’s difficult choreography with style, strength and perfect landings.
Having watched numerous performances of the Australian Ballet’s Don Q, first staged for the company by Nureyev in 1970, it was intriguing to see the differences and the similarities of the ballet during the Brisbane season.
In La Scala’s production, Don Quixote himself is more melancholy than the Australian Ballet’s interpretation. As the Don, the Italian dancer, Giuseppe Conte, remains a dreamer in a fog of confusion but he is also a man to be reckoned with. With his untamed grey wig and polite manner he resembles a solemn professor who has retired, but who still gives the occasional lecture.
With his bowler hat, green coat and parasol the wealthy Gamache, (Riccardo Massimi), chosen by Kitri’s father as the man she must marry, looks more like Alain in La Fille mal garde than the Australian Ballet’s Gamache, who flutters around the stage in heeled shoes, a feathered hat and a coat that resembles a layered wedding cake.
Both the Australian Ballet and La Scala have made changes to their original designs for Don Q, with the Australian Ballet adding new sets in 1993 but retaining the original costumes by Barry Kay.
Seven years after La Scala premiered Don Quixote the sets and costumes of Nicholas Georgiadis were replaced by the designs we saw in Brisbane including the costumes of Anna Anni, an Italian stage and fashion designer, who chose an eye popping colour palette of ruby red, bright lipstick red, gold, pink, purple and teal.
The engagement and energy of the corps de ballet added much to Don Quixote as did the Queensland Symphony Orchestra led by David Coleman, formerly the musical director of Nureyev and Friends and the conductor of Paris Opera Ballet.
The 10 La Scala soloists who travelled to Brisbane were showcased in both Don Q and Giselle in the last two days of the season. The soloists, Nichola Del Frio, as Espada, and Vittoria Valerio as Cupid were well cast in Don Q and gave a virtuosic performance in the peasant pas de deux in Giselle.
Caterina Blanchi excelled in the beautiful yet technically difficult role as the Queen of the Dryads, and the Argentinian dancer, Maria Celeste Losa, with her dark eyes, exquisite heart-shaped face, and cold-as-ice instructions was an impressive Myrtha.
If there was one disappointment it was the costumes in Act 1 of Giselle. Based on the original 1910 designs of Benois, they were later “elaborated” (according to a note in the La Scala program) yet the costumes for the Royal entourage looked pallid, as though they had been placed in storage since the Edwardian era. As times change, costumes change. Benois’ costume for Albrecht is now a thing of the past and Giselle’s Act 1 costume has been reinvented many times, so why not give the Duke of Courland and Princess Bathilde more vivid and interesting costumes? Many companies have
David Hallberg, who has guested with so many companies in the role of Albrecht, could write a small book about the subtle and not so subtle costumes and sets in Giselle productions from Moscow, New York and Washington, and from Melbourne to London.
His Albrecht in Brisbane was a joy to see, as it was last August in Melbourne with the Australian Ballet.
A year ago he acknowledged how long it took him to learn the art of subtly on stage and how “the smallest gesture, done with honesty, reaches everyone in the house”. In Brisbane as in Melbourne, that honesty and detail was evident.
The Queensland Performing Arts Centre presents a different ballet company every year as part of QPAC’s International Series.