Promising But a Little Tipsy: Don Chisciotte in Rome

ItalyItaly  Minkus /Petipa / Gorsky, Don ChisciotteRome Opera Ballet. Director, Micha van Hoecke.  Orchestra dell Teatro dell’ Opera, Roma.  Conductor, Nir Kabaretti.  Choreography by Marius Petipa and Alexander Gorsky, rehearsed by  Mikhail Messerer.  Sets by Francesco Zitto with Antonella Conte.  Costumes by Francesco Zito.  Lighting: Agostino Angelini.  Teatro dell’ Opera Rome. 22.12.2012 (JB)

Christmas cake and Christmas pudding aside, this is the season in England, when traditionally-minded families keep at the ready in the fridge, to feed the hungry family and unexpected festive guests, an English trifle.  It’s usually put together from whatever is available in the house: a layer of seasonal stewed fruit at the bottom of the very large dish, followed on top with a Victoria sponge cake, flavoured or not with an orange liquor, topped with a vanilla custard made with egg yolks,  crowned with a final layer of whipped cream which is then decorated with pistachio nuts.  Mum (it’s usually mum) knows that when serving, the huge spoon cutting through the huge dish must go from top to bottom so that every portion gets each layer.  These days, supermarkets sell individual, genteel portions of packaged ready-to-eat trifle, which bares no resemblance to the real thing.  Italian restaurants also serve trifle under the name of zupa inglese , which translates as English Soup –an excellent translation of the disgusting, oversweetend mess which is usually  drowned in nasty, cheap booze.

The ballet, Don Chisciotte  is something of a trifle: usually put-together at a festive season with a basis of whatever is available in the House. Micha van Hoecke has made sure that there are some appetising elements in the House.  He took over from Carla Fracci a couple of years ago as Director of the Rome Opera Ballet.  With years of experience as Director of Mudra, Béjart’s famous school, behind him, he rolled up his sleeves and set the young company challenging training goals, to which they appear to be responding well.  I’m sure that Micha’s philosophy on dance training corresponds with mine; if you’re not young and ambitious and prepared to sacrifice everything else in you life for your art, you should be looking for another profession.  I remember running into Micha some twenty years ago at a summer festival in southern Italy where I was presenting an English pantomime given by Cambridge students.  Have any of these students shown any dancing talent?  asked Micha.  Well that boy over there has shown more promise than most, I said.  He smiled and replied, There’s a very good reason for that.  He has the perfect body for dance.  And that’s a big starter in this business.

There were a number of Big Starters on the stage last night, striving to meet the maestro’s demands. No one yet whom I can tell you not to miss.  But then I am not an expert.  Under Fracci, training had been neglected.  There is clear evidence that it is now taking first place.  And this kind of news travels fast.  A decade or more ago, Merle Park was in despair to find suitable boys for the Royal Ballet School, of which she was Director. She told me that whenever she went to an Italian beach she would have to resist the temptation of going round to the boys she saw there to inform them that the Almighty had given them the ideal body for a profession they didn’t yet  know anything about!

With Micha, the Almighty is now on their doorstep.  He has the right genes too.  His father was a Belgian painter and his mother a Russian singer, with her sister, a ballerina.  Don Chisciotte  is an admirable showcase for sprouting talents.  There are scores of these brief solo dances; too brief in many respects, many of them lasting less than three minutes.  That is not enough time for some one as inexpert as me, to say other than PROMISING.  But in Rome it is a pleasure to be able to use that word and to understand the door is wide open for all with the talent to explore.

Wisely, the maestro had invited two guest artists for the roles of Kitri and Basilio, Venus Villa and Rolando Serabia.  But because of the fragmented choreography (Rome follows the nineteenth century Petipa / Gorgsky staging, rehearsed by Mikhail Messerer) we are only allowed to see the sustained great artistry of this Cuban husband and wife duo in the final pas de deux. Her beautiful, limpid body appears to float into air at every musically timed lifting by her husband.  His strength too, seems weightless.

I am sorry that I cannot report that the rest of the production was weightless.  There was more than a taste of too much cheap booze in this trifle.  Just think of the ease with which a production can fall into this trap: Spanish wit ( the two episodes from Cervantes’s novel) gets interpolated by Russian wit (the choreographers) and composer, then it is performed by instrumentalists used to Italian and German styles.  No wonder the music sounded tipsy.  But not in any jolly way.  Often it was stodgy.  Nir Kabaretti failed to get the interest of the orchestral players in this light-hearted style, to which they are admittedly unaccustomed.  It all too often sounded like a Salvation Army Band on a damp winter night.  Italy has no Sullivan nor Offenbach and Maestro Kabaretti was not disposed to instruct these excellent players in these nuances.

He was not much help to the dancers either.  Not incorrectly, Kabaretti sees his main duty as an accompanist to the dancers, but he has the terrible defect of the worst, best-intentioned amateur accompanist, who waits to see what the soloist does before following them.  An accompanist has to be with  his soloist, not behind them, dear maestro.  In almost every set piece the dancers were in the air, waiting for the orchestra to catch up.  They must have found this most disquieting.  Certainly we in the audience felt for them.

The sets and costumes of Francesco Zito and Antonella Conte were eloquent and elegant and did indeed introduce an element of lightness into the show.  This is a revival of a production from the Fracci regime.  The moonlit forest of Don Chisciotte’s dream brought spontaneous applause as soon as the curtain rose to reveal it.

All in all, the show was not without its pleasures.  The trifle had some tasty pieces even if the baking didn’t always manage to bring the pieces together into a totally satisfying whole.


Jack Buckley