La Scala Ballet shows Rudolf Nureyev lives on due to his artistic legacy, influence on ballet and choreographies

ItalyItaly Homage to Nureyev: Dancers of La Scala Ballet, Orchestra of La Scala, Milan / Koen Kessels (conductor). Recorded (directed by Tiziano Mancini) on 19.3.2021 and streamed from La Scala, Milan, 28.3.2021. (JPr)

Raymonda Act III (c) Brescia e Amisano

Don Quixote (from Act II)
Music – Ludwig Minkus
Dancers – Giuseppe Conte (Don Quixote), Nicoletta Manni (Kitri/Dulcinea), Maria Celeste Losa (The Queen of the Dryads), Agnese Di Clemente (Amor), Federico Fresi (A Gipsy) and Company

The Sleeping Beauty – Rose Adagio’ from Act I
Music – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Dancers – Martina Arduino (Princess Aurora), Mick Zeni, Massimo Garon, Edoardo Caporaletti, Giocchino Starace (Four Princes)

Manfred – Solo
Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Dancer – Claudio Coviello

Swan LakePas de trois (Act III)
Choreography by Rudolf Nureyev after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov
Music – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Dancers – Nicoletta Manni (Odile), Timofej Andrijashenko (Siegfried), Christian Fagetti (Rothbart)

CinderellaPas de deux (Act II)
Music – Sergei Prokofiev
Dancers – Alessandra Vassallo (Cinderella) and Gabriele Corrado (L’Acteur-vedette)

Romeo and JulietPas de deux (Act I)
Music – Sergei Prokofiev
Dancers – Marco Agostino (Romeo) and Vittoria Valerio (Juliet)

Raymonda – Divertissement (Act III)
Music – Alexander Glazunov
Dancers – Virna Toppi (Raymonda), Nicola Del Freo (Jean De Brienne), Maria Celeste Losa (Henriette), Antonella Albano (Clemence) and Company

At Milan’s La Scala Rudolf Nureyev lives on thanks to his artistic legacy, his influence on ballet and his choreographies. Of course, this is not just confined to Italy as he is still held in the highest esteem by many of the world’s leading ballet companies including in Paris and Vienna. La Scala Ballet’s new director, Manuel Legris, provides a direct link between Paris and Nureyev, via Vienna and now Milan. Legris, a wonderful dancer in his own right, was promoted to étoile (star dancer) by Nureyev in 1986 when he was in charge in Paris. Legris restaged a number of Nureyev’s ballets in Vienna, and he has begun his tenure at La Scala with this Homage to Nureyev and snatches of the great classics he staged for the company, as well as Manfred which was being seen there for the first time and Raymonda Act III which they had not danced before.

This was a wonderful celebration to remind those of a certain age how important Rudolf Nureyev was to many who began going to ballet in our formative years when he was dancing. Now it is 83 years since his birth and 28 years (where has that time gone?) since his premature death. We will never see his like again and he can never be forgotten because of his zealotry in always giving male dancers – especially himself – as much to do as possible in any new version of the classics (see below). He may never always have got the balance perfectly right though what he did was often thought-provoking and spectacular. My first ballet at Covent Garden was his The Nutcracker for The Royal Ballet in 1977 (where he danced the dual role of Drosselmeyer and the Prince) and I saw his versions of Sleeping Beauty (1975) and Romeo and Juliet (1977) for London Festival Ballet (as English National Ballet was then) many times amongst much else. Including in the 1980s when I saw him dance in his legendary Swan Lake that he created in 1964 for the Vienna State Ballet which remains in their repertory to this day (recent review click here). It was one of my most memorable evenings ever at the ballet.

The doyen of British ballet critics, Clement Crisp, several years ago wrote this assessment of Nureyev with which I wholeheartedly agree. Crisp explained how the Russian dancer was a ‘stellar stage presence, and an insatiable, unassuageable performer. It seemed that no stage was too inconsiderable, no vast auditorium too large, to offer him the chance to perform, to display that seemingly irresistible presence. Month-long engagements – “Rudolf Nureyev will appear at every performance” boasted the publicity – testified to his drawing power, his dedication to dancing, his eclectic choices of repertory. He could, and did, galvanise ensembles as well as box offices and, most tellingly, audiences who might otherwise not have considered ballet as something worthy of their cash and their attentions. He served as example for a huge public of what dancing in the theatre could mean, and for the more critical eye, of what stellar presence could do to rehabilitate ballets, or to blend choreography to his own technical and idiosyncratic ends, or to cast some transforming spell over inept, fatuous creation.’

Not that there was anything ‘fatuous’ about what we saw from the La Scala Ballet though there was one ‘idiosyncratic’ moment. The presentation was slightly odd with backdrops for the gypsy camp and the enchanted garden in Don Quixote and something suitable for the ‘Rose Adagio’ showing a huge ornate vase of roses. From then on, the stage – apart from a platform and steps to the rear – was basically bare and just lit differently by Marco Filibeck.

Don Quixote is apparently a flagship ballet for the La Scala company and has been in its repertoire since 1980 when Nureyev danced it with the legendary ballerina Clara Fracci. The first of two extracts showed us gambolling gypsies featuring Federico Fresi whirling around the stage. We then fast-forwarded to an enchanted garden that a venerable Don Quixote believes he has been transported to and there the Queen of the Dryads (the elegantly long-limbed Maria Celeste Losa) introducing him to the lady of his dreams, Dulcinea, the luminous Nicoletta Manni. What I particularly liked was seeing the smiling faces of the corps de ballet clearly relishing being back on stage.

The music was in the safest hands of Koen Kessels (music director of The Royal Ballet) conducting the (equally masked) Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, spread throughout the theatre’s empty stalls. Throughout the music sounded glorious and particularly now for the ‘Rose Adagio’ from The Sleeping Beauty that Nureyev created for La Scala in 1966 with Fracci this time as Aurora and himself, of course, as the Prince. Martina Arduino showed musicality and impressive technical perfection as Aurora accompanied by her four attentive princes (Mick Zeni, Massimo Garon, Edoardo Caporaletti and Gioacchino Starace).

Manfred is new to La Scala and first seen in Paris is 1979 with Nureyev in the title role. Just as Tchaikovsky’s symphony, the story of the ballet is inspired by Byron’s poem where ‘the hero, a superhuman character, is doomed by fate to destroy those he loves. In vain he undertakes to find Astarte, his ideal spirit who alone has the power to assuage the feeling of guilt with which he is obsessed.’ In Claudio Coviello’s solo – and because of all the great angst he displayed – it was the first time we are genuinely reminded of the great man (Nureyev not Byron!). Coviello was wonderfully expressive, and the emotion was there for all to see from the moment he appeared until the final anguished roll from back to front of the stage. Interestingly, we were introduced to some of Nureyev’s signatures moves including over-elaborate steps that we would see more of later in this celebration.

Now the genuine discovery for me was the Swan Lake pas de trois (and I have not got that wrong!). No one was more surprised than me to see a tricksy variation for Rothbart (Christian Fagetti in a costume with an owl image) interpolated in the familiar Black Swan pas de deux. Of course, Nureyev was – in his heyday – everyone’s romantic ideal as Siegfried because of his brooding melancholia but when his Swan Lake was put on at La Scala in 1990, Nureyev danced the ambiguous role of Rothbart (otherwise the tutor Wolfgang) and hence took some of the attention off the Prince and Odile. Nicoletta Manni’s Odile had the requisite bewitching and seductive glint in her eye, and she whipped through her fouettés with very little travelling. However, despite his elegant line and soaring jump Timofej Andrijashenko as Siegfried was much too upright and stiff. Once again, the musical accompaniment from Kessels and his orchestra was ravishing.

Cinderella goes to Hollywood in Nureyev’s quirky view of the familiar fairy tale  and it is something I have only revisited recently (review click here). It was seemingly last seen at La Scala in 2006. There is a beguiling pas de deux for Cinderella and ‘The Star Actor’ (L’Acteur-vedette) which intriguingly begins and ends on a revolving stool and Alessandra Vassallo and Gabriele Corrado were an absolute delight. It was lyrical and tender with lots of typical Nureyev ‘armography’ and danced to Prokofiev’s 1945 music which has more than a hint of his Romeo and Juliet composed a decade earlier and which we heard next.

Marco Agostino (Romeo) & Vittoria Valerio (Juliet) (c) Brescia e Amisano

In what was the best pairing of this Homage we saw Marco Agostino (Romeo) and Vittoria Valerio (Juliet) dance the balcony scene pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet. Having made his debut as Romeo at La Scala in 1965 (Margot Fonteyn was Juliet) he choreographed his version there in 1980 a few years after the one for London Festival Ballet. It may be a false memory, but I believe Nureyev’s London Act I pas de deux was more gymnastic – ‘steamier’ even – than this for Milan. Undoubtedly it still demanded great athleticism from Agostino and Valerio but the longing, intense emotion and burgeoning desire here was more MacMillanesque. Certainly, Agostino was the dancer that we saw who most resembled Nureyev, especially because the in-between moments were just as important as any of the fussy steps and so you could genuinely believe the passionate longing this Romeo had for Valerio’s gamine Juliet.

Rounding things off was Nureyev’s recreation of Raymonda Act III. This apparently was brought to La Scala by Paris Opera Ballet in 2000 and so it is the first time the ballet company have danced these divertissements for the final act wedding celebrations of Jean de Brienne (who is back from the Crusades) to Raymonda. Despite just the odd hint that what we saw could have all done with a little more rehearsal, much fun was had by all the soloists and corps de ballet with its Hungarian dance theme, grand pas, pas de quatre and trois, all replete with bravura solos. Virna Toppi’s Raymonda commanded attention when she clapped her hands and bourréed captivatingly across the stage, though for me she was a little too glacial. There were good airborne leg beats from the statuesque Nicola Del Freo but once again what we saw from him was just a series of well-placed steps and his dancing lacked brio.

This is a wonderful gift from La Scala to balletomanes throughout the world and do see it if you can as it is available for a few more days on the Teatro alla Scala’s website (click here), Facebook and YouTube pages. The only thing that might depress you are the chilling silences that greet the dancers as they take their extravagant footlight bows during the ballets; though you will join with me at the end as they – and all the orchestra – applaud the towering image of Nureyev that was the backdrop to Raymonda Act III which concluded this Homage.

Jim Pritchard

2 thoughts on “La Scala Ballet shows Rudolf Nureyev lives on due to his artistic legacy, influence on ballet and choreographies”

  1. Lovely review, thank you. The performance was very enjoyable and the La Scala orchestra quite superb. Nureyev’s full length ‘Raymonda’ is not in the company’s repertoire but a very costly and controversial reconstruction of it by Vikharev was staged there in 2010. I’m not sure if was ever revived. I imagine that Legris will stage Nureyev’s version eventually.

    From S&H: Thank you Stuart for this information.

  2. It seems Legris has dumped all the wonderful ‘reconstructions’ of Petipa ballets to worship at the ‘Temple of Rudy’. Nureyev’s (per)versions of Petipa ballets are legion, and since he’s long gone, why do we have to see them? I have seen the video of the gala – a dreary affair by the third-rate La Scala Ballet. The orchestra plays well, however. The only dancers that stand out are Coviello and Del Freo who really should try to join better companies – many have.

    There is one positive aspect of ballet at La Scala – from 40% of the seats one can barely see the stage … I would not want free tickets for that company…..


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