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Terpsichore in Nirvana

Teatro alla Scala
05/26/2024 -  & June 6, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14, 17, 18, 21, 2024
La Bayadère
Rudolf Nureyev, after Marius Petipa (choreography), Ludwig Minkus (music, orchestrated by John Lanchberry)
Nicoletta Manni*/Martina Arduino/Virna Toppi/Vittora Valerio/Alice Mariani (Nikiya), Timofey Andrijashenko*/Marco Agostino/Nicola del Freo/Kimin Kim/Claudio Coviello (Solor), Alice Mariani*/Gaia Andreanò, Maria Celeste Losa/Linda Giubelli (Gamzatti), Domenico di Cristo/Rinaldo Venuti/Valerio Lunadei/Andreas Lochmann/Saïd Ramos Ponce/Eugenio Lepera (The Fakeer), Massimo Garon/Daniele Lucchetti/Massimo dalla Mora (The High Brahmin), Gabriele Corrado/Christian Fagetti/Gioacchino Starace (The Raja Dugmanta), Edoardo Caporaletti/Gioacchino Starace/Gabriele Corrado (The Slave), Mattia Semperboni/Alessandro Paoloni/Domenico di Cristo/Edward Cooper/Darius Gramada/Francesco Mascia (The Bronze Idol), Azzurra Esposito/Corinna Zambon (Aya), Corpo di Ballo del Teatro alla Scala
Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, Kevin Rhodes (conductor)
Luisa Spinatelli (sets & costumes), Marco Filibeck (lighting)

A. Mariani, N. Nanni (© Brescia & Amisano/Teatro alla Scala)

The concept of Orientalism was given a fatal blow when philosopher, critic and activist Edward Said (1935‑2003), known among music lovers as co‑founder, with Daniel Barenboim, of the West‑Eastern Divan Orchestra, published his seminal book of the same name (Pantheon, 1978). Orientalism, the field of studying the East, has long portrayed the East as “The Other” and has been used to justify colonialism and the West’s exploitation of the non‑Western world. Forty years after its publication, the world has changed drastically, at least in its discourse.

Opera, and to a lesser extent ballet, as a mirror of Western civilization, offers a faithful representation of European thought, including its view of the East throughout the ages. A gradual but marked transformation appears in the early days of opera to the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment having contributed much to a more tolerant view of “The Other.”

NYU Professor of History Larry Wolff’s book The Singing Turk: Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotions on the European Stage from the Siege of Vienna to the Age of Napoleon (2016) explores Orientalism in opera, from Handel’s Rinaldo (1711) and Alcina (1735) to Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782) and Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri (1813) to Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles (1863), Massenet’s Le Roi de Lahore (1877) and Delibes’s Lakmé (1883).

La Bayadère (1877) is the Orientalist ballet par excellence. Based on a ballad by Goethe, Der Gott und die Bajadere (1797), it tells the story of the temple dancer Nikiya and the warrior Solor who swore an oath of eternal love. The High Brahman, who covets Nikiya, is furious to learn about their love. The King of Golconda, Raja Dugmanta, has chosen the valiant Solor to wed his daughter Gamzatti. Unaware that her beloved Solor is the groom, Nikiya agrees to dance at the Princess’s wedding. While performing her sombre dance, she is given a basket of flowers that she believes are from Solor. Unfortunately, they are from the jealous bride and contain a venomous snake, who bites Nikiya in the neck. The High Brahman offers Nikiya the antidote if she agrees to renounce Solor, but she prefers death. The devastated Solor smokes opium and has a vision of Nikiya in Nirvana. When he awakens, the wedding ceremony is underway. Nikiya’s spirit haunts the dancing Solor and Gamzatti. When the High Brahman joins the young couple’s hands to wed, the gods take revenge and destroy the temple and its occupants. In the apotheosis, the spirits of Nikiya and Solor are reunited in death.

The magnificent sets are designed after Ottoman, Persian and Mughal architecture, such as the Taj Mahal. Likewise, the costumes of Solor, the King and Gamzatti are more Persian or Mughal than authentically Indian, as would be the case in a Hindu‑ruled fiefdom. Confusing disparate parts of “the East’’ is characteristic of Orientalism. Given the absolute beauty of the end result, authenticity is of little importance. Indeed, it is much less odd than the ballet’s “white act,” where ballerinas in tutus dance to waltz‑like music in a supposed Nirvana.

La Bayadère has the luxury of two great female roles: the temple dancer Nikiya, and Princess Gamzatti, with both vying for the love of the warrior Solor. The other male roles, such as the High Brahmam and the Raja, are supporting ones that require less virtuosity. There is enough virtuosity for several ballets in the three leading roles, Nikiya, Gamzatti and Solor.

Nicoletta Manni shone as Nikiya. Technically accomplished, she is also an expressive dancer. Delicacy comes naturally to this great dancer. She masterfully used her arm movements to emulate Indian dancing, no easy feat in the much more formal art form of ballet.

Timofey Andrijashenko was a glorious Solor, muscular and virile, convincing as a warrior. Almost all contemporary dancers who dance Solor emulate Nureyev’s style in the role. His pas de deux with Nikiya in the first act was graceful and elegant, stylistically contrasting with the pathos at the ballet’s conclusion.

Alice Mariani was impressive in her deportment and ability to portray the haughty Princess Gamzatti without reverting to caricature. A veteran from Dresden’s Semperoper Ballet, Mariani is a prima ballerina who triumphed at La Scala as Kitri in Don Quichotte, two seasons ago. Here, she reprises the role of Gamzatti, in which she dazzled the public in 2022. Technically, her moves, whether double fouettés or triple pirouettes, were first‑rate. Through her expressiveness, she was able to convey the sad pride of a Princess who knows her betrothed prefers another woman. Her looks at Nikiya were more venomous than the deadly snake.

In addition to the brilliant three leading dancers and the well prepared corps de ballet, there was an additional magical component in conductor Kevin Rhodes. He has an obvious feel for dance, and is a true ballet conductor, paying as much attention to the needs of the dancers as he does to the score. Viennese-born Ludwig Minkus (1826‑1917), this ballet’s composer, best‑known for his ballet Don Quixote (1869), is often unfairly maligned for his “lightweight” music. Yet no composer other than Tchaikovsky and possibly Adolphe Adam wrote music that is as ballabile. Rhodes brought out the best in Minkus’s music.

Interestingly, La Bayadère was unknown in the West until 1961, when the touring Kirov Ballet brought the famous Kingdom of the Shades scene to Paris. Two years later, Nureyev staged and performed the same scene with Margot Fonteyn for London’s Royal Ballet. Productions at the Kirov, New York and London by Natalia Makarova and in Paris and at La Scala by Rudolf Nureyev firmly re‑established the work in the repertoire.

Nureyev’s choreography for La Bayadère in 1992, the last year of his life, is considered his ultimate legacy. His collaborators were aware of his impending death, but rather than exuding melancholy, it informed the work, producing one of the most brilliant and aesthetically pleasing interpretations of the work.

It’s admirable that La Scala has preserved this production for posterity. The lavish sets look astoundingly fresh for a three‑decade‑old production. Without exaggeration, this is the most gorgeous ballet production I’ve ever seen. One hopes such a beautiful creation will continue to be enjoyed beyond our lifetimes.

Ossama el Naggar



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