The 2009/10 ballet season of Teatro alla Scala opened on Thursday night with a triptych program highlighting three ballet styling of French choreographer Maurice Béjart, who passed away in 2007, leaving behind a legacy of fans and colleagues who spoke about his innovative vision and intellectual choreography. We were kind of disappointed that Scala doesn't make a big fuss of the first ballet like they do in NYC with the ABT and the NYCB, but it didn't dissuade us from putting on a Lanvin lace dress and Alexander McQueen lace-up heels.
Via Stravinksy and Mahler (so perfect for Béjart's rhythms of dance in the modern world), British Maestro Daniel Harding took the Filarmonica della Scala and Il Corpo di Ballo del Teatro alla Scala on a wild adventure full of snappy, intricate Stravinksy and intuitive, burnished Mahler -- his first ballet conducted in Milan was full of win. In all honesty, Opera Chic came for the symphony (we will forever admire the work of Béjart and for what he's done in revolutionizing contemporary dance, but his choreography doesn't speak to us like how we feel after a rousing Brahms or Beethoven) -- C'mon...who could pass up two of Stravinksy's coolest works?
Sixteen lead dancers took to their skin-tight body stockings to flaunt Béjart's best moves (and their own disciplined musculature), choreographed to Stravinsky's Firebird and Rites of Spring -- then Mahler's Chant du Compagnon Errant accompanied by Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, which was sadly last heard at Scala in 1975.
Even though star etoile Roberto Bolle was forced to withdraw a month prior from Serata Béjart (where he's recovering from minor surgery in Germany), it gave 23-year-old Gabriele Corrado a chance to learn his Mahler and to also have a nice anecdote to tell his friends at dinner parties.
Stravinsky's Firebird began with a corps of a dozen mixed dancers in cotton peasant gear of work shirts and loose pants. The firebird, Antonio Sultera, appeared in a bright red body stocking and made Béjart's lean choreography looked effortless. The entire stage was used effectively by both leads (the phoenix was Eris Nezha) and lighting was fabulously clean. Harding's Firebird started as a tenebrous hum tinged with light. He wrapped the orchestra with a lyric, emotive gesture, and his reading expressed a tenderness and vulnerability.
The highlight of the night (for Opera Chic anyway) was Mahler's Chant du Compagnon Errant, accompanied by Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen sung by baritone Christopher Maltman. While the dancers were exceedingly excellent, (Massimo Murru and Gabriele Corrado), the baritone not so much with too many precarious high notes. Again, the choreography never overwhelmed the narrative with gesture or distraction. As lean as Bejart's choreography was, adversely Mahler's music was full of imaginative color, cleverly told by Harding, in perfect control of the soloist, the dancers, and the orchestra (he fared well enough that after the first pause he was gifted with smatterings of bravos as he walked to the podium to start the last half).
Stravinsky's Rites of Spring begins with an awakening of the dancers, lights shifting from midnight blue to golden yellow, signaling the tranition. The male dancers in unitards of greens and browns, the women in flesh-colored body stockings, the work built to a literal climax which melted into an intricate orgy, as unsexy as one could imagine -- not kinky, but kinetic.
Harding understood well how one should be bright but not shrill, a fine line between the two which was greatly mastered, with great tension full of drive and passion. An uninhibited reading, unrestrained and unafraid to use the full fortissimo of the orchestra.
Of course, aside from the superb music, one can always stay for the ballet.