Don Quixote review – Italy's La Scala Ballet shimmers in Brisbane

Qpac, Brisbane
Teatro alla Scala Ballet Company’s Australian debut is silly, frothy and a crowd-pleaser

La Scala Ballet’s Don Quixote finishes with a frenzied scene of action. As the curtain drops the entire company gallivants on stage, seemingly dancing into the night. It is a fitting finale for a production that is sometimes so busy it forgets to give the audience – not to mention the dancers – the space to breathe.

This is the first time that Italy’s legendary Teatro alla Scala Ballet Company has ever come to Australia. Following in the footsteps of the greats, including the Bolshoi Ballet, Ballet Preljocaj, and The Royal Ballet, who have all performed in Brisbane, it is the latest coup in the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (Qpac) International Series.

Befitting of La Scala’s 240-year history, this was always going to be a night delivered with a bang: 109 members of the Milanese company have travelled to Australia, bringing with them both the set and costumes. But unlike the Royal Ballet’s extraordinary and haunting Woolf Works, which played at Qpac last year, this Don Quixote is a frothy, silly production with far more shimmer than soul.

Based on the Miguel de Cervantes 17th-century novel, Don Quixote follows an errant nobleman obsessed with the knights of old. It is ultimately a comedy – something not lost in this production, in which Ludwig Minkus’s score is accompanied by all sorts of mischievous shenanigans, as well as a pair of star-crossed lovers and a stampede of cape-wielding toreadors, courtesy of the Rudolf Nureyev choreography.

Leonid Sarafanov as Basilio.
Leonid Sarafanov as Basilio milks the comedy for all it’s worth. Photograph: Darren Thomas - PhotoCo/Darren Thomas

Don Quixote (Giuseppe Conte) heads off to save damsels in distress on a giant fake horse with his idiotic bumbling squire, Sancho Panza (Gianluca Schiavoni) in tow. Sporting clunky armour and a large lance, getting on and off his steed alone provokes ripples of laughter.

Meanwhile Kitri, the innkeeper’s pretty daughter, is in love with the poor barber, Basilio. Her father, however, wants her to marry the preposterous and unattractive but wealthy Gamache (spoiler alert: love wins out in the end).

Set in the village square, act one is a riot of colour. Yet between the fan-whirring, heel-clacking, hair-swirling dancing of the villagers, the story of the two central lovers gets somewhat lost. Thankfully, taking the attention away from the flimsy plot and some over-effusive set pieces is a stellar cast.

Nicoletta Manni as Kitri La Scala Don Quixote QPAC Photographer Darren Thomas 0163
Nicoletta Manni as Kitri is particularly beguiling. Photograph: Darren Thomas - PhotoCo/Darren Thomas

Kitri, danced by La Scala’s prima ballerina, Nicoletta Manni, is particularly beguiling. Using a fan as a prop, she flutters her hands, as well as eyes, filling the stage with flirtatious energy. Leonid Sarafanov as Basilio, meanwhile, milks the comedy for all its worth: in one particularly farcical moment, Basilio pretends to play dead, raising his head only to take swigs of beer poured into his mouth by his beloved.

In the second act, set in a windmill swarmed by gypsies and later in an enchanted garden, where Don Quixote fantasises about meeting the lady of his dreams, Dulcinea, the ballet comes into its own. Bare-chested, in an open waistcoat, headscarf and red boots, Mattia Semperboni displays furious animalistic energy as the chief gypsy. A puppet show performed by robotic children is suitably creepy. And the fluttering of ballerinas in tutus in the magical forest led by the Queen of Dryades (Maria Celeste Losa) is bewitching.

In the end, it is these final two acts that save the ballet. La Scala, famously, is home to the loggionisti – the vocal theatre-goers of the cheaper upper gallery who liberally boo and catcall a poor performance. In Milan, several stars – including tenor Roberto Alagna – have been hounded right off the stage. On opening night in Brisbane, there were no such boos; just a standing ovation.

Teatro alla Scala Ballet Company is performing Don Quixote at Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, until 17 November


Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

The GuardianTramp

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