Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       entry Mar 2008, amended March 2022


B
allet in Naples

Ballerina by Edgar Degas    

The season program always reads "Opera and Ballet at San Carlo (year)," which reflects the fact that in Naples, as in most places in Italy, the ballet company is part of the same organization that provides opera, in this case, the San Carlo Theater. As elsewhere, dancers in Naples serve two ends: (1) to provide incidental dancing called for in many operas, and (2) to perform independent ballet. In Naples, there is both a ballet school and a ballet company. You start as a child in the former and hope to get good enough to move up to the latter.

Dance has always had a place at San Carlo. On opening night, November 4th, 1737, together with Achille in Sciro by Domenico Sarro, the first-ever opera at the splendid new theater, there were three short ballets (one before, one between acts one and two, and one after the opera) composed and choreographed by Gaetano Grossatesta. He worked at San Carlo for 30 years and was replaced by one of the most important names in the history of classical ballet: Salvatore Vigano (1769-1821), a Neapolitan dancer and choreographer who also studied and worked in France and Germany and who even collaborated with Beethoven on the ballet, Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus. (And wouldn't that look good on your résumé?!) Vigano is considered the father of a new kind of performance called choreodrama about which I know nothing except that dance tells a story and is not simply moving around to music.

Our modern sense of ballet as a cohesive performance of dancers moving to music to tell a story originated during the Italian Renaissance in the fifteenth century and more specifically under the influence of Catherine de' Medici. She was born in 1519 in Florence and died  in 1589 in Château de Blois in France. She was the Queen consort of France from 1547 until 1559 by marriage to King Henry II and the  mother of French kings Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III. Her court ballets were elaborate and extravagant. They were performed in large chambers with viewers on three sides. Aristocratic money dictated the ideas, literature and music used in these ballets, and they were created to
entertain the aristocracy of the time. The first formal 'court ballet' ever recognized was staged in 1573, 'Ballet des Polonais'. Catherine commissioned it to honor the Polish  ambassadors visiting Paris upon the accession of Henry of Anjou to the throne of Poland. In 1581 Catherine commissioned another ballet, Ballet Comique de la Reine; however it was her Italian compatriot, Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx, who organized it. Catherine  and Balthasar (also cited as "Baltasarini") de Beaujoyeulx were thus responsible for the first court ballet ever to integrate poetry, dance, music and set design to convey a unified dramatic storyline. We know very little of Baltasarini except that he died c. 1587 in Paris and was cited as an "Italian violinist, composer, and choreographer." He went to Paris originally in 1555 specifically to serve at Catherine's court. He tutored two of her sons and displayed a talent for arranging elaborate entertainments for the court.

added Mar. 25, 2020
Before you get all peace, love, and kumbayah about Catherine, the party girl (image), she had other interests. Some historians say she was the dark puppet-mistress pulling the strings on the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (SBDM), one of the low points in history of how those who share the same faith can descend into savagery and become mindless butchers. The SBDM was more than a single event and began on the night of 23–24 August 1572 and developed over a number of days largely in Paris, but spreading to other areas. The massacre was a targeted group of murders and a wave of Catholic mob violence against the Huguenots (French Protestants, named for Besançon Hugues, b. 1487 - d. 1532, a Swiss politician) during the so-called "French Wars of Religion" (1562-98). The particular "wave" of religious animosity in question here, the SBDM, lasted several weeks and estimates of the number of  dead across France vary widely, from 5,000 to 30,000. About three million people perished from violence, famine, or disease in the general French Wars of Religion. The SBDM was the second deadliest religious war in that period of European history. It is surpassed only by the Thirty Years' War, caused by the Protestant Reformation itself, but which took a while to get raging. It went from 1618-48 and took eight million lives. (I note that Luther, himself, married a nun. So at least those two got along fine.) We note that Catholic-Protestant hostility continued such that by 1685, so many Huguenots with trade and professional skills had been driven into exile from France, that the French state itself was severely weakened.
         added: Mar 27-
And the pope? Pope Gregory XIII (1502–1585), was head of the Catholic Church from May 13th, 1572 to his death in 1585. He commissioned and is the namesake for the Gregorian calendar, our civil calendar, so I tend to like him --a "science" kind of pope. But he was also pope during the SBDM, and his behavior during and  afterwards is disturbing. Though he feared invasion of Europe by Muslim Turks, his predecessor, pope Paul V, had mopped up the Med with the Muslims at the monumental Battle of Lepanto in 1571, an important victory for Christianity. Greg's attention was now more directed to the "inner" Christian danger of Protestantism. A generous account of his behavior during the SBDM says he was led to believe the Huguenots wanted to seize power in France, to stage a Protestant coup. That's why he issued a "well-done" to Catholics after the first few days of slaughter. After all, they had defended the state. If it looked like papal approval of the cruelties of the massacre, that's not fair. He didn't approve of the cruelties but made no public protest. Shall we give him those benefits of the doubt? I don't know. His public reactions were exuberant. "This is worth 50 battles of Lepanto," he said. He also had three frescoes made for the Sala Regia hall of the Vatican showing the events. He then issued a commemorative medal with his portrait and on the obverse a chastising angel, sword in hand and the legend UGONOTTORUM STRAGES: "Overthrow of the Huguenots", says one published English translation from Latin. It's a poor one. STRAGES in Latin is always very violent and is commonly translated as massacre, slaughter, and the like. (STRAGE still means that in modern Italian.) UGONOTTORUM STRAGES means "Slaugher of the Huguenots" and, indeed, a grisly image of a detail of the slaughter is on the obverse of the medallion (image shown).

Still, the calendar was a great idea.


In 1812, the French
, under Murat, opened the first real ballet school in Naples. There were 32 pupils admitted to attend the new ballet school (16 boys, 16 girls), all between the ages of 7 and 12. Boys were then required to study the violin, as well; girls had to study solfeggio (sight singing). Once admitted to the school, they were not allowed to leave Naples, and once they had completed the school they were bound by contract to dance in the Royal Company for adequate pay. Once students were engaged and had performed for the first time, they were "graded" and paid accordingly.

At the same time as the ballet school, a "scenography" school, i.e., for stage and set design, was opened under the direction of the great Tuscan architect, Antonio Niccolini (1772-1850), the person who restored the San Carlo theater in 1816 after a disastrous fire and whose other works in Naples include the construction of the villa Floridiana. As director of the school, Niccolini supplied scenery for as many as 146 operas and 115 ballets. In 1858, the school was incorporated into the Institute of Fine Arts.

The ballet school suspended activities in 1841, reopened in 1860 and stayed open through the shaky transition from Naples as capital of a kingdom to Naples as just another big city in united Italy. The school and company closed again shortly thereafter, but Naples remained a venue for ballet companies from elsewhere.

Ballet school and company were resurrected after WWII in 1951 under the direction of choreographer, Bianca Gallizia. Since then, the company has played the Covent Garden in London as well as at the Paris opera and has hosted in Naples the American Ballet Theater and the New York City Ballet. Names who have appeared in the last few decades have been Margot Fonteyn, Carla Fracci, Ekaterina Maximova, Rudolf Nureyev and Vladimir Vassiliev. Fracci directed the company in the 1980s and Nureyev and Vassiliev did special choreography for the company. Currently, the ballet company is directed by Elisabetta Terabust and the ballet school by Anna Razzi. For the 2007/8 season, the company performed Tschaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet.

 

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