Didone

The Diary of an Ennuyée

Source: Mrs Jameson, The Diary of an Ennuyée (Boston: J.R. Osgood, 1875), pp. 46-50 [originally published 1826 anonymously as A Lady’s Diary]

Production: Salvatore and Giulio Viganò, Didone, Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 8-9 October 1821

Text: Last night and the preceding we spent at the Scala. The opera was stupid, and Madame Bellocchi, who is the present prima donna, appeared to me harsh and ungraceful, when compared to Fodor. The new ballet, however, amply indemnified us for the disappointment.

Our Italian friends condoled with us on being a few days too late to see La Vestale, which had been performed for sixty nights, and is one of Vigano’s masterpieces. I thought the Didone Abbandonata left us nothing to regret. The immense size of the stage, the splendid scenery, the classical propriety and magnificence of the dresses, the fine music, and the exquisite acting, (for there is very little dancing,) all conspired to render it enchanting. The celebrated cavern scene, in the fourth book of Virgil, is rather too closely copied in a most inimitable pas de deux; so closely, indeed, that I was considerably alarmed pour les bienséances; but little Ascanius, who is asleep in a corner, (Heaven knows how he came there,) wakes at the critical moment, and the impending catastrophe is averted. Such a scene, however beautiful, would not, I think, be endured on the English stage. I observed that when it began, the curtains in front of the boxes were withdrawn, the whole audience, who seemed to be expecting it, was hushed; the deepest silence, the most delighted attention prevailed during its performance; and the moment it was over, a third of the spectators departed. I am told this is always the case; and that in almost every ballet d’action, the public are gratified by a scene, or scenes, of a similar tendency.

The second time I saw the Didone, my attention, in spite of the fascination of the scene, was attracted towards a box near us, which was occupied by a noble English family just arrived at Milan. In the front of the box sat a beautiful girl, apparently not fifteen, with laughing lips and dimpled cheeks, the very personification of blooming, innocent, English loveliness. I watched her (I could not help it, when my interest was once awakened,) through the whole scene. I marked her increased agitation: I saw her cheeks flush, her eyes glisten, her bosom flutter, as if with sighs I could not overhear, till at length overpowered with emotion, she turned away her head, and covered her eyes with her hand. Mothers!—English mothers! who bring your daughters abroad to finish their education—do ye well to expose them to scenes like these, and force the young bud of early feeling in such a precious hot-bed as this? Can a finer finger on the piano,—a finer taste in painting, or any possible improvement in foreign arts, and foreign graces, compensate for one taint on that moral purity which has ever been (and may it ever be!) the boast, the charm of Englishwomen? But what have I to do with all this ?—I came here to be amused and to forget:—not to moralize, or to criticize.

Vigano, who is lately dead, composed the Didone Abbandonata, as well as La Vestale, Oteilo, Nina, and others. All his ballets are celebrated for their classical beauty and interest. This man, though but a dancing-master, must have had the soul of a painter, a musician, and a poet in one. He must have been a perfect master of design, grouping, contrast, picturesque, and scenic effect. He must have had the most exquisite feeling for musical expression, to adapt it so admirably to his purposes; and those gestures and movements with which he has so gracefully combined it, and which address themselves but too powerfully to the senses and the imagination— what are they, but the very “poetry of motion,” la poésie mise en action, rendering words a superfluous and feeble medium in comparison?

I saw at the mint yesterday the medal struck in honor of Vigano, bearing his head on one side, and on the other, Prometheus chained; to commemorate his famous ballet of that name. One of these medals, struck in gold, was presented to him in the name of the government:—a singular distinction for a dancing-master;—but Vigano was a dancing-master of genius: and this is the land where genius in every shape is deified.

The enchanting music of the Prometteo by Beethoven, is well known in England, but to produce the ballet on our stage, as it was exhibited here, would be impossible. The entire tribe of our dancers and figurantes, with their jumpings, twirlings, quiverings, and pirouettings, must be first annihilated; and Vigano, or Didelot, or Noverre rise again to inform the whole corps de ballet with another soul and the whole audience with another spirit:—for

—’ Poiche paga il volgo sciocco, i giusto
Soioccamente ‘ballar‘ per dargli gusto.”

The Theatre of the Scala, notwithstanding the vastness of my expectations, did not disappoint me. I heard it criticized as being dark and gloomy; for only the stage is illuminated: but when 1 remember how often I have left our English theatres with dazzled eyes and aching head,—distracted by the multiplicity of objects and faces, and “blasted with excess of light,”—I feel reconciled to this peculiarity; more especially as it heightens beyond measure the splendor of the stage effect.

Comments: Anna Brownell Jameson (1794-1860) was an Anglo-Irish art historian. In the early 1820s, when Anna Murphy, she travelled to Italy and her diary of the visit was published anonymously, to great interest, as A Lady’s Diary. Salvatore Viganò was an Italian choreographer and composer, whose final work Didone (he died in 1821) was completed by his brother Giulio.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust