It is Donna Violetta’s birthday and she is preparing to go out. She is meeting her relatives in the Antica Osteria “Nonna Rosa” in Vico Equense to celebrate her anniversary. It’s been a busy day full of phone calls with wishes and bouquets of white roses, which she loves so much. A warm sun, although it is early November, has heated up Vico Equense that day, the wonderful “entrance” to the Sorrentine coast: from Mount Faito through villages and hill towns to the beaches of Marina d’Aequa in a landscaped unrivalled charm. One last look at the Bay of Naples from the terrace on the top floor of Palazzo Savarese, from her apartment overlooking the sea shimmering with lunar reflections, the daily, tender greeting to the photograph of her husband Fernando, she walks down the stairs slowly, and then through the front door of Palazzo Savarese she leaves the house. The town centre of Vico Equense is crowded with people. Donna Violetta walks smoothly until she reaches the Umberto I Square, where she meets a person from Vico, Salvatore Ferraro, and she immerses herself into memories of her first arrival to Vico Equense in 1951 with her first husband, Harold Elvin, and a pair of their English friends. She fell in love at first sight with the town that would become her home for the next sixty years! Still walking, Donna Violetta reaches the restaurant where she is expected by her son Antonio, his wife Laura and their daughter Diletta, her relatives and friends. Thus, the celebration of her nineteenth birthday can begin.
Vasilij Vasilyevich Prokhorov, Violetta’s father, is on his way, wrapped up to protect himself from the bitter cold of Russian winter, to pay tribute to Lenin’s body on display at the House of Unions in Nikitskaya street, in the centre of Moscow. The death of the leader of the revolution has left the whole Russia in dismay, and at the same time it opened disturbing questions about the real nature of his successor: Stalin. The same thoughts gather in the mind of Vasilij Vasilyevich, who having given his homage to the remains of the revolutionary leader, decided on his way home to pass in front of the Bolshoi Theatre. Vasilij Vasilyevich is a well known and respected charachter, famous Russian pilot and inventor, a man of extraordinary psychological and cultural eclecticism ranging from technical inventions to pictorial art and music. Like all Russians, he is also passionate about dance, and admirer of the great Anna Pavlova in her interpretation of “The Dying Swan” by Michel Fokine at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. For this reason, in front of the Bolshoi he begins to fantasize about the future of his daughter born a few weeks earlier, certain that the future would see her become a star of dance, admired and applauded in all the major theatres of the world. Vasilij Vasilyevich really loves her little daughter, his Violetta, who from the earliest years of her life reveals the passion for art, for literature, for dance, as well as for fearless, courageous and adventurous life. The mother, Irene Teofilovna Gramolińska, also loves her daughter. She was of Polish origin, and she arrived to Moscow with her mother, brother and stepfather. 25 years younger than Vasilij Vasilyevich, she married him for love and was happy for the first years of marriage. As a Catholic she strongly insisted on baptising her daughter. Vasilij Vasilyevich managed to secretly bring home a Catholic priest to confer the sacrament of baptism to Violetta. A madness that petrified the Prokhorov spouses because if they were discovered, they would be shot or sent to Siberia. Violetta’s childhood is serene, spent in two rooms assigned to her father by the party in a palace on the Arbat street in Moscow, where they live sharing the communal apartment with other families. Various events of that early stage of life remain imprinted in Violetta’s mind for the rest of her life: at the age of 6 her parents take her to the Bolshoi to watch “The Sleeping Beauty”. The little girl, prepared by the fatherly stories, remains very involved in the show, so much that for the next three days she does not play with anyone, all absorbed by the awakening of the Sleeping Beauty with the kiss of the prince after a hundred years. This ballet was to become an essential reference in the future career of Violetta. At eight years old, she receives the first and only punishment from her father, caused by her firm opposition to invite to her birthday party the son of a strange character who lived in a room nearby, probably a spy for the Soviet political police. Violetta is forced to remain for a whole day kneeling in his father’s room under the bust of the Russian composer Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninov. In those same years, Violetta also begins to understand how the Communist regime, beyond the propaganda events, is showing its true face of oppression, anguish and fear. One of her girlfriends, Zina Barisheva, confesses one day, terrified, to have to leave because her parents were arrested and she has to follow them 500 km away from Moscow. Violetta is shocked, but she does not ask her parents for an explanation. She remembers well that Russian children should never ask too many questions, speak loudly and that they always have to watch if anyone is listening. Violetta enters the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, a very selective and tough school. Her dance teachers are Elizaveta Pavlovna Gerdt and Maria Alice Kosukova. She performs brilliantly during the course of study, which also includes subjects other than dance, and graduates with a thesis in the History of Theatre, on the Austrian dancer Fanny Ellsler, in early autumn 1941 Nazi Germany invades Russia and Hitler’s armies arrive at the gates of Moscow. Violetta and her family are evacuated to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. She remains there for about a year, until she receives a telegram with information that the Bolshoi was transferred to Kuibuşev. During her flight between the Uzbek capital and Kuibuşev Violetta feels ill and vomits the fruit eaten before departing, and her vomit reaches the face of a distinguished man, who then turns out to be writer Mikhail Sholokhov. After the bloodiest phase of war with the Germans driven back outside Russian borders, Violetta and the corps de ballet of the Bolshoi return to Moscow. The young dancer begins to see an English architect, Harold Elvin, a nightwatchman at the British Embassy in Moscow. The Soviet secret police passes this information to the director of the Bolshoi, Leonid Lavrovsky, who speaks to her and makes her promise that she will not see the Englishman again to avoid being accused of betrayal of the revolution and a political destruction of her so brilliantly started career. But in reality Violetta does the opposite thing, she continues to see Harold and after the war she marries him. She is transferred as punishment from the Bolshoi to the Stanislavsky Theatre, also in Moscow, and awaits to get permission to leave the country along with her husband, and to go to England. In the end, after obstacles and diplomatic negotiations with the British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, the permission is granted directly by Stalin to Violetta and six other Russians who married foreign diplomats. Violetta and Harold leave Moscow. Passing in Leningrad, they meet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who plays (and loses) a game of chess with Violetta, who remains very impressed by the history and the contradictory personality of the great musician. After leaving Leningrad, the couple reaches Finland and the capital Helsinki, where they stop as guests of architect Alvar Aalto, a friend of Harold. Violetta and the Maestro have an interesting discussion on harmony in art, architecture and dance. Having left Finland, after passing through Norway, Harold and Violetta finally arrive at the Victoria Station in London.
Great Britain and its capital after the Second World War are reanimating and starting the reconstruction. Harold and Violetta settle temporarily at his parents’ house, and she resumes training in a few studios in the Covent Garden district. On one of these occasions, she is noticed by Ninette de Valois, the legendary director of the Sadler’s Wells company, later the Royal Ballet, which after World War II employed Margot Fonteyn, Robert Helpmann, Moira Shearer, Beryl Grey, Michael Somes, David Blair, John Field, George Balanchine, Kenneth MacMillan, and since 1962 the young Rudolf Nureyev. De Valois hires Violetta in her company, asking her, though, to change her name: from Violetta Prokhorova to Violetta Elvin, which is more English (in Cold War times!) and easier to pronounce. Violetta becomes one of the protégés of de Valois, without, however, ever overcoming Margot Fonteyn, the étoile of the company. The relationship between the two dancers, beyond some gossips artfully fed by the London press, is always friendly, correct and often a partnership. Violetta’s career at the Royal Ballet proceeds smoothly among the premières at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and exciting tours abroad. Also for this reason she decides with Harold to leave his parents’ house and move to Bloomsbury, and then closer to Piccadilly Circus. A sudden indisposition of Margot Fonteyn becomes the reason why Violetta meets and works with the great Russian choreographer Lèonide Massine, to replace Fonteyn in the première of “The Three-Cornered Hat”. When she is tired from rehearsals, Massine comforts her in Russian, reminding her about their common studies, although at different times, at the prestigious ballet school of the Bolshoi. During a tour in Italy at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan Violetta meets Maria Callas. The soprano, who performs in the interpretation of “Macbeth” by Giuseppe Verdi, has her dressing room next to the one of Violetta. They become good friends and often talk, especially in the Biffi Scala restaurant, where they often go to lunch together. Violetta is very fond of Callas, her fragility, her fears and her dramas. In 1951, the marriage between Violetta and Harold begins to suffer from crisis. For this reason they both decide to take a vacation and in April, advised by a London-based travel agency, they arrive to Vico Equense accompanied by a couple of English friends. In Vico, they stay in Hôtel Aequa. The natural charm of the coastal town captivates Violetta. The four spend their stay on hikes to Mount Faito and Mount Comune. Right here, Violetta, having for a few hours left the rest of the company, contemplating from above the Sorrento and Amalfi Coasts up to the Island of Capri, decides it is time to regain her life. A few days earlier, without paying too much attention, she looked at a young man, who followed her and her husband with his eyes while they were on their way to the beach of Marina d’Aequa. That same young man was met later in a city bar by their two friends, and offered to accompany the four to visit the hill villages of Vico Equense. His name was Fernando Savarese, and he revealed himself immediately as a young cultured and refined man, a lover of English and Russian art and literature, who was soon to finish his studies in Law. Taking advantage of the fact that the other English couple had gone on a trip to Positano, Fernando invites Harold and Violetta to lunch at the house of his parents, and they accept the offer enthusiastically. At the table, in the presence of the whole family, the two guests can taste delicacies such as octopus salad and lasagne. The mother of Fernando realizes that his son is not insensitive to the charms of the beautiful foreign lady, because the next day, on departure, Fernando asks Violetta for a gift, a sweater from Pucci, which he saw her wear earlier. Some time later Harold and Violetta are separated. She moves in alone into a house on Park Lane and returns to being the “owner” of her life. The death of King George VI of the United Kingdom opens the succession for his daughter, Elizabeth II. On the occasion of the coronation of the sovereign Ninette de Valois decides to honour the queen with a ballet performance created by the Royal Ballet choreographer, Frederick Ashton, the “Homage to The Queen”. On 2nd June 1953, Violetta Elvin along with Margot Fonteyn and other stars of the company, performs the ballet at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. It is a truly emotional evening. Among the many white roses, which she receives in her dressing room, there are those accompanied by a note signed simply: “Fernando”. The young solicitor from Vico Equense often travels to London on the occasion of the premières starring Violetta. Their relationship intensifies stimulated also by shared interests in art and literature. Early in the spring of 1956, Violetta asks for an appointment with the director of the Royal Ballet to announce her intention to leave ballet forever and to conclude her dancing career. De Valois, though surprised and upset, understands her decision and entrusts her a role in her last ballet to perform: Princess Aurora in “The Sleeping Beauty”. On 23rd June 1956, Violetta Elvin dances for the last time on the stage of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, a ballet that marked her entire artistic career. After the farewell party held on the same evening in the foyer of the famous London theatre Violetta returns home. Fernando is waiting for her.
In the years immediately following Violetta’s closing of her dance career Fernando goes back and forth between Vico Equense and London due to his work commitments in family companies, and they both express the hesitation as to whether to settle in the British capital or in the town on the Sorrentine coast. Fernando and Violetta get married in a civil ceremony on 2nd January 1959, in the council office in Kensington High Street, London. After an exciting visit near Florence, in Villa I Tatti owned by the American art historian Bernard Berenson, donated later on by the scholar to the Harvard University, they finally decide to move to Italy. They settle in their first home in Naples, in Posillipo, in the Villa Pavoncelli complex, in a seaside apartment. A unique event takes place right there: Fernando and Violetta, fearful of Soviet spies, decide one night to burn on the beach all the love letters they exchanged in previous years, which also contained references to the Stalinist regime. Someone knowing that she is Russian and believing that the two are burning secret and compromising documents, alerts the police authorities (still in the climate of the Cold War!). Fernando, fortunately, thanks to his friends at the police station, clarifies the misunderstanding. To allow Fernando to better coordinate the family business and the resort “Le Axidie” built by the family, the couple moves to Vico Equense, to Palazzo Savarese. In January of 1960, their son Antonio is born, affectionately called Toti, and two years later they manage to crown their dream: get married in church during a Catholic ceremony. The marriage of Fernando and Violetta is celebrated on a Sunday morning, at dawn, at the Church of Santa Maria della Neve in Massa Lubrense. The following decades are the happiest years of their lives: Fernando manages the family resort and Violetta, a true star, a star in Vico Equense, his faithful companion of life, loved and adored by her husband, reveals herself as a perfect and refined lady of the house, who welcomes international personalities, many of whom are friends of the couple from Violetta’s London times, visitors to “Le Axidie”: English architect-urban planner William Holford, the Anglo-Italian hotel entrepreneur Charles Fort, and the official choreographer of the Royal Ballet, Frederick Ashton. Meanwhile, Toti is sent by his parents to study in England, where he attends the preparatory school, college and the prestigious London School of Economics, before returning to Vico Equense and devoting himself along with his father to the management of the family resort. When Violetta decides to quit ballet and to go to live in Italy, she informs her mother Irene about this by mail. Not being able to locate the town on a Soviet map, the petrified lady telegraphs her daughter from Moscow to find out where her daughter decided to live. Also for this reason Violetta invites her mother to Italy twice. Irene arrives to Rome and together with her daughter, son in law and her grandson she stops at Grand Hôtel Excelsior in Via Veneto. In a moment of intimacy the mother shows Violetta a letter that her daughter wrote about ten years earlier, when on tour with the Royal Ballet in Florence, in which she praised the artistic beauty of the city. That letter, intercepted by the KGB, was censored in all the fragments, in which Violetta described enthusiastically the Italian artistic heritage. Violetta, moved, reads it again to her mother, remembering well what was written. During her second visit, Violetta’s mother tries to bring to Violetta from Moscow a few paintings that belonged to her father, for his memory. Despite Irene obtained all the necessary permits to carry them in Italy, on the border between Russia and Poland those works of art are confiscated. Irene is hurt so much that, after arriving in Warsaw to stay with relatives, she has her first heart attack. Violetta, many years later, in 2013, would receive a compensation for her father’s memories, for this loss: Victoria, the granddaughter of a man whose sister married Violetta’s father in third marriage, brings for her to Vico Equense a few diaries of Vasily Vasilyevich compiled during the revolutionary period in Russia, filled with dense observations of philosophical or literary nature on Socrates, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, André Gide and Edgar Allan Poe. Irene, during her stay in Italy, in Vico Equense, through the mediation of Fernando and the company of her daughter has the opportunity to deepen the bonds of some great Russians with the Sorrentine land and the Isle of Capri. In particular, painter Sylvester Shchedrin and writer Maxim Gorky. Violetta’s high level acquaintances made in the following decades continue also in Vico Equense. For example a visit paid on a summer day, along with Charles Forte and his wife Irene, to Léonide Massine in Li Galli. The famous choreographer bought the archipelago in 1924, after falling in love with it a few years earlier during his stay in Positano along with Sergei Diaghilev, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes company, intending to make it into an international dance centre. That afternoon on Li Galli becomes an occasion for Léonide and Violetta to remember the years spent at the Royal Ballet, and to talk about Rudolf Nureyev, who just after arriving to London started creating some problems for Ninette de Valois and her company. The thread, which allowed Violetta to never break her spiritual bond with the world of dance, is represented by the brotherly, disinterested, confidential and intellectually accomplished friendship with Croatian choreographer Zarko Prebil, whom he met in the late sixties thanks to a friend from the times of the Bolshoi Ballet School, Inna Zhukovskaia. Among the many episodes that lined the story of the friendship between Violetta and Zarko, one has a special meaning: the encounter after about fifty years with Violetta’s admirer from the times of the Royal Ballet, Alex Bisset. Thanks to the help of Zarko, who upon Violetta’s request met him in London after she contacted him, Alex was invited to Vico Equense. While dining, Alex sees two silver wine cups standing on a shelf. He comes up to them and finds out that those are the cups that he and his colleagues from the gallery at the Royal Opera House gave to Violetta on the night of her farewell party in Covent Garden. Violetta and Zarko, when they don’t see each other in person, spend hours on the phone. One phone call in particular plays a fundamental meaning in Violetta’s life: the one made on her ninetieth birthday. It’s an opportunity to draw the balance of an entire existence, of the values that animated it, of the choices that distinguished it. A phone call, in which Violetta explains to her friend her philosophy of life, strongly pervaded by intimate and sincere religiousness, by honest feelings, by the passion for art, by gratitude for a country, England, which offered her a successful career as a ballet dancer, by her love for a man like Fernando, entiry absorbing, fiery and passionate, which continues even after her husband’s death.
Donna Violetta, after the celebration dinner on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday at the Antica Osteria “Nonna Rosa”, returns home in the car with her son Toti. Before going up to her apartment she stays on the terrace-garden on the ground floor of the family home to enjoy the night view that opens in front of her: the Gulf of Naples, the waters of whch sparkle with the bright lights of the city. Later on she heads up the stairs to her apartment on the third floor. She goes inside and heads to her bedroom. She falls asleep. In the night, she receives a phone call: it’s Makhar Vaziev, the head of the Bolshoi Ballet School, who asks her to immediately go to Moscow to replace the prima ballerina and perform the role of Princess Aurora in “The Sleeping Beauty”. Violetta agrees despite her age, on the sole condition of being accompanied to Moscow by her friend, Zarko Prebil. She arrives at the Bolshoi Theatre and after a day of practice she is ready to walk onto the stage in the evening along with her partner who plays the role of Prince Désiré, Artem Ovcharenko. When the prince kisses her, Violetta wakes up as if it was a miracle, not at the age of ninety, but physically taken back to the years of her début at the Bolshoi. The final pas de deux between the two lovers is greeted triumphantly. After the performance, Violetta, while gathering flowers that fall at her feet, for the first time looks at the audience and at the balconies up to the royal box, among the resounding and thunderous standing ovation from the audience. The musicians encouraged by conductor Alexander Shanin raise from the orchestra pit and wave and lift up their instruments in her honour. Then, only then, while among the cascades of flowers she approaches the edge of the stage, Violetta recognizes the faces of the loved ones in her career and life, her personal pantheon. In the audience, she sees Tanečka, her childhood girlfriend, with whom she played down the halls of the Arbat Street house; Zina Barisheva and Inna Zhukovskaia, the companions from dance school; Elizaveta Pavlovna Gerdt and Mary Alice Kosukova, her dance teachers. On balconies on the left and on the right: Ninette de Valois, Margot Fonteyn, Maria Callas, Frederick Ashton, Michael Somes, John Field, David Blair, Giulio Perugini, Ugo Dell’Ara, and in the royal box Lèonide Massine and Rudolf Nureyev. Finally, looking down at the front row, she sees the beloved smiling faces of Zarko, Alex, mother Irene, father Vasily Vasilyevich, her husband Fernando and son Toti. While when retreating behind the curtain, she notices the moving lips of Fernando, complimenting her as always: “Violetta, you were perfect! You’re beautiful!” In that dream the old desire for Violetta comes true, which she has nurtured for half a century: to dance for one last time on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre!
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