The Washington Post
Italian dancer exuded elegance as a reigning star of 20th-century ballet
Carla Fracci, a reigning ballerina of the 20th century, acclaimed for the drama she conferred on roles such as Giselle, and for the ethereal grace she brought to stages in her native Italy and around the world, died May 27 at her home in Milan. She was 84.
The cause was cancer, said her son, Francesco Menegatti.
The daughter of a Milanese tram conductor and his wife, a factory worker, Ms. Fracci grew up in modest circumstances. Through relentless training and a seemingly innate artistry, she became a global superstar, once hailed by the New York Times as the “prima ballerina assoluta.”
She appeared on stage over the years with Erik Bruhn, Rudolf Nureyev, Vladimir Vasiliev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, among other preeminent dancers of her time. In the 1960s and 1970s, she was a principal guest artist at New York’s American Ballet Theatre.
But she was perhaps most associated with the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, where she became the prima ballerina in 1958. Aspiring as a girl to be a hairdresser, she had enrolled in La Scala’s dance school at age 9 or 10 only on the insistence of family friends who observed in her a natural elegance.
La Scala is one of the premier opera houses of Europe, and, with Ms. Fracci on stage, it enjoyed a swell of interest in its ballet offerings. Over a spectacularly long career, she gave defining performances of romantic 19th-century ballets — chief among them “Giselle,” the story of an innocent peasant maiden betrayed by a nobleman, set to music by Adolphe Adam.
“It has often been remarked how Fracci’s dark-eyed beauty reminds one of prints of the celebrated 19th-century ballerinas of the romantic era,” dance critic Alan M. Kriegsman wrote in The Washington Post in a 1977 review. “As her Giselle again confirmed, it is more than a mere resemblance. Her fidelity to the wan ethereality of the romantic style is what has made her one of the outstanding exponents of roles such as Giselle.
“Beyond the overall stylistic observance, she also brings to the part her own special, touching, tragic severity,” Kriegsman continued. “In the celebrated mad scene concluding the first act, for example, once she is stricken she is totally enveloped by the pathos of her situation.”
Ms. Fracci danced in Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” and “Swan Lake,” both pillars of 19th-century ballet. She played the female lead part in “Romeo and Juliet,” with choreography created expressly for her by John Cranko, as well as Cinderella in Prokofiev’s imagining of the classic fairy tale.
Ms. Fracci was the enchanting forest spirit of “La Sylphide” and Swanilda in the comedic opera “Coppélia.” In one of the more modern entries in her repertoire, she played Lizzie Borden, the Massachusetts woman tried and acquitted on charges of murdering her parents in the late 1800s, in the 1948 ballet “Fall River Legend” choreographed by Agnes de Mille.
But it was “Giselle” that remained Ms. Fracci’s calling card until the end of her career.
“Miss Fracci had the last romantic word,” Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote in 1991, reviewing an American Ballet Theatre performance of “Giselle” when Ms. Fracci was 54 years old. “In the final series of swift lifts, her foot seemed barely to touch the floor. It was the image that others have never matched, the airborne wraith who seems to fly out of a lithograph.”
So thoroughly did Ms. Fracci inhabit the role that Bruhn once remarked to her: “But, Carla, a metamorphosis has taken place, you have turned into Giselle.”
Carolina Fracci was born on Aug. 20, 1936, in Milan, where her father’s tram route passed by La Scala. When his daughter was in training, an article in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera recounted, he would ring his bell three times to signal he was thinking of her.
Ms. Fracci’s mother, who worked in an automobile factory, was from Cremona, in the Po River Valley of Northern Italy, where the family took refuge from bombings during World War II. Ms. Fracci’s son said she recalled those years, among the farmers, as the happiest of her life.
The family returned to Milan after the war, and in 1946 Ms. Fracci enrolled in the dance school at La Scala. It “was a crashing bore and a terrible chore, until one day when I was cast as the girl with the mandolin in ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ” she told the Times in 1981. “Once on stage, next to Margot Fonteyn, I suddenly changed my mind. Dancing to an audience was something entirely different from dancing at school. I started working very hard to catch up for the lost time.”
Ms. Fracci made one of her first public appearances at La Scala in 1955 in a presentation that followed a performance of Bellini’s opera “La Sonnambula” starring soprano Maria Callas under the baton of Leonard Bernstein. The ballerina’s formal debut at La Scala came soon after, when French-born dancer Violette Verdy was unable to take the stage in “Cinderella,” and Ms. Fracci was called to take her place.
In 1964, Ms. Fracci married Beppe Menegatti, a theatrical director who served as an assistant to the film director Luchino Visconti. Besides her husband, of Milan, and her son, of Rome, survivors include a sister and two grandchildren.
Ms. Fracci was reportedly a distant relative of Giuseppe Verdi’s and, in a foray into television acting, played his second wife, soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, in a television miniseries about the 19th-century opera composer that aired in Italy in the 1980s.
In the latter years of her career, Ms. Fracci helped shape classical dance in Italy as the director of the ballet companies at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, the Arena of Verona and the Teatro dell’opera in Rome. From 2009 to 2014, she was a cultural official in the city of Florence, a role in which she continued her long-standing championing of the arts in Italy.
“You can’t just relax and say here I am, etoile or star,” she told Newsday in 1991, reflecting on her career. “You just cannot let go and say, ‘ That’s my performance.’ I’ve never been like that . . . never, not in beginning, never. You ask always more of yourself. You have to believe in what you are doing and never stop.”