Milan’s La Scala is the high temple of Italian opera. Many great operas have originated here, Including Turandot, Falstaff, Madama Butterfly, Norma, and Il Turco in Italia. La Scala is also the primary home of Verdi’s opera; he lived just a short distance away.
As I sat in that golden shrine with its plush red boxes I couldn’t help but think of all the ghosts of seasons past. I thought of the composers: Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Puccini, Verdi - and the singers: Tabaldi, Pavarotti, Galli-Curci, Sutherland, and the great Callas. Then of course there was Toscanini, who became the principal conductor and brought the house back from near extinction after World War Two.
In recent years the house has fallen on some hard times. First and foremost was the resignation of Ricardo Muti, who ran the company for 17 years. Soon after came drastic cuts in art subsidies from the government, as well as layoffs, strikes, and canceled performances.
The production I saw was Verdi’s La Traviata. This opera did not originate at La Scala, but rather at Teatro di Fenice in Venice. Since then of course it has become one of the great warhorses of the repertoire. This particular production has had its own problems. It dates from 1990 and has been described as boring and uninspired. Controversy arose when the management canceled the highly anticipated Andrea Chenier that was to be directed by Terry Gilliam. All hell broke loose in the press, and the replacement, La Traviata, was heavily panned. Strikes were threatened and several performances canceled.
Because of such upheavals, La Scala has had a hard time attracting world-class singers in recent years, which has furthered the house's troubles. Luckily, American tourists can still be depended upon to fill the seats, and new management has been finding ways to expand the audience base by broadcasting productions. Things are looking up.