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.
I had recently seen a terrible production of La Traviata in Florence, so this was an infinite improvement. I grew up on this opera, and have been lucky enough to see Sutherland, Pavarotti, and my favorite, Anna Moffo. At this performance, Mariella La Devia assayed the role of Violetta. She started out a bit weak for my tastes, but her last act was moving and sung beautifully. Jose Bros was her Alfredo, and though boring as an actor, he had a nice clarion tenor and sang well.
The star of the evening was Renato Bruson as Germont. His was a name the crowd recognized, and each of his arias was greeted with applause. Otherwise the audience was silent and respectful, except after Violetta’s last aria.
The conductor was the youngish Carlo Montanaro, who generally kept things moving and played with dynamics. By the end, the audience put all the past drama of recent times aside and gave the performance rousing applause. The production was rather ordinary, but very sumptuous, and how could you argue with a chorus of 106?
La Traviata at Teatro Alla Scala has additional performances on June 23, 25, and 27.