In the Calendar of Saints, 7 December is the celebration of St Ambrose, Milan's patron. Traditionally, it is the date of the opening of La Scala's season too - a very special evening with the Head of State and his retinue in the central box, several ministers and their wives in the orchestra seats and many industrialists and financiers that sponsor the opera house.
For several years, 7 December was a rite for me: early fast train to Milan, then a taxi to reach La Scala's box office before 12 noon and get the press ticket with my name - thereafter the area is closed for the arrival of the authorities. After a quick lunch, a rush to the hotel to change into a tuxedo with black tie, then a metro run to be at La Scala at 5:30 pm to say hello to a few acquaintances. The opera starts promptly at 6pm. Dinner at the very exclusive club La Società del Giardino (next to La Scala) on one of the music critics tables, then back to the hotel to get the review to a Milan daily by mid-night.
This year there was nothing of that. My night at La Scala was in my den with my wife in front of the TV in blue jeans and tennis shoes. Supper was not the sophisticated La Società del Giardino dinner but a ham and cheese sandwich with a beer. I shared the opening of the Milan opera seasons with millions of other people: the performance was shown on the Italian State channel RAI 1 and on Eurovision through arrangements with other channels in Europe as well as in the US, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, through Medici-TV.
During the last twelve months, mostly due to coronavirus, there have been five times as many deaths in Milan as those in the seven years after World War II. Therefore, no opening night could be arranged. The plans for a new production of Lucia di Lammermoor had to be revised drastically. La Scala management and board opted for a TV opening night. However, La Scala does not want to be second to anyone; it conjured up the greatest TV extravaganza. Not an opera, not a concert but a show on the importance of opera for the well-being of humanity by calling twenty-five best opera singers of international fame, important étioles, a few well-known actors and a major stage director, Davide Livermore (and his team of visual aid artists and set designers), as well as a few dramaturgs. The best Italian fashion houses competed to provide the best attire for the ladies, both singers and actresses. La Scala music director Riccardo Chailly conducted the orchestra, of course.
It was not a live show. It had been prepared and recorded for weeks within La Scala and elsewhere; several of the singers did not reach Milan, their pieces were assembled and pasted together so as to give the impression of a unitary performance. It was done very skilfully and with the use of the best and most modern technology. This gave stunning scenic effects.
Was there a thread? Yes. At the start, before the orchestra played the Italian national anthem, a few lines of Cilea's 'Io son l'umile ancela' (I am the humble servant) were sung; an aria on the key importance of serving Euterpe, the muse of music. After almost three hours, there was the only ensemble of the evening: the concertato 'Tutto cangia, il ciel s'abella' (Everything changes, the sky turns beautiful) from the Italian version of Rossini's Guillaume Tell, an indication of hope and happiness.
From the start to the end, twenty eight arias (often staged) from operas, mostly by Verdi and Puccini but also by Bizet, Giordano and Massenet, were delivered by the best and the most known international singers. There were two ballet numbers too. To list all of them would transform a review into a small telephone directory.
They were all, of course, excellent, and the set as well as the minimal staging were beautiful. The orchestra was top class too.
However, I was left with two impressions. On the one hand, the recollection of the Christmas shows in the New York Radio City Music Hall where years ago, when I was living in Washington, I would go with the then young family. On the other, the idea that whilst Il Barbiere di Siviglia, reviewed here yestersay, 7 December, may open a new path for opera on TV, La Scala's 2020-2021 season inauguration will remain a once and for all unique extravaganza.
Copyright © 8 December 2020