(Click here to view one photos from the night of the performance.)
(Click here to view i dont know how many additional high-resolution photos from the performance.)
For la prima (“opening night”) of Mozart's Ascanio in Alba at Teatro alla Scala, the night started poorly, despite my carefully chosen outfit. I had decided on my Isabella Tonchi silk herringbone brown skirt under a Comme des Garçons sable georgette ruffle shell (that I had bought at 10 Corso Como) and a Paul Costelloe cashmere oatmeal sweater-jacket (gifted from mother-in-law) thrown over. My swag was held in my vintage Gucci midollino, and I wore a pair of stacked Balenciaga round-toe burgundy pumps. Yeah, 'cause that's how I roll.
By my own negligence, I had not read the libretto before I attended, so I had to piece together the story with the clues provided by the sets. Despite the omnipresent gender confusion of "women in pants" (with four female sopranos singing two male roles, "Finkel is Einhorn! Einhorn is Finkel!" kept repeating in my head), I endured by splicing together root infinitives and vaguely familiar nouns. But I fared poorly: After being spoon-fed the eloquent and poetic libretti of Piave, Boito, and Da Ponte, I was completely adrift in ancient Italian of three centuries ago.
Ascanio in Alba was conceived when a fifteen-year-old giovinetto Mozart was requested by Hapsburg royalty to write an opera, which he successfully finished in three-and-a-half weeks (unfortunately, his myspace page and LJ suffered greatly during this committment). It was commissioned by Empress Maria Theresa to commemorate the wedding of her third son, Archduke Ferdinand of Habsburg to Princess Maria Beatrice d’Este of Modena. The matrimony took place in Milan on October 15, 1771 at Il Duomo, and the opera premiered on October 17, 1771, at the old Teatro Regio Ducale di Milano (where the Tourist Information pavilion to the right of Il Duomo now stands.
Btw, how cool would it be to have Mozart write an opera for your wedding? Best. Gift. Ev4r! Am i rite? It would totally pwn all that crap from your registry at Tiffany & Co. I mean, today’s equivalent is just so sad: Elton John playing piano at a washed-up celebrity's wedding, or 50 Cent rapping at the bar mitzvah of some socialite New Yorker's son: "Go shorty, it's your bat mitzvah, we gon' sip on Bacardi like it's your bar mitzvah!'
The 2006 version of Ascanio in Alba at La Scala, under the direction of Franco Ripa di Meana opened with a sparse, white space (stage boundaries of white, wooden floors, and white panels). You can find gorgeous sketches of his work here. At the front of the stage was a plexiglass runway of deep blue, which symbolized a stream. The chorus frolicked, about 50-60 in number. They were a youthful brigade of angels, clothed in white knickers, white dress shirts, and white riding jackets, with wings poking between their shoulders. They all wore red, styled wigs. Meh.
The first act was lovely. When Venus arrived, she was ensconced in Old Master landscape paintings of Arcadia, which were wheeled-out from the curtains, and ornamented with stuffed, life-sized sheep. As the opera progressed, the chorus transformed into costumes of town people, replete in dressed and knickers of turquoise, burgundy, and mustard.
Aceste’s appearance was stately, and he was seated in a throne atop a long, white platform that - via a trick of lighting - bloomed with small paper flowers as the arias progressed. One of my favorite mid-act scenes was a lively pastoral, complete with herders and farmers who sat on their flock of stuffed sheep. The sheep were put on casters, and were rolled past three broad strips of bright-green astroturf in a mock race. It recalled to me those turn-of-the-century, portable pinball games that were made with delicate paper cut-outs, resplendent in verdant greens, murky yellows, and carmine reds.
More stunning, however, was the final scene of Act I, when the preparations for the wedding were made. While Venus sang her, “Là dove sale la Colle”, a handful of chorus appeared in court apparel. They bore among themselves a giant blueprint, while one brandished a red-white striped Venetian pole. Simultaneous to the aria, at the back of the stage had been implemented a giant movie screen. Projected onto this, they showed a black/white biographical film of the rebuilding of La Scala.
The film was shown in time-lapse format as a frenzy of activity, with small vignettes spliced together. They showed images of giant cranes hovering over Piazza alla Scala, concrete cascading down the sides of molds, and wooden renderings of the La Scala horseshoe-shaped auditorium. When the film flickered-out, a transparent screen (which was lit so that you could still see the chorus behind) was raised slowly from the floor, as they sang, “Di te più amabile, Né Dea maggiore”. Sketched onto the screen was the entire façade of Teatro alla Scala, drawn in the simplified style of Giovanni Battista Falda’s architectural studies of Rome. It was stunning, and effective in implemented a beautiful billet doux to both Milan and La Scala.
Act II began with another stark set, save a giant platform target in the middle of the stage. After a few recitatives, an oversized golden bed (with Fauno reclining between white satin sheets ), was lowered slowly from the ceiling. As Silvia and Ascanio boarded the bed (Fauno still lying between them), he began singing, “Dal tuo gentil sembiante”.
But halfway through the aria, (s)he rips-open his/her shirt, and was singing topless. WTF? Did I really just see teh bewbs? I was in the second galleria, so maybe I was high from the reheated air mingling with old ladies perfume, but I swear she was topless. The only reason that I doubt myself is that not a single person in the audience batted an eye. I swear it was dead calm in that auditorium. I looked around in giddy anticipation hoping to catch someone’s incredulous gaze. But no. I mean, there could be satyrs and elephants fornicating on stage, and no one in La Scala flinches. Meanwhile, Karita Mattila gets naked for three seconds during the “Dance of the Seven Veils” at the NYC MET two years ago, and it’s the most controversial (and, c’mon: most anticipated) event of the 2004 season.
Act II progressed, and aside from the topless orgy part, there was only one other scene: On a blue platform appeared our three heroes, who were nestled in three egg-shape forms, resplendent as gorgeous portraits in Faberge. Then the chorus came out in modern-day dress, and lifted saplings that were strewn across the platform, heralding the end of the opera.
It was really a gorgeous, youthful, and lovely interpretation. Despite being La Prima, it was tight. I enjoyed it thoroughly: the agile singing, the youthful conducting, and the provocative sets. As of this recap, Corriere’s Enrico Girardi has written that it was, "Una ventata d’aria fresca" (a gust of fresh air), which is totally accurate. Lorenzo Arruga of Il Giornale also wrote a glowing review, and word-of-mouth equally designates praise to singers, director, and conductor.