Leave it to the paradoxical world of la Scala to open their season with a "Carmen" where Carmen herself is the weakest link in an otherwise strong cast -- Tbilisi-born mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili, 25, a graduate of Scala's Accademia with a powerful personal story (the poverty in war-torn Georgia, the shattered dreams of her parents who hoped to become a composer and a ballerina and instead ended up as a construction worker and a hairdresser -- all told in beautiful detail in today's Corriere della Sera).
To see her share the stage last night with Jonas Kaufmann and Erwin Schrott, probably the two highest-profile choices available worldwide for Don José and Escamillo, was to witness on the one hand the power of la Scala itself, and on the other hand the sheer chutzpah of Daniel Barenboim. Their big bet was placed on Emma Dante, the director -- and anyway Dante's more daring choices would eventually be vetoed by Barenboim himself, her mentor/caretaker/guardian; and much of the buzz Scala desperately tried to create before the production was based on the "we're so cool we hired this anarchist lady with no opera experience for our Dec. 7 premiere" angle. Rachvelishvili they trusted not to screw things up, simple as that -- not a genius, not a phenomenon, only a cheerleader could reasonably say that after tonight's performances a star is born, but Rachvelishvili kept her cool under pressure, knew her role perfectly (she'd been studying it for a year with no other commitment, basically), hit her notes (mostly).
More than enough to leave the lion's share of the attention to Kaufmann and Schrott -- Lissner's and Barenboim's shield against any accusations of sloppiness or incompetence, in case of emergency: "But, but, we gave you Kuafmann and Schrott!" -- and especially to Barenboim. Because now that la prima is over and Anita didn't make any bad mistakes, all the credit for its success goes to Barenboim, and Lissner. They're the big winners: they chose two unknowns in the business to direct the opera and sing the lead. The director was booed by some -- but they'll be dismissed as conservatives (by the most conservative management you could ever imagine, just check the program for the 2010 season).
Rachvelishvili pulled it off and while no one would argue she's the best Carmen around, she only needed one thing: not to suck. She didn't suck, she didn't trip, so she's home free. Her future's debatable -- there are plenty of better mezzos out there, and much better actresses -- but all the credit goes to Barenboim: he gave the inaugural Carmen to a 25 year old student! And to Lissner: he's all about a mix-and-match of big stars and new faces!
The singer who was actually supposed to be cast as December 7's Carmen (with Rachvelishvili as her understudy) will get another job at Scala instead -- later in the season.
Dante goes back to her stage work with a lot more visibility, and maybe she'll even direct another opera down the road, maybe (no contacts yet), or maybe not.
Everybody wins. Who's using whom? Everybody, mostly. It's the -- very Italian, very Machiavellian -- Scala way.
As a management choice, it's pretty brilliant.
As an artistic accomplishment, not so much.
But Lissner -- after the scary "And Then There Were None" process that eliminated Riccardo Chailly, then Daniele Gatti from the list of Future Music Directors of La Scala -- will be in charge until 2013, very likely extended to 2015 because of the Expo, and by the end of his tenure, when Barenboim ends his tenure as Maestro Scaligero aka glorified Guest Conductor, Lissner'll have, finally, a Music Director by his side. Maybe it'll even be Gustavo Dudamel (who has conducted, as of today, all of three operas: three), as everybody here says.