Before the final curtain call on December 7th -- a few minutes after the conclusion of five ginormous hours of Wagner's Die Walkure that opened La Scala's new season on Milan's holiday to celebrate the city's patron saint, Sant'Ambrogio -- the night was engraved as a triumph before the first strains of Wagner's famous leitmotifs hit the adoring, vaguely taxidermied, Milanese public. Maestro Daniel Barenboim's victory was sealed when he stepped from the orchestra pit onto the platea floor to inaugurate the evening and spoke out, in Italian, quoting the Italian Constitution (art 9.) to defend the future of culture in Italy, and deafening applause ensued (which was also directed to Palco Reale where Milan's Mayor, Letizia Moratti kept company with Italy's President, Giorgio Napolitano).
As Barenboim entered the orchestra pit at the beginning of Act II and Act III, preemptive cheering for La Scala's "Maestro Scaligero" guaranteed the final triumph and today’s newspaper headlines, the Italian press creeming themselves in phrases like, "Il trionfo della Valchiria", "Quattordici minuti di applausi", "Scala, il trionfo di Barenboim" (massive headlines also addressed the out-of-control student protests which flared-up around Piazza della Scala/Palazzo Marino where the city's most official post-opera Gala takes place.
It was Barenboim's night: the very human conductor was the star of an evening filled with Gods, warriors, and Valkyries. Barenboim's Wagner was narrated in a nuanced tale, set at an unwavering pace in daring, dramatic thrusts. Merciless timing and attacks with solid, teeming passages, Barenboim’s work was exemplary in its pacing and pathos. Earthy and grounded with a solid core, DB was tender and lyric when the music called for it; Barenboim clearly chose to tell Die Walkuere’s story in a classical mode: no particular stabs at interpretation (always a bad omen for a December 7 opener, one only has to think about poor Daniele Gatti’s daring Don Carlos two years ago: on this most solemn gala one is weel advised not to try to break new experimental ground in interpretation).
Barenboim could count on a very solid cast even after last month’s cancellation by Rene Pape: the standout was the apparently eternal Wagnerian heroine, Waltraud Meier, who was magnetic on stage as Sieglinde, Siegmund's twin sister and lover, in costumiere’s Tim van Steenbergen's moody and ragged gothic tatters. Dedicated, professional, and devoted, her Sieglinde anchored the cast. Simon O'Neill's Siegmund was fluent, although he sang it with paltry heroic flair. John Tomlinson as Hunding was imposing and authoritative, although Vitalij Kowaljow's Wotan was one of the weaker links of the cast, underwhelming in his vocal power. Brünnhilde as Nina Stemme was scarily powerful and mesmerizing, and she attacked all her passages with determined anguish. Ekaterina Gubarova's Fricka was equally strong. The Walküren were chilling in long, gothic dresses as they traipsed all over the breathtakingly-treacherous rocks. The no-nonsense, solid production gifted a 14-minute curtain call of mostly cheers, although a small faction of booing broke out when Barenboim took a solo curtain call with Guy Cassiers (although almost everyone had left the theater at that point anyway).
Was Cassiers deserving of the criticism? OC would generally rather see modern, minimalist, streamlined staging for Wagner to keep away derivative productions of the fairytale story lines (that might or might not work for each and everyone of us). Cassiers at the top of his game was seamless: Act II's mountain pass was an intricate forest of white spikes that carried twinkling projections. But the director's vision faltered into cheesy effects: Act III's twisting, turning kaleidoscope projection of, well, horse corpses. And although the videos were well-thought out and had an impressively thorough feel, at times they were incongruous. Lighting by Enrico Bagnoli was effective for mood and transformation, slices of light and controlled illumination gave great depth. A giant, weightless sphere gave dynamic motion to Valkyrie horses in a giant frieze of frozen force, weightless vs. matter. Cassiers tried to impart ethereal-ism (a praiseworthy plan against Barenboim's stark realism), but for all its effects, the production remained earthbound.
In an unconventional production (but not too unconventional for an opening night gala), Cassiers managed to quell controversy and carried Wagner's most popular Ring cycle opera to a victory for the Milanese audience. The final scene’s magic fire was impressively executed by both Cassiers and Barenboim: Wotan summoned light bulb-shaped candles that descending from the heavens, dripping wax around Brünnhilde's rock. From the audience -- who frankly couldn't wait to start the applause so they could jet off to dinners at Marchesino or Da Giacomo -- instead there was thankfully absolute silence that invited Barenboim to execute the final, controlled measures in a night that became a reminder of what La Scala is capable of when it’s not marred with strikes and resignation to mediocrity.