Who: Diana Damrau, soprano. Piotr Beczala, tenor. Daniele Gatti, conductor. Dmitri Tcherniakov, director + extras, an orchestra, journalists, media crews, security, police and impeccably-groomed spectators.
What: Opening night of Teatro alla Scala's 2013-14 Season, La Traviata
When: December 7, the traditional Sant'ambrogio feast day of Milan's patron saint.
Where: Milan, Italy.
How: Euros & couture, fake tans & kiwi-sized jewels.
Why: Dmitri Tcherniakov, why do you hate Giuseppe Verdi so much?
(Corriere della Sera's breakdown)
The aftermath: After all was booed and politely applauded in ten minutes of thanks for months of labor, another war erupted as the VIPs filed out of the theater to check-out minks from the coat check while companions checked-out legs over peach marble floors. Loggionisti who hadn't hightailed out of the upper decks cried 'buffone', eager to lure Gatti et al. for additional curtain call flogging. On the platea floor, the response from a passionate white tie was 'Vai a casa'. Go home.
A few hours earlier, the usual suspects arrived at Scala's marbled, mirrored foyer -- debonaire Robeto Bolle, sprightly Carla Fracci and dignified Giorgio Napolitano -- navigating deep décolletage, architectural up-dos, angry video crews and anxious security apes. Longtime Scala patron Marta Marzotto, reliably dripping in Pucci and Bulgari was MIA with Amazonian sidekick Valeria Marini and her vintage Braccialini purses. We could have used the humor.
The evening began optimistically. After a moment of silence for Mandela, before the curtain rolled back and the opening notes of Traviata swept forward, 'Viva Verdi' was shouted from the galleries. In the month leading-up to opening night, nary a whisper escaped from Scala's backstage about last minute cast changes or stranger-than-fiction conspiracies. The most scandelous rumor encircled Violetta's death, surmised by overdose or atop a washing machine (freak hausfrau accident?) Don’t exhale just yet.
For all of the Italian media press clippings that exited this week detailing Dmitri Tcherniakov's deep respect and meticulously-scoured pages of La Traviata's manuscript, and for all of Daniele Gatti's intelligent remarks on characterization and his restoration of all things Verdi-sacred, the final product was baffling at best. Neither Italian nor French, Tcherniakov borrowed the whitewashed 19th century continental chic that giftwraps dozens of modern stages and trimmed it with dissonant costumes, like his woman in full Native American headdress. Was the Josephine Baker banana skirt costume on loan? Isn't Traviata supposed to be the height of haute bourgeois elegance?
There was technically-solid music making from everyone, including Damrau, although she was as close to Marilyn Monroe as Christina Aguilera's rose-lensed pipe dreams. Misfires here and there in a score marked with affectation apnea, Damrau/Barone flubbed the Act II 'Ah perché qui venni incauta' with a late cue. With eyes wide open, Beczala took the most serious hits for an unintelligent, charmless Alfredo, preparing pasta and chopping vegetables as Germont served trauma and then bringing Violetta sweets and flowers as she lay dying, everyone preoccupied with a vase. If Tcherniakov had a point, he didn’t quite make it.
The most critical held Gatti responsible -- the Milanese maestro who spent his junior years watching the podium from afar in La Scala's loggione -- for allowing such a misguided production. Or maybe it was his in-joke. Outside of Milan, Tcherniakov's shortcoming has been shifted to the public. Boys will be boys, whores will be whores, but dogs usually bark for good reason.
After so many years of non-Italian opening nights -- Wagner, Bizet and more Wagner -- and especially after Lohengrin greeted Verdi's bicentennial birth year at last year's opening, Scala finally welcomed its native son back to the fold, with arms wide open, regardless of Wagner transgressions. But when they rolled back the rock, it was a Frankenstein monster. Seal it back up!
Native Italian opera risks extinction, domestic talent gone fair-weather for Europe and America, although blameless, we've all gotta pay the bills (or find bankrolled Swiss lovers). The public isn't angry, they're afraid.
Paolo Isotta, in a teaser column signed "persona non grata" in today's Corriere, called the whole thing ridiculous and totally unrealistic. He titled his piece "Quelle Camelie sbagliate" (not online), those befuddled camellias, citing the red camellia placed in Damrau's hair during the first and second acts. As everyone knows, says Isotta, the courtesan protagonist of Alexandre Dumas, fils' La Dame aux camélias wore a white camellia at her chest when she was accessible to her lovers and a red one when she wasn't.
He's critical of Gatti, whose Verdi is almost always correct, respectful, informed and enlightened. But Isotta accuses Gatti of playing to the director’s/singers' whims by allowing ridiculous giggles and pauses that sacrificed tempi and for affecting a big band sound, comparing it, at times, to Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado (like the Lucic/Damrau 'Ah non udrai rimproveri').
Beczala, aside from an incredible cadenza before "O mio rimorso, infamia" was given over to sobbing, bleating and braying throughout the remainder of the opera. Damrau, undeniably an amazing coloratura, made an uneven first act full of vocal and acting ticks that simply weren't in the manuscript, seeming not to know when she should cry or laugh. Her 'addio del passato' was solid, but 'Prendi quet'e' immagine' was impeded by bad direction. Isotta also cites her 'amnesia' on flubbed entrances.
Still, for anyone who's been to opening night at La Scala, there's no such thing as a bad night. After all, who could complain? We hope not the singers who garner small fortunes nor the audience whose (admitedly expensive) tickets guarantee equally savagery and delight in a setting that's a tone poem of elegance. What's to hate?
Armani (in Armani)
Pereira and his wife