O how O.C. wishes she could serenade you with luxurious, exciting tales from this year's Teatro alla Scala opening night premiere, but then she'd have to fabricate some insane tall tale about how the singing was stellar & the direction was brilliant & the casting was sublime and half-naked co-eds straight from the pages of Bruce Weber's A&F Quarterlies whisked her from her Bentley into her palco and tipped her sips of Hennessy Cognac from her silver & crocodile Prada flask. None of that happened. Instead, OC passed the holiday of Sant'Ambrogio witnessing one of the most depressing and anticlimactic opening night in recent memory.
Palazzo Marino was done up in Christmas lights covering the windows, absent of all the flashy love it was kissed with last year. Not many celebrities bothered begging for tickets to the ultra-VIP event, but instead we saw more skanks and old men in smoking, and loads of politicians that must have been gifted with tickets for their support of March 2008's winning bid for Milan's victory in Expo 2015.
By contrast to the night of suckage, OC spent a relaxing afternoon strolling around the ritzy (and packed) sidewalks of via Monte Napoleone, Via Sant'Andrea, and Via della Spiga, where she coincidentally saw Scala GM Stephan Lissner (unmistakable quaff of gray hair) plus female accomplice enjoying the windows. Then she shopped-up a lovely appetite for lunch at BiCE, where many of Milan's society fakers&shakers were also enjoying a moment of respite before the drama-infused la prima. Spotted at BiCE was that scarily plastic man of the eternally relaxed brow, Renato Balestra, and OC almost tossed her insalata di carciofi to the floor in shock.
Then it was back home to get out of her Stella McCartney sweater dress and into something a bit secksier...so O.C. decked herself out in the Alexander McQueen cap-sleeved princess dress in black crepe and chiffon, black silk knit Prada stockings, Prada RTW Fall 2007 black heels, a '30s vintage Girard-Perregaux watch, black Burberry Prorsum long&lean wool lady coat, and a small Alexander McQueen black ribbon clutch. Slammin.
We should have known the night would be off to a chaotic and start, as paparazzi were just really freaking annoying this year, the crowds were more obnoxious. This all converged when a rogue complaint was hurled at Gatti as he took his place on the podium to inaugurate the 08/09 season.
Gatti's conducting was overall big, ballsy, bold and layered with lots of nuance. In the house, it was the right balance. At least we give credit to Gatti for trying to correct the downer drain of stark, drab, and vacant spaces that director Stéphane Braunschweig envisioned for the environs. It seemed Gatti was trying to balance and paint the orchestra in more richness than it warranted, which at least breathed a bit of viscera into the endless swaths of blank, plaster walls and endless wooden flooring...and since the production was so flat, detached, and superficial, Gatti at least made up for that by infusing the orchestra with layers&layers of sound. For OC, it worked...we like our opera rugged and raw with dirty beats, and c'mon, this is the freaking season opener. It's supposed to be a take no prisoners, sweep the leg night we demand and paid some serious euros for. On the podium, Gatti's idiosyncrasies were grand and he kept pushing for a bigger sound. The overture was rich, the horns and strings absolutely delicious, and the brass supurbly controlled. We liked the way Gatti shaped every phrase, and at so many points, OC just closed her eyes to block out the depressing effortlessness of the scenery.
The curtain opened to a boring, white, stone alter in the middle of the stage, echoed by a dozen vertical panels that spanned across the back. Blue light flooded the stage to add to the frigidness of the scenery, except for the alter which had been focused in the spotlight. Marion Hewlett's lighting prowess was so insultingly derivative (green light for the garden, red light for "Gloria a Filippo! Gloria al ciel!", blue light for the early morning prison). With the big budgets that are extended to Scala collaborators, OC doesn't understand where Hewlett tucked away her profit, as her conception of lighting lacked of imagination, interpretation, and really was one of the shallowest delves we could have projected onto the psychology of the plot.
The chorus of monks appeared dressed in black capes and white under robes, with their hoods raised. Under the careful and experienced direction of Maestro Bruno Casoni, they were always on point. Casoni is the one key player at Scala that the loggionisti will never, ever criticize or turn on, and lucky for opera fans, Casoni is always the saving grace to any opera (at last night's la prima, after all the insane booing at the final curtain call, Casoni was showered with praise and "Bravo Casoni" as he bent to pick up a stray rose from the stage).
When Stuart Neill, our Don Carlo for the evening, finally came out of hiding, whispers and twitters fell all around. His physical size filled OC's Scala neighbors with uncomfortable squirming. I won't apologize for my fellow spectators, but to see a man of such, um, stature, is not really a common day thing in Milan. Braunschweig's direction was just too ridiculous for him (we know it had worked for Filianoti) but it should have been modified for Neill's girth. As he had to kneel down at the tomb in the first scene, it was immediately apparent that he was not a man used to kneeling down. It made the action look unnatural and broke any sort of spell that had been cast. Even worse was during, "qual voce a me dal ciel scende a parlar d'amor!", Neill had to deliver the lines lying on the floor, which was absolutely comical.
For me, Neill wasn't it. But at least he seemed to have more understanding of his role than his colleagues. Neill, with good reason, was completely washed in nervousness. His unfocused energy was sparkling across the stage, which led to a lot of jerky movements and clenched fists. His "Io la vidi" was not terrible, and OC doesn't particularly mind his stark, un-giftwrapped voice, but that introduced the small vignettes that we saw all night of miniature, baby versions of the main characters, a motif of the past and simultaneously the present. OC hated it, and didn't find it endearing or clever at all. Rather, it reduced the whole story to a pretty simplistic account.
Then popped out the Marquis, Rodrigo, sung by Slovakian baritone Dalibor Jenis and we weren't totally impressed. The chemistry between him and Neill wasn't convincing. They were like frat kids who bumped into each other at the local bar. Which brings us to our main complaint: no one was convincing in the cast (except Dolora Zajick and to a lesser extent Ferruccio Furlanetto, but we'll get to him in a bit). What we saw last night were not figures of Spanish royalty. It's like the servants had come out to play, and had stolen the costumes of their employers. We didn't get that sense of sixteenth century inbred royalty that we were longing for, and it was vaguely disappointing.
After the page sang his little lullaby, we were introduced to American mezzo Dolora Zajick as Princess Eboli wearing a gorgeous red day coat over her dress, her bewbs like a 10+++ on the shelf scale. Good lord. "Nei girdin del bello" was O.K., but for that she got only a lukewarm applause. But Zajick was daring and feisty, and at times drowned out Neill's voice with her chesty projection. She was greatly lauded for her "Ah! Piu non vedro..." and rightfully so.
The chemistry between Stuart Neill and Elisabetta of Valois's Fiorenza Cedolins wasn't terrible, but again, we wanted so much more. With Cedolins, we've come to expect a practiced and carefully studied delivery, devoid of particular depth or stylizing. When we saw her in the season opener last January for La Fenice's Puccini Rondine, we succinctly summarized: "Unless you have an undying Cedolins fetish -- OC doesn't, as she finds Cedolins correct, attractive, and with a good dose of charisma but essentially uninspiring." And we stick by the same observation. She wasn't bad, but she was cold, distant, and flat. Her "Tu che le vanita' conoscesti del mondo" was really very good, sung in a gorgeous dark green dress, her full queen regalia.
But Cedolins's interpretation basically encapsulates the major issue we had with the evening: The pathos and viceral energy...passion and longing of Don Carlo was stripped and discarded. There was no interpretation...well, at least, only by Gatti, which fell flat on its face because he had no cooperation from the cast or crew involved in the staging. It's like the singers and Gatti existed on a seperate plane. There was no dialogue, no sublime answering and responding between cast and orchestra. They were both locked away in very myopic, muffled places, and that was very, very frustrating.
Scene V brought Philip II, King of Spain as Ferruccio Furlanetto, the only singer who we think actually worked in the cast at face value. Furlanetto's singing was decent enough, but we noticed by the end of Act II before the first intermission, he had run out of steam. But his acting and interpretation as Philip was stellar. Authoritative and menacing, he at least was a realistic King of Spain.
Now comes that infamous moment after the first intermission where Gatti took to the podium and was booed mercilessly. OC already explained what happened, and you can read here. Again, the booing wasn't concentrated to a few people...rather it stemmed from all over the house.
Thibault van Craenenbroeck's costumes were neither here nor there. We saw period dress for the royalty, but oddly at one point, 1940s working class gear for the chorus. What's going on here? The schism between the proletariats and the ruling class? Oh, please. But at least we had the impression that the costumes were expensive and well made, which was uplifting.
The last act was a perfect example of sceneographer Alexandre de Dardel's major malfunction. King Philip in his library was simply an empty room with a chair. The characters just weren't big enough to fill the minimalist space. We couldn't imagine it, and it needed so much more. Il grande inquisitore's Anatolij Kotscherga was even worse, but he was torn to shreds during the curtain call, so we're guessing he understood...his "tranquili lascio andar...un gran ribelle" was almost shouted in a cracked voice.
At curtain call, we were honestly expecting worse, and were surprised at how civil the audience acted. At first. For the collective call, not many booing or whistles were heard. But during the individual calls, grande inquisitore's Anatolij Kotscherga was slammed almost as hard as the trio of Stefan's Alexandre de Dardel, Thibault van Craenenbroeck, and Marion Hewlett (we linked the youtube here). Dolora Zajick's Eboli, Fiorenza Cedolins's Elisabetta, and Ferruccio Furlanetto's Filippo II were highly praised with some isolated boos for Cedolins interspresed, Dalibor Jenis's Rodrigo and Diogenes Randes's frate were given tepid applause...but Stuart Neill for his title role was both booed loudly and simultaneously praised, which he deflected by bending over and whispering to his mini-mi. Gatti was given the same treatment...roundly booed by some and praised by many others. The curtain call lasted a cursorily polite time, about 7 minutes in all, one of the shortest OC has seen in the theater and certainly the shortest for a prima in recebnt times, and we're guessing not for the reason that everyone was rushing for the after-theater parties and dinners.