The Greatest Opera House: La Scala Is One Thing Opera Lovers Can Agree On

by Matthew Gurewitsch

OF ALL THE days in the year, none holds a more cherished place in the hearts of the Milanese than December 7, the feast of Ambrose, the city’s patron saint, whose burial chamber stands open only for the holiday. Citizens push through the fair that jams the close, crooked streets of the neighborhood of Sant’ Ambrogio, into the sober perpendicularities of the church of that name, and down the tight staircase to the crypt where the fourth-century governor and bishop rests under glass in episcopal splendor.

The other grand ritual on the Feast of Sant’ Ambrogio is opening night at La Scala, a ceremony of more recent date and a good deal less accessible. Ask anyone who cares about opera to name the greatest opera house in Italy, and the answer, not only in Milan, will surely be La Scala. Ask for the greatest opera house in the world, and chances are the answer will be the same. Everyone would place it among the top three —but how many would agree about the other two?

Some opera houses make a happy impression from the street. La Scala is not one of them. Soot streaks the ocher neoclassical facade. Across a forlorn little pediment an undistinguished Phaëton races Apollo’s chariot toward his predestined fall. The portico, with its cramped, gloomy arches, might be the forecourt of a Piranesi prison. But there hang the handsome buff playbills, their distinctive art nouveau design unchanged for decades. Even with rain whipping down from the Alps, a music lover, freezing at the threshold, reads them with an anticipatory glow.

Never more so than on opening night, when international arbiters of art and culture rub elbows with the mighty from politics, industry, entertainment, and fashion. Conspicuous among last year’s audience were the President of Italy (since replaced); his well-mannered security entourage; the King and Queen of Sweden, acknowledging an intermission ovation with a wave from the royal box; Renata Tebaldi, beloved diva of the fifties and sixties, honeyblonde and statuesque in retirement; the ageless ballerina Carla Fracci, in a cocoon of lace, radiant as a bride; and, of interest to some foreign reporters (though apparently to few others), breast-baring animal-rights activists on the warpath against patrons in furs. Such was the crush of onlookers in the narrow streets near the theater that one had to approach via the piazza, past three checkpoints where towering carabinieri loomed on horseback, the red plumes in their hats aquiver in the stone-cold air. Twenty minutes before curtain time the funereal ushers, called maschere, wearing chains around their necks like chatelains, still had the auditorium practically to themselves.

And what a sight it was, as beautiful and full of promise as any piece of theater architecture in the world. There are opera houses that share, no doubt for a reason, the sybaritic taste of the brothel; Proust described such a one, an enchanted grotto with foamy Nereids splashed across the bulging boxes that the French so aptly call baignoires, or “bathtubs.” The design of La Scala is intentionally chaste. Well into the twentieth century the house was the private property of the boxholders, who hung their coats of arms for all to see and dressed up the interiors as gaudily as they pleased. The coats of arms are stripped away now, but the flashy mirror treatments in perhaps a half dozen boxes remain, accents of Arabesque Victorian glamour that only offset a Platonic purity.

With its square, evenly spaced boxes, each fitted like a window into a sweeping horseshoe six tiers high, the auditorium today is magnificent yet austere. The royal box, two stories high, is a sort of stage unto itself, flanked by two chaste caryatids and lit with a quiet chandelier. For the rest, the house is even more discreet with ornament. In the horseshoe Grecian sphinxes in low relief alternate with simple candelabra. Above the orchestra four Titans’ faces stare down from on high. Over the nobly proportioned stage a pair of angels hold a garlanded clock face on which the impatient may read the time. The ceiling forgoes swirling allegory for a pale painted wheel studded with orderly trompe l’oeil rosettes. A few days before the first night of the season, in the outer corridors a wanderer could encounter a woman on a ladder, polishing the crystal pendants of the wall sconces as a male co-worker touched up chipped paint on hooks in the cloakroom. And someone, or maybe an army, festooned the house for the evening in the subtly spice-scented pink and white carnations that tradition demands.

At six o’clock sharp an unlikely congregation was in place for Parsifal, Wagner’s last, most enigmatic sermon on his perennial theme of sin and deliverance. “Wagner on opening night at La Scala!” said Riccardo Muti, the house’s music director and principal conductor, moments before showtime, donning tails in his dressing room. “It is a provocation! German music, six hours of it, no comfort for the fashionable—but it was played with a transparency and dramatic fire to hold the imagination spellbound. Now and then through the evening a door banged as a fainthearted boxholder ducked out, but not often. And for the first time in years the curtain calls proceeded without a single eruption from the censorious fanatics in the gallery. This year the season opens more conventionally, with Verdi’s Don Carlo, in a Franco Zeffirelli production, with Luciano Pavarotti cast for the first time as the hapless Spanish infante, and Muti, the world’s foremost Verdian, again on the podium.

DEEP IN today’s Iron Age of operatic invention, many major houses get by on pure nostalgia, perpetuating a degenerate cult of escapism. Others amuse themselves with games of deconstruction, which by accident or design end up subordinating the composer’s text to the director’s marginalia. To an extent La Scala falls into these patterns too: competition for the most exciting musicians and directors makes it inevitable. What sets La Scala apart is the conviction that the scores of Mozart, Bellini, Rossini, Verdi, and Wagner are as urgent today as when the ink was wet on their pages.

Muti sets the example. He trusts his material unconditionally. His rehearsals, whether with the singers at the piano or onstage with the orchestra, proceed on the understanding that regardless of what staging and production values may contribute, the soul of communication dwells in the purposeful delivery of every word and note.

The late Herbert von Karajan eventually arrived at the belief that to realize his musical intentions, he had not only to conduct but to direct the stage action, too. I once asked Muti if he ever thought of doing the same. “Ciascuno a suo mestiere,” he answered, with an emphatic shake of his head. “To each his own craft.” But he polishes line readings with an acuity that only the greatest directors of spoken drama can match, and as he has said to singers privately when they were bemoaning the inanities of a new production, “La regia é qui”:The directing is done here,” in the music studio.

Not many contemporary pieces have been heard at La Scala of late. Yet when everything falls into place, it feels as though the opera were unfolding under the composer’s personal scrutiny—as would have been the case in the old days, per standard contract. The house tingles the way the New York State Theater used to when George Balanchine was watching from the wings and his ballets, new and old, caught the electricity of creation.

No doubt much of La Scala’s cachet rests on a sense of heritage, but does history account for this? There’s no better place to ponder the question than the annex to the opera house, formerly known as the Casino Ricordi, now the Museo Teatrale all Scala. In these chambers, which communicate with an upper lobby of the opera house, the Ricordi dynasty, publishers of Italian opera composers from Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti to Verdi and Puccini, conducted their business through many of the glory years of the past century. Audiences may circulate there at their pleasure during intermissions; during the day, if no rehearsals are in progress, visitors to the museum may step into an open box and take a look at the auditorium.

In the eleven rooms of the museum portraits crowd the walls with likenesses of composers, of divas from Giuditta Pasta (Bellini’s first Norma) and Teresina Stolz (Verdi’s chosen Aïda) to Maria Callas, their sister in immortality. Look around and find a bare-shouldered bust of Caruso, a death mask of Puccini.

Most evocative of all is the museum’s Verdiana, two amazing roomfuls: the composer’s first spinet, a scarf woven for the premiere of Aïda, a lock of his hair, several of his watches, gilded wreaths made in his honor, the manuscript of the Requiem, a portrait bust, his death mask, his writing desk from the Grand Hôtel Milan, where he died (a few minutes’ walk down Via Manzoni), complete with inkwell, pen, stationery, sealing wax, playing cards, a French-Italian dictionary, a train schedule, and the nine-course menu of his last meal.

Maestro Giampiero Tintori, the museum’s director, sits behind the reading room in a tiny study amid boxes of scenery designs stacked floor to ceiling. As a soldier returning from Russia after the Second World War, he saw the theater he loved in ruins, destroyed by Allied bombs in August of 1943. Photographs in the Sala Gialla, the “yellow hall” that does double duty as the boardroom and a rehearsal space, show something of what he saw then (the ironwork of the stage, the left side of the horseshoe but not the right, a mass of rubble from the fallen roof) and stages in the unbelievably rapid reconstruction. “La Scala è Milano,” he says. “La Scala and the Duomo.

La Scala was the first thing to be rebuilt after the war—not houses! And that was right.” Arturo Toscanini, almost eighty, conducted the opening symphonic concert, on May 11, 1946. Staged opera returned on December 26, 1946. The opera was Verdi’s Nabucco, and no wonder: “Va, pensiero,” the chorus of the Israelites under Babylonian oppression, was adopted in 1842, as of its first hearing, as the de facto anthem of a unified Italy that at the time was still a dream.

CHRONICLES or greatness are often told as fables of manifest destiny, but the curious mind detects no inevitability in La Scala’s current eminence. The art we know as opera Was born elsewhere: in aristocratic Florence, on the eve of the seventeenth century, in an attempt to revive the spirit of Greek drama as it was then imperfectly understood. Not until 1637

did the world see its first public opera house, and that was in Venice. By August 3, 1778, when La Scala opened its doors, opera (Italian, Italian-inspired, or in regional variants, notably French) had carried its banner all through the courts and cities of Europe, as far as St. Petersburg, London, and even outof-the-way Stockholm. Before La Scala, Milan had the illustrious Regio Ducal Teatro, which in the early 1770s thrilled to the triumphs of the prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

But in 1776 the Regio Ducal burned down, and the architect Giuseppe Piermarini received the commission to build a new theater on the site of the demolished church Santa Maria alla Scala. The city being under Austrian rule, the venture required the blessing of Empress Maria Theresa. She gave it, and also donated the land. The noble box owners sent Piermarini back to the drawing board over the matter of the fa͑ade: that cheerless pediment and portico (redesigned five times) were concessions to their taste for the ostentatious—a taste also reflected in the opening production, a thirty-eight-scene extravaganza called L’Europa riconosciuta, with music by the now unjustly notorious Antonio Salieri.

The great composers of the nineteenth century all came through La Scala, where they were spared nothing. Consider Vincenzo Bellini, whose Norma (1831) stands as one of the supreme achievements of bel canto. The opera’s premiere, on December 26, the opening night of the Carnival season, was a fiasco. Bellini suspected, not without reason, a cabal by a rival composer and his rich protectors; the second night was a success, and by the end of the season the opera had chalked up thirty-four performances.

And, once again, consider Verdi. It was at La Scala, under the impresario Bartolomeo Merelli, that he introduced his first opera (Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio, 1839, performed fourteen times), suffered his first flop (Un Giorno di Regno, 1840, canceled after a single performance), and experienced his first triumph (Nabucco, given its premiere in 1842 with sets borrowed from a ballet on the same theme, and then immediately revived with new sets for a run of fifty-seven performances). Yet a few seasons after, just as he was coming into his own, Verdi grew so disgusted with Merelli’s productions, pennypinching, and shady deals—not to mention the capricious tastes of the local audience—that he wanted nothing more to do with La Scala. He stayed away for twenty years. His operas were still produced there, eventually even under his own direction, but not until a benign conspiracy coaxed him out of retirement for his final, Shakespearean masterpieces, Otello (1887, with Toscanini, at the age of nineteen, playing second cello) and Falstaff (1893), was the house again granted the honor of his world premieres. Having lapsed into provinciality during the long years of the estrangement, La Scala glittered once more, briefly.

Toscanini, appointed artistic director in 1898, recaptured the international standard, reigning like an angry god. He whipped the orchestra into shape, challenged the conservative audience with such advanced foreign composers as Wagner (on opening night—a provocation!) and Debussy, in time moved the orchestra from the auditorium’s floor level into a pit, as Wagner had done and Verdi wanted to do, and fought twenty years to expropriate the theater from private ownership.

Still, not even Toscanini always got his way. Abhorring the idea that opera should be facile entertainment, Toscanini had no tolerance for encores. The rowdies continued to clamor for them all the same. At one performance of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, in 1903, after “È scherzo od è follia,” such pandemonium ensued that the maestro could not proceed; he threw down his baton and left the theater.

EVERYWHERE one turns, captivating lore cries out for demystification. What, one may wonder, makes this house great? Tradition? The La Scala of 1992 is in large part new, scarcely a half century old. (At fifty-one, Muti is older than the podium on which he stands.) Acoustically, La Scala replicates the house as Toscanini rebuilt it, not the configuration that Donizetti or Bellini or Rossini or Verdi knew. The sound fatters neither the singers nor the orchestra; it is truthful, favorable to drama, no subject for rhapsody.

And what special authority can La Scala claim even on the operas created here? The company has not held on to its classics as ballet companies do, handing them down from generation to generation in self-perpetuating schools. The repertoire is too large for that, and the season at La Scala is too short: these days fewer than a dozen operas are presented, in partly overlapping runs of roughly six to twelve performances. Casts are assembled opera by opera; there is no steady ensemble. Ages can pass between revivals of the most indispensable works. Two seasons ago, when Muti brought back La Traviata in triumph after no less than forty days of musical rehearsals with a cast of unknowns, it had been off the boards at La Scala for a quarter of a century, ever since Herbert von Karajan and Mirella Freni had had to be escorted out a side door by the police to evade the wrath of the Furies of the top gallery.

Such artists cannot have deserved this. Still, that improbable fiasco reflects, in its twisted way, the civic pride Milan invests in La Scala—a pride that also swells the breasts of the chorus, the orchestra, and every employee of the house. Such pride, it must be said, is easier to maintain than the standards that justify it. The starry-eyed may like to think of La Scala as a temple, inviolate, lit for the ages by one steady flame. It is in fact a backdrop of chaos against which, from time to time, great deeds of artistry are performed. The tradition of La Scala, in Toscanini’s age and again in Muti’s, is no bag of tried and true stylistic tricks but instead artisric conscience—the will, the imagination, and the hard work to resist the deadening gravitational pull of routine.