Fifteen minutes of applause greeted a new production of Wagner’s Lohengrin as La Scala’s opera and ballet season opened on Friday evening. As if conjured up to save the day, Lohengrin-style, the first snows of winter fell on the city in mid-afternoon and by curtain up all was white, lending magic to the evening along with the red brocade, chandeliers and specially commissioned green and white floral displays.
The opening gala, beamed onto screens in Milan and this year to 500 cinemas worldwide, is a celebrity event with inflated ticket prices and as much attention paid to jewels and outfits as to onstage happenings. Those present included prime minister Mario Monti and his wife, mayor of Milan Giuliano Pisapia, ballet dancer Roberto Bolle, architect Mario Botta, and Eva Wagner, joint director of the Bayreuth Festival.
Lohengrin, the first Wagner opera to be heard in Italy (Bologna, 1871), has some claim to being the nation’s favourite, at least on the number of times it has been performed. Claus Guth’s production was staged in 19th-century costumes, bringing austerity to a work often remembered for elaborate onstage swans, although the overarching elegance and creative use of lighting failed to convince the most conservative.
In a rare double substitution, the soprano Anja Harteros was to have taken the role of Elsa, but flu led to her being replaced by Ann Petersen, who sang the part at the primina for under-30s on the Tuesday before. She too succumbed to flu, however, and Berlin-born Annette Dasch arrived overnight to take on the role with which she made her Bayreuth debut two years ago. In the circumstances this was a considerable achievement, a deeply knowing portrayal of one of Wagner’s most complex heroines. There were plaudits, too, for the evil Ortrud of Evelyn Herlitzius, but the most applause went to the firm and assured Lohengrin of that consummate stage actor, Jonas Kaufmann.
As music director, Barenboim is increasingly seen as synonymous with La Scala’s success but the theatre is again approaching a period of relative uncertainly with the departure of sovrintendente Stéphane Lissner in 2015. It remains to be seen how political tensions and seemingly eternal funding questions (there is talk of a €4m deficit) will affect future productions. As in previous years, with TV cameras rolling there were protests outside the theatre, in particular against government austerity measures, and smoke bombs were thrown.
The Wagner-Verdi opera season continues with a new production of Falstaff under Daniel Harding; a new Nabucco (Nicola Luisotti); Der fliegende Holländer (Hartmut Haenchen); a new Macbeth (Valery Gergiev); a new Oberto (Riccardo Frizza); a new Götterdämmerung (Barenboim, heralding his complete La Scala/Berlin Ring cycle); a new Un ballo in maschera (Daniele Rustioni); La scala di seta (Christophe Rousset); Don Carlo (Fabio Luisi); and Franco Zeffirelli’s 2006 Aida (Gianandrea Noseda). Lohengrin runs until December 27, 2012.