Fourteen minutes of applause greeted 25-year-old Anita Rachvelishvili and the cast of Barenboim's Carmen yesterday evening as another high-profile season began at La Scala, Milan. The annual December 7 opening night sold out long before the event as usual, even with tickets priced at €2,400. The performance was given in the presence of the Italian president, Giorgio Napolitano.
In recent years opening nights have traditionally been marked by disputes - this time opera house workers joined protesters outside the theatre and there were scuffles involving police and various demonstrators. The performance itself was preceded by a few moments' silence intended to acknowledge the difficult circumstances facing theatres. Despite challenging times, however, La Scala's management has balanced its books for the fifth year in succession.
This really is a season to savour, and it includes the welcome return of Claudio Abbado after a 23-year absence. The conductor famously said that he would come back to Milan if the authorities agreed to plant 90,000 trees in and around the city. It is hoped that the plan, to be realised with architect Renzo Piano, will gain approval, while Abbado is due to perform Mahler's Symphony No 2 with the Philharmonic next summer. Aside from the operatic stage, the theatre will also see recitals from Waltraud Meier in May and Lang Lang in June.
Much of the applause for Carmen was for Rachvelishvili, who graduated only a year ago from La Scala’s own musical academy, and who took the title role at Barenboim’s insistence. A native of war-torn Georgia, Rachvelishvili’s father was a rock musician and factory worker, her mother a classical dancer and hairdresser. Originally assigned to the role of Frasquita, Barenboim promoted the mezzo-soprano to Carmen.
Jonas Kaufmann as Don José gave an idiomatic performance though there was less of a welcome for Erwin Schrott as Escamillo. The colourful minimalist staging and costumes by Sicilian-born theatre director Emma Dante, making her operatic début, seemed too modern for La Scala's traditionalists.
This year's season features no fewer than eight new opera productions including From the House of the Dead conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, Tannhäuser with staging by La Fura dels Baus under Zubin Mehta, Lulu (Daniele Gatti), Simon Boccanegra (Barenboim), Das Rheingold (Barenboim), Faust (Stéphane Denève) and L'elisir d'amore (Donato Renzetti).
Carmen runs until December 23; the production returns again at the end of the season under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel.
(Photo: Marco Brescia / Teatro alla Scala)