It is quite unusual to stage a new indoor production in the middle of summer in Italy when so many outdoor venues are open, but general manager of La Scala Stéphane Lissner – who will leave next year – decided to close the first half of this Verdi-Wagner year with a beloved hit of il cigno di Busseto, putting this heavy job in the hands of young, rising conductor Daniele Rustioni and talented but often radical director Damiano Michieletto.
It was the perfect situation for a strong protest –Italian style – during and after the opening night: throwing of polemic leaflets from the loggione, whistles and boos, applause, an audience with totally polarized opinions, followed by hard-as-nails editorials in the media.
The national newspapers were reporting a first cast (Alvarez, Lucic, Radvanovsky, Cornetti and Ciofi) from very bland to bad, the young conductor making the main themes too “slegati” and the protest planned in advance against Lissner and the new general manager, the Austrian Alexander Pereira. It seems that the opera ultras of the upper range and some influent patrons are not happy with the choice because they want an Italian GM as well as an Italian “First Conductor,” ideally the local Daniele Gatti.
The most shocking aspect of the story is the fact that many opera goers and opera critics are scandalized to see such a production in an Italian opera house. The “scandal” was colorful t shirts, shining neon lights, sneakers, Ulrica acting as a lunatic TV preacher, street hookers near the “orrido campo”. Really, it worked just fine and was probably less expensive than a traditional staging. I spoke to some German tourists and they were, well, amazed: no fake XVII century Boston, no emphasis on stock gestures but a somber, dry tragedy happening in an office and a grey, modern city with during the 2013 election season.
The action might have taken place in the US, Scandinavia or everywhere. Perhaps because even Italians with a PhD can barely read the obscure – and sometimes boring – poetry of Somma, director Michieletto chooses to emphasize the ironic, even nonsensical qualities of the piece. Oscar even is given a gender reassignment, becoming a young, sexy, provocative woman probably attracted both to Renato and Riccardo to get some extra balance to this plot. Too much? It could be but really I have seen some many horses (and some camels as well, lucky me they are no more using elephants) pissing at Aida’s trionfo scene and really that old stink should no longer be allowed at the opera.
The alternative cast was good enough to keep the attention of a very crowded La Scala alive for all the three hours of the show more on the singing and music than on the visual side. Tenor Piero Pretti was so fresh and nice, a next big thing for sure, even with some deficit in the lower registro: his vocality is in fact more lirico than drammatico and he does the best in the great romanza of act III “Ma se m’è forza perderti.“ Big guy Gabriele Viviani does a good job as Renato even when forced to sing in strange positions called for by the director, really shining in “Alla vita che t’arride” and in the conspirators’ trio.
Coming to the ladies, the main problem is they all used conductor Daniele Rustioni’s brash tempos as an excuse to yell, versismo-style, and even then , Marina Prudenskaya’s Ulrica can hardly be heard from the parterre. Oksana Dyka used her big volume as a weapon against everybody and her Amelia looked ready to slap Renato during “Morrò, ma prima in grazia.”
As a female Oscar, Serena Gamberoni was quite better than the first cast’s Patrizia Ciofi, not making major mistakes but missing the vocal brilliance associated with the character. Rustioni is very young and promising so he’s got plenty of time to learn when Verdi does not require a military band but a delicate, sensitive orchestra: this productions finally works because of the solid musical base we can build on even with controversial interpretations.
Oh, and at the very end, when Renato shoots Riccardo, there are of course neither ball nor masks.