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«The horse shoe is so well designed that no matter where you sit you have the impression of being in the center of the theater. When I turned my back to the orchestra, I had the feeling of being inside a rotunda».

.:. Thus wrote Pietro Verri, a Milanese intellectual of sophisticated tastes, a few days after La Scala theater was inaugurated on August 3, 1778 (at 5pm). Verri's description reminds us of not only the architectural beauty of the theater, but also its social function. At the time of its inauguration a performance at La Scala was much more than a musical event. The Milanese aristocracy would spend much of the day in the building, and their amusements included not only operas, ballets and concerts, but also eating, drinking, gambling and flirting in the intimacy of the curtained private boxes.

.:. This social function acquired a political significance in the years between the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte and the unification of Italy: private boxes became the secret meeting places of those who wanted to unify the nation. Not long before the Austro- Hungarian rulers were expelled from Milan in 1859, a performance of Bellini's Norma was transformed by Milan's bourgeoisie into a declaration of war against the foreign rulers. When the chorus sang the words 'War' and 'Vengeance' the audience joined in, causing the Austrian governor of the city to explode in anger.

.:. The years of Italy's unification were of course strongly associated with Giuseppe Verdi, whose first and last operas - Uberto Conte di San Bonifacio and Falstaff - were presented at La Scala in 1839 and 1893 respectively. In between these dates, the composer's relationship with La Scala was often stormy, but there is no doubt that this opera house established an unrivalled tradition in the performance of his works, a tradition which has been maintained up to the present day.

.:. Verdi was preceded in the 19th century by other great composers whose works are no less part of La Scala's performing tradition. Gioacchino Rossini composed Il Turco in Italia and La Gazza Ladra for this theater; Vincenzo Bellini's Il Pirata and Norma and Gaetano Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia were also first performed here, and the same is true of later repertory works such as Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele, Amilcare Ponchielli's La Gioconda and Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier).

.:. Not all of these operas were successful at their first performance. Even a work as popular today as Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly was poorly received at its first performance in 1904. Puccini's last opera, Turandot, however, was a triumphal success at its 1926 première, conducted by Toscanini. In more recent times Italian composers such as Luigi Nono, Luciano Berio and Sylvano Bussotti have continued to write works for La Scala.

.:. La Scala also has a long tradition as a center of international culture. The Milanese have only recently rediscovered Mozart, but in the 19th century La Scala did much to establish the works of Richard Wagner in Italy, so much that after 1871 Milan was divided into two camps: the Verdians and the Wagnerites! La Scala also had an important role in familiarizing Italian audiences with works by Gounod, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss, Debussy and others. The policy of introducing new talent has continued since World War Two. The production of Alban Berg's Wozzeck in 1952, for example, was a genuine act of courage.

.:. La Scala was semi-destroyed by bombs during World War Two, but was rebuilt in the late 1940s with the encouragement of the conductor Arturo Toscanini, who had emigrated to the USA because he opposed the Fascist government, and who personally contributed to the theater's reconstruction by raising funds in America. Toscanini had been an enormously influential conductor at La Scala at the beginning of the 20th century and in the 1920s, and when he returned there to conduct the opening concert in 1948, La Scala took on a new lease of life.
Since then it has been administered by outstanding managers such as Antonio Ghiringhelli and Paolo Grassi, and eminent conductors like Victor de Sabata, Carlo Maria Giulini, Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Muti - from 1986 to 2005 director of music at La Scala - have appeared there regularly. Nor should one forget the influence on operatic repertory and performing style exerted by Maria Callas, who sang at La Scala from 1950 to 1962.

.:. A series of long and triumphant foreign tours was initiated after the war and has continued up to the present day. The smaller Piccola Scala - opened in the 1950s for the express purpose of presenting little-known early and contemporary operas - has now been closed.
The fierce student protests of 1968, when the audience arriving for the opening night of the season was bombarded with rotten eggs, encouraged the theater to adopt a more enlightened social policy, making a number of performances available to workers and students at lower prices.
The opening of La Scala to a broader public has not hurt the quality of its productions, nor has it significantly diminished its traditional elegance.

.:. Recently, industrial Milan has helped solve some of the financial problems encountered by the theater. Discreet forms of sponsorship made it possible to restore the building's exterior and to stage important new productions. Nonetheless, major work still needed to be done to the interior, i.e. to the stage. Between 2002 and 2004 La Scala underwent major restoration works. Shows were temporarily relocated to Bicocca, in the northeastern part of town, where the Teatro degli Arcimboldi, a new auditorium designed by Vittorio Gregotti, was purpose-built.

[Stephen Hastings, Mario Panzeri]


 
 
 

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