Under Riccardo Chailly’s baton there was an extraordinary feat of music-making at La Scala’s public reopening

ItalyItaly Various: Lise Davidsen (soprano), Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala / Riccardo Chailly (conductor) Livestreamed (directed by Daniela Vismara) by Raicultura on RaiPlay from La Scala, Milan, 10.5.2021. (JPr)

Lise Davidsen (soprano), La Scala Orchestra & Riccardo Chailly (conductor)

Verdi – ‘Patria oppressa’ (Macbeth)
Purcell – ‘When I am laid in earth’ (Dido and Aeneas)
Wagner – Prelude from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
R. Strauss – ‘Es gibt ein Reich, wo alles rein ist’ (Ariadne auf Naxos)
Verdi – Overture; ‘Pace, pace mio Dio’ (La forza del destino)
Wagner – Overture; ‘Dich, teure halle’ (Tannhäuser)
Verdi – ‘Va’, pensiero’ (Nabucco)

Reopening of Milan’s La Scala opera house to the public marked the 75th anniversary of another reopening after it was severely damaged by bombing in World War II. It was strange after so months of lockdowns to watch a concert and hear applause! The chorus were socially distanced on the stage and the orchestra were spread out throughout the stalls and I understand there were a maximum of 500 seats available in the boxes on the various levels and the gallery.

Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, & Riccardo Chailly (conductor)

Celebrated Milan-born conductor Riccardo Chailly was probably exactly the right person to coalesce all those far and wide in front and behind him into an extraordinary feat of music-making. Chailly was masked throughout as were many of the orchestra and the entire chorus. They began with Verdi’s ‘Patria oppressa’ (‘Down-trodden country’) from Macbeth: he is, of course, Italy’s most beloved composer. It is a disconsolate piece, and the superb chorus mined a deep well of sadness which was perhaps a reflection of what Italy has suffered during the ongoing pandemic: from the sombre opening in the timpani and trombones onwards it was a haunting elegy to those lost.

Soprano Lise Davidsen was making her debut on the La Scala stage the very night she won Female Singer of the Year at the 2021 International Opera Awards. Dressed in funereal black Davidsen sang the achingly sad Dido’s Lament (‘When I am laid in earth’), the feeling of despair was immense and her performance (again) could not escape the sense of life in the shadow of coronavirus and her singing of ‘Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate’ was full of angst. Perhaps it was because of the sound recording I was listening to, but I experienced Davidsen’s voice as warm, velvety, dark, expressive and mezzo-ish.

A highlight for me was the cautious optimism the more upbeat Prelude from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger brought to the proceedings. We hear amongst other things the masters’ stately, ceremonial theme and Walther’s lyrical ‘Prize Song’ and while Chailly used his score more here than for some other music, he encouraged some masterly scene-painting from his virtuosic musicians. (Unfortunately, there was an element of sadness here for me because I have been a regular invitee to Bayreuth over more years than I can remember but I cannot travel there this year and wonder whether I ever will again.)

Davidsen sang Ariadne’s ‘Es gibt ein Reich, wo alles rein ist’ (‘There is a kingdom where everything is pure’) and surely her lingering on ‘Totenreich’ (‘Kingdom of death’) must have resonated viscerally with those who knew what that word meant. Davidsen’s rendition was focussed and built to its ecstatic climax, though from her glances now and then towards Chailly I got the impression she was fighting a wall of orchestral sound. I thought the applause she got here – and elsewhere – was respectful and polite rather than overtly enthusiastic.

Verdi’s Overture from La forza del destino allowed many sections of the orchestra (impressively led by Laura Marzadori’s violin) to shine. I know he is Italy’s favourite composer, but this instantly familiar warhorse is ubiquitous on these occasions and I have heard it very many times before. Was I enjoying myself too much, but none has ever sounded quite so exhilarating as Chailly’s vital, splendidly executed reading of an overture which again anticipates all the drama of Verdi’s ensuing opera (were we to see and hear it). Davidsen’s singing of Leonora’s great lament ‘Pace, pace, mio Dio’ was impressive rather than thrilling until the all guns blazing final forte B-flat of ‘Maledizione!’. (In the close-ups for TV I was beginning to wish Davidsen had more varied facial expressions at her disposal rather than a furrowed brow, though this would not have been as big an issue to those in the theatre.)

The Overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser from Chailly and his massed forces was the exemplar on how to maintain momentum, tension and nobility in such a substantial introduction to an opera we would again not go on and hear in full. In a triumphant performance Chailly drew breadth and richness from his hardworking orchestra and together they highlighted the erotic and sensuous world of the Venusberg and the plaintive ‘Pilgrims’ Chorus’ in Wagner’s music which depicts the struggle between the profane and the sacred. In ‘Dich, teure halle’ Elisabeth sings of her sadness of what as gone before and her joy at Tannhäuser’s return; the agitated musical opening before she sings possibly also suggests her trepidation. Although her face lit up more for this, for me, I didn’t think Davidsen – now in a glittery rose gold gown – had the radiance in her voice that so excited me when I first heard her sing this at Operalia 2015.

There was probably nothing else that could end such a significant but thought-provoking occasion and indeed we did get ‘Va, pensiero’ from Nabucco because it serves as a sort of unofficial national anthem in modern Italy. It was melancholic and deeply heartfelt, though also oddly inspiring in implying we will beat coronavirus eventually and get back to normal. The incredibly soft ending at the words ‘Al patire virtù!’ (‘To suffer virtue!) will linger long in the memory as will the entirety of this outstanding concert. Soloist, chorus, orchestra and conductor thoroughly deserved their standing ovation: probably the first for most of them for over a year!

Jim Pritchard

For more about La Scala, Milan, click here.

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