Mercoledi Musicale

Since I was 9 years old I’ve known that December 7th was St Ambroise Day – not because I was Catholic (which I wasn’t), not because the Roman church in our neighbour honoured that Saint, but because he was the patron Saint of the city of Milan.  And – and here comes the important part – and it was always the opening night of the new season at La Scala.

And I vowed that one day when I grew up I would be at one of those opening nights; it is still on my bucket list but at €2,400.00 a ticket I have a feeling that is one item that will never be checked off.  So as the close of December 7th approaches another Feast of Saint Ambrogio has come and the curtains at La Scala have parted on one more Opening Night without me.  It would have been a great night to be there: the opera was Madama Butterfly and Bryan Hymel, one of my favourite tenors, was singing Pinkerton.

Butterfly was the third live opera I saw when the Met toured to Toronto and brought it to Maple Leaf Gardens back on May 27, 1958.  It was a stunning new production starring Antonietta Stella and Carlo Bergonzi, conducted by Dimitri Metropolous with staging by Yoshio Aoyama and designs by Motohiro Nagasaka, both major figures in Japanese theatre.   Since then I have seen productions in Toronto, Chicago, Warsaw and Rome and heard it innumerable times on the radio and on the turntable.

One of the most original productions I’ve seen of any opera was Mariusz Treliński’s Madama Butterfly at the Opera Naradowa in Warsaw.  Here Butterfly, Suzuki and little Trouble keep their vigil in the shadow of the USS Abraham Lincoln as san pans glide through the night around the naval vessel.  A stunning stage picture set to the Humming Chorus.

This year at La Scala conductor Riccardo Chailly chose the original two act version that had its disastrous premiere at the same theatre in February of 1904.  In an article in the New York Times he says it “is partly an act of contrition, a symbolic apology to Puccini for the historic rebuff 112 years ago.”  And he continues on to say that he believes that the first version is as good as the final 1907 version – Puccini was to write a total of five versions before settling on a final one.  The article suggests some of the reasons that first night in Milan may have been what Puccini called “a lynching” and also highlights a few of the major differences in the two works – it’s well worth the read and can be found here.

One interlude common to all the versions is the gentle “Humming Chorus” as Ci0-Cio-San, Susuki and little Trouble keep vigil through the night waiting for Pinkerton to come up the little hill.  It is a moment of quiet before the emotional storm of the last scenes.

This touching performance is by the Hungarian State Opera Chorus and Orchestra.

On this day in 1724: Tumult of Thorn: Religious unrest is followed by the execution of nine Protestant citizens and the mayor of Thorn (Toruń) by Polish authorities.

One Last Kick at the Can

One of the unexpected thrills of the past year or so has been reporting on performances at La Scala for my friends at Opera Britannia. On five occasions I have headed up to Milano,  approached the Box Office on Via Filodrammatici  and asked for my press ticket.  How cool is that?  Me with press tickets at La Scala! How I wish my father could have seen that. 

However as the time to leave draws closer I realize I am doing things for what is probably the last time.  This past Monday’s trip up to Milano was the last of that sort that I will be making to view and review a performance at what is arguably the world’s most famous opera house.  And the review, which was published last evening,  will most likely be the last I will be doing with any regularity for my friends at OB.   That trip had a bittersweet flavour to it and what would be more appropriate than Charles Gounod’s take on Shakespeare’s most bitter-sweet tragedy – Roméo et Juliette.  Not produced at La Scala since 1934 it also had the added interest of featuring the very talented Canadian conductor Yannik Nézet-Séquin in his debut at the house. A left click on the poster will take you to my views on the opening night performance.

I can’t thank Faye at Opera Britannia enough – first for taking me on as a member of her reviewing team and then for putting up with missed deadlines and using all of her editing skills to make my articles almost readable.  Big bunch of baci Faye and buon compleanno!

12 giugno – San Barnaba apostolo

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The Ring Continues – La Scala December 10, 2010

As I mentioned in December I went up to Milano mid-month to see the opening opera of the new season at La Scala: Die Walküre , the second installment of their new Der Ring des Nibelungen. I been there in May last year when the cycle began with Das Rheingold and reviewed it at that time for Opera Britannia. Once again the kind editors (Faye and Anthony) had arranged for me to be there as both an opera lover and their critic.

Unfortunately a combination of Holidays and a hacker – the deadly H and H combo – resulted in many of the December reviews at Opera Britannia being delayed in posting but they were finally able to get things sorted out and my thoughts on the new season’s opener where published today.

A left click on the poster from the December 10, 2010 performance will take you over to Opera Britannia and my review.

28 gennaio – San Valerio di Saragozza


Here’s a few things musical or music related that caught my eye or pocket book in the past few days. And though I’ve often said Baroque architecture is not my thing I’ve included a few photos of the very baroque decorations that adorn several of the organ lofts here in churches in Roma.

The Church of Santa Maria Maddalena has always been closed when we’ve passed it and I honestly thought it was one of the abandoned churches that dot Rome. However a few weeks ago it was open and obviously undergoing restoration. The scaffolding in the side aisles and apse made it difficult to get a decent photo of the lovely organ loft.

I am on the mailing list for Vivaticket which is one of the larger agency ticket brokers here in Italy. They handle venues such as La Scala, La Fenice and San Carlo in the classical world and major rock concerts in the more popular vein. As often happens with literal word for word – and in all likelihood computer generated – translations the results can be to unintended comic effect. Take this ad for an upcoming Riccardo Muti concert in Napoli

Notice how Sonia Ganassi is listed. Now I can order a mezzo-litro (= half litre) of wine; I can say that I will meet someone at tre dieci et mezzo (= half past one). And though I can give a performance with a “mezzo-soprano” I would be hard pressed to achieve anything with a “half soprano”. In the case of most singers you need both halves. Now I have heard Ganassi on many occasions including just last week here in the Muti led Moïse et Pharon at the Opera – and she isn’t half of anything but a full blown “mezzo”-soprano and a great one at that. Google Translation has a bit to answer for on this one.

The organ at San Giovanni in Laterna stands in a side aisle to the right of the main altar and though the casing is quite lovely the Basilica is known for its marble statues. The two marble base reliefs on either side have a lovely balance – King David on the left is easily recognizable but I’m a bit lost as to the identify of the gentleman with the crown and the portive organ. Any suggestions?

My trip up to La Scala for the second performance of Die Walküre, the
seaon’s opener, will be covered in Opera Britannia (and of course I’ll be linking to it in the hope that friends will visit it in the millions so Faye and Antony keep using my stuff) shortly. But I have to comment on the programme La Scala published for the production. It is a 300 page (+30 pages of adverts) hard-covered volume weighing in at .5 kilos (over 1 lb). Lavishly illustrated with historical and production photos and the complete libretto in German and Italian, it includes 7 essays on everything from Wagner’s life to currently available CDs and DVDs plus entire productions lists for past performances at La Scala. As most of the essays are in Italian and I have yet to struggle through them I can’t vouch for their value as musicology but I can tell you they certainly added weight to my luggage if not my review.

The church of Santa Maria di Loreto is another church that I have never found open until one wet Tuesdays when the entire Centro was under vehicular lock-down and in walking by it on my hike to Trastevere found it open. Its central location at Piazza Venezia along with its larger sister church Santo Nome di Maria make it a landmark in the city centre. I did a quick pop-in – mostly to get out of the pounding rain and discovered two sets of organ pipes symmetrically arranged in the octagon. They were setting up the presepe while I was there.

Despite of the fact that she has been dead for over 33 years and last sang in 1974 no name can get opera fanatics pulses racing like that of Maria Callas. Her recordings – particularly the early Norma and Tosca – are still best sellers and singers’ voice and performances are still being compared – unfairly – to hers. Her relationship with La Scala was a tempestuous one and many of her most noted performances were given there. In an effort to preserve some of those performances – and cash in on the still lucrative Callas money machine – La Scala has issued La Scala Memories a series of mini-books/CDs of “legendary” performances including three with Callas: the 1954 La Vestale, the 1956 La Traviata and to come the 1957 Anna Bolena – landmark performances all of them.

I have always wanted to hear the Vestale so I snapped it up the minute I entered the Bookshop. I should have saved my €24.90! The booklet is badly translated (the same person that did Vivaticket?) and the recordings are old radio transfers to vinyl disc to CD which they have not even bothered to clean up. In this day and age of digital programmes there is no excuse for transfers of this quality. Anything above forte is completely unlistenable and Spontini’s little tale of unfaithful Vestal Virgins has lots of fortissimo in it. The good people at La Scala should be ashamed to market this with either their name or that of their legendary artist on it. I was going to ask Santa for the Traviata for Christmas – I think I’d be better off settling for a few old wax cylinders.

17 decembre – San Giovanni de Matha

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