La Scala Opens with the Rape of Carmen
La Scala traditionally inaugurates its season on December 7th, St. Ambrose’s Day (Patron of Milan, where he was Bishop in the Third Century C.E). It is a national affairs attended by the Head of State, several Cabinet Ministers, many industrialists and financiers in black ties and ladies showing their best evening dress and jewels. This year, tickets are set at € 2,400 in the orchestra section or in the central part of the tiers of boxes. They are often paid by companies sponsoring the event as well as by a few tourists (Americans and Germans) flown to Milan by opera travel companies. The performance starts at 6 p.m. (not the usual 8 p.m.) to allow for lavish after-theatre dinners. The most important takes place in Palazzo Marino (Milan City Hall, just across the street from La Scala) where only 600 fortunate people can be invited for an elegant sit-down affair. To make the performance accessible to a larger audience, there was a preview for young people “under 30” on December 4th; some 180 journalists were invited. Also, the December 7th première is shown live on an international pay-tv channel and in 100 movie theatres all over Europe (and some other continents).
Whilst many Italian opera houses open their seasons with either a new or rarely performed opera, La Scala’s St. Ambrose tradition is to offer a new production of a well-known opera. The expectation is that the production would be “extraordinary” and “exemplary.” In short, the intention is that this should not be an “ordinary” production as can be seen and listened to in other theatres, but that it should set a standard.
This year, Bizet’s Carmen, one of the most frequently performed operas all over the world, was chosen for the event. It was offered in the Robert Didion’s critical edition –viz., with spoken parts not rearranged and set to music by Ernest Guiraut (as it has been the tradition for nearly a century). In short, the production was etymologically “extraordinary”, but not “exemplary” (as discussed below).
Stage direction was entrusted to Emma Dante, a whiz kid of Italian experimental theatre. The stage sets were the responsibility of the more seasoned Richard Peduzzi (the author of the 1976 fabulous Bayreuth Chéreau-Boulez Ring). The action is set in a town resembling today’s distressed districts of Palermo rather than 19th Century Seville: for instance, in the Second Act, Lilla Pastia’s tavern looks like Palermo’s remains of the Chiesa della Madonna dello Spasimo. There is a large number of extras (mimes, dancers). The stage is also crowed by religious symbols (priests, nuns, choir boys and crosses are nearly always in the midst of the action). Emma Dante sees Carmen not as a tragedy of passion, sex and dissolution, but as a tale of violence against women. In Act I, even pregnant women workers of the cigar factory are brutally beaten up by the police. In Act IV, Carmen is raped on stage by Don José whilst the always present crowd of choir boys, priests, nuns and simple city people stand still watching the action and waiting for the corrida to end. Rape seems to be the trademark of this La Scala season. Including Carmen, nine of the 12 operas in the program will involve rape. The outcome of this violent Carmen is a passionless and sexless production.
Musically, the performance is much better, thanks mostly to Maestro Daniel Barenboim and to La Scala’s magnificent orchestra. Maestro Barenboim stretches the tempos (the performance lasts four hours with two intermissions) making for a round sound from the orchestra and leaves room to the single instrumentalists – memorable the flute in the introduction to the Third Act. Maestro Barenboim’s Carmen has the right musical tinta of a mythical Spain as perceived by a foreign musician. Also, the singers are kept under tight check. Erwin Schrott and Jonas Kaufmann are both experienced Escamillo and Don José. Before the opening night, in an interview Kaufmann expressed his reservations about the production and called sick in the December 4th preview; his 2006 DVD with Caterina Antonacci, under the baton of Maestro Antonio Pappano and with the stage direction of Francesca Zambello, shows what he is able to do within an appropriate production. In Milan his Carmen is Anita Rachvelishvili, just graduated from the Accademia della Scala (the opera house’s music school). She is attractive and has great acting abilities, but needs more vocal maturity; in the “Habanera”, the alternation between D minor and D major were colorless. However, she improved as the performance went on.
A final comment, Kaufmann is covered by Riccardo Massi, another young graduate from Accademia della Scala and engaged to marry Rachvelishvili. He sang the Don José role on December 4th. Couldn’t La Scala find a more experienced “cover” for a repertory opera like Carmen? Mr. Massi was burned-out by such an early exposure to the audience; he has a poor timbre and had difficulties in nearly all his arias. He might have a good career with more study and experience in easier roles; let’s forget and forgive this poor start.
Performances are scheduled until December 23th and from October 29 to November 18, 2010. Most likely, the same production will be seen in Berlin, at the Staatsoper unter den Linden.