La Scala – A Dream Fulfilled

Elizabeth Handley fulfils one of her life-long dreams attending La Scala at the world famous opera house in its home, Milan.

15-19 October 2011 

– Part One –

In spite of my numerous wonderful travels during this exciting phase of my life – our temporary residence in Sweden – there are still many cultural destinations on my wish list – or, to quote the current movie parlance, my “bucket-list”. But my recent trip to Milan in northern Italy saw the fulfilment of one of my principal life-long dreams: a performance at the world famous opera house, La Scala. I had ascertained that it is well nigh impossible to gain entry to these hallowed operatic portals without venerable Italian family connections, a “friend in high places”, or a reputable tour company. Since I indubitably lack the former, I decided to avail myself of the latter – a “cultural tour” group about which I had been informed during my participation of the Camino de Santiago in Spain last year: Martin Randall Travel(MRT).

Galleria_Vittorio_Emanuele_II   Milanese_delicacies   Santa_Maria_del_Carmine

(Above left) Milanese delicacies, (middle) Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

(Above right) J Santa Maria del Carmine

And so it was that I found myself taking the two-and-a-half-hour flight from Stockholm to Milan, Linate Airport, with SAS, “the most punctual airline in the world” – or so their in-flight magazine boasts. It was indeed punctual, and a pleasant flight. But instead of “mugging up” on Milan with my Eyewitness book, as had been my intention, I found myself instead advising my neighbour – a woman with her eighteen-year-old-son on a soccer pilgrimage to Milan – as to what to see in South Africa, and when best to go there. She, in turn, provided me with an informal Swedish lesson – a fair exchange, I thought.

In no time at all, and after imbibing two cardboard cups of lethally potent Scandinavian coffee, we found ourselves marveling at the fabulous view of the Alps beneath: soaring snow-capped peaks, plunging verdant valleys, and massive imperturbable glaciers. True to their word, SAS brought us in to a smooth, applause-inducing landing, half an hour ahead of schedule, and made my way to my hotel.

The Hotel de la Ville in Via Hoepli, centrally situated around the corner from the Piazza del Duomo, is a grand old establishment in the Belle-Époque style – all swathes of rich brocades and damask, with silk-lined, padded walls, and marble bathrooms. I could quite happily have settled for something less opulent, though central, in the interests of affording more tours for the price of this one. However, the tasteful, if dimly-lit reception rooms, my comfortable room, and the genteel courtesy afforded me as a single travelling lady, were all a welcome treat.

Having “nested” in what would be my own pleasant space for the next few days, I sallied forth to explore my immediate environs of this, the second largest city in Italy, and the capital of Lombardy (population about 1.3 million). I passed a Ferrari Fans store, and a deliciously-scented Chocolatier in a narrow winding street, before coming upon the Piazza del Duomo. It was, that bright and sunny Saturday afternoon, filled with a seething throng of tourists and Milanese residents in festive holiday mood, the crisp cold air redolent with the acrid smoke of chestnut-roasting coals, and heady scents from the Parfumerie of Rinascente department store alongside.

I passed a Ferrari Fans store, and a deliciously-scented Chocolatier in a narrow winding street, before coming upon the Piazza del Duomo. It was, that bright and sunny Saturday afternoon, filled with a seething throng of tourists and Milanese residents in festive holiday mood, the crisp cold air redolent with the acrid smoke of chestnut-roasting coals, and heady scents from the Parfumerie ofRinascente department store alongside.

The entire area surrounding the Duomo was the religious centre of Milan during the 4th century, and, until the 14th century, the site of two ancient basilicas and two baptisteries. These were all demolished to make way for the new cathedral. During the 19th century the Piazza became the nucleus from which a number of avenues radiated, including Via Orefici/Dante, Via Mazzini/Corso di Porta Romana, Via Larga, Corso Europa/Venezia and Via Santa Margarita/Alessandro Manzoni.

I soon found myself distracted from my main purpose – the Duomo – by the palatial Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II flanking the northern perimeter of the Piazza del Duomo. The Galleria is an elegant, triple-arched arcade housing celebrated restaurants, boutiques and cafés, and was begun in 1865 under the direction of architect Giuseppe Mengoni. During the 1860’s the decaying dwellings and shops around the Duomo were demolished to make way for this futuristic emporium – the symbol of Milan after the Unification of Italy under Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1860. In 1867 the completed structure was opened, with predictable pomp, by King Vittorio Emanuele II himself.

The intention of the design was to connect the Piazza del Duomo with the Piazza della Scala, and was part of an ambitious urban renewal project. On the floor in the central octagonal area, directly beneath the 47-meter dome, is the heraldic symbol of the Savoy family: a white cross upon a red background. Surrounding it are the arms of four major Italian cities: the bull of Turin, the wolf of Rome, the lily of Florence, and the red cross on a white ground for Milan. On the vault are four beautiful large mosaic lunettes, each representing Africa, America, Europe and Asia. The damage caused by bombs during the World War II created large empty spaces in this area, which later became filled with a variety of modern buildings.

The Duomo herself is a magnificent, breath-taking edifice of creamy white marble, ornamented with a multiplicity of bristling turreted spires. Broader, and more squat in form that the heaven-reaching Gothic of Northern Europe with which I am familiar (England, France and Germany), this breath-taking House of God was built over a period of five centuries. It was begun in 1386 under the patronage of the city’s Bishop, Antonio da Saluzzo, and the current Duke, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, who invited Lombard, German and French architects to supervise the works, and insisted that Candoglian marble be used, which was transported along the Navigli Canals. The official seal, AUF (ad usum fabricate) on each slab exempted them from customs duty. The cathedral was consecrated in 1418, yet remained unfinished due to lack of funds until the 19th century, when Napoleon, who was crowned King of Italy therein in May 1805, ordered the façade completed.

So bright was the blinding marble of the façade and piazza outside, that it took my eyes a while to adjust to the dim interior of the cathedral – a massive, incense-scented space filled with the hushed whispers of reverent worshippers and awe-inspired visitors. Several areas were aglow with the suffused light of hundreds of votive candles, to which I added my own, along with a prayer for the continued safety and well-being of my precious loved ones.

To my utmost delight, an organ recital then commenced, and the glorious sounds of Bach’s Fantasia in G major (BWV 572) reverberated through the vaulting of this ancient stone monument. This was followed by John Cage’s magical Souvenir, Liszt’sNun danket all Gott, a devotional piece by the Estonian organist himself (Andres Uibo), and another Bach showpiece, the Passacaglia BWV 582. The cavernous, resonant acoustic of the cathedral was such, however, that the clarity of the notes was lost, and all I was aware of was a great wash of magnificent sounds from an equally magnificent organ, the vibrations of which reached to my very marrow through the ancient wooden bench upon which I was seated.

It was then time to return to the hotel to liaise with the MRT tour group, and prepare for our first excursion – a walk though the old city centre with our guide, Dr Antonia Whitley, erudite art historian and lecturer at King’s College, London University.


La Scala

It was, as always, “interesting” to meet my fellow opera fans; some were most convivial, and others simply quaint. Predictably, such tours attract strange eccentric people, but I enjoyed the company of feisty elderly spinster, Betsy, who sang at La Scala some years ago in a sacred choral capacity (Verdi’s Requiem and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis), Serena and Michael from Suffolk, David and Ilse from Middlesex, and particularly the widely-travelled, opera-devoted Hungarian couple, Tibor and Judit, who had settled in Sydney (Australia) many decades ago.

Armed with loathsome but useful “Vox” radio-connected microphones, hung with lanyards around our necks, we set out for the Duomo, where an officious customer, noting our large group, tuned us away on the grounds that Evening Mass was about to commence. Antonia did, however, manage to negotiate a fifteen minute reprieve, during which we had a quick tour of the interior, noting various significant features. I was glad to be able to return a few days later, to enjoy a thorough tour of my own, unhampered by weekend human traffic, and lagging fellow tourists.


Rinascente chocolate shoes

Antonia then took us on a whirlwind tour of the “golden acre”, around Vias Andrea, Della Spiga, Gesu and Monte Napoleone, to capture a glimpse of the famous Italian designer boutiques:Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci, Carducci, La Senza, Prada, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Laura Biagiotti, Versace, along with the French designers, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Gaultier Givenchy, and so on.

I fell in love with a gorgeous blouse in the window of Dolce & Gabbana: a soft black silk creation patterned with white musical notes (♫), sporting long puffed sleeves and a high neck with a generous bow, but balked at the astronomical price. While there may still be a world-wide “recession” taking place, these stores are still managing to survive, with women seen emerging from their glass and polished brass portals with large wrapped packages under their slender arms.

But apart from the beautifully tailored garments gracing the boutique windows, our walk also took us past a number of elegant bakeries and delicatessens, in the windows of which were displays of gorgeously decorative, mouth-watering pastries, glazed fruits, nuts and sweetmeats, and marzipan fantasies in the shapes of fruits. Pasticceria Freni ( ) was one such store, stocking “Specialita’ Siciliane” – chocolate-coated orange rind, sugared fruits, marzipan delicacies, and succulent, flaky pastry creations topped with glazed nuts, cherries and angelica, all tastefully arranged in tiny paper cases or gold foil cups and boxes, and decorated with swathes of shiny satin ribbon. This confectionary is clearly a highly prized art form, that, along with the great Lombardy artists of the region, has been cultivated as a craft and delighted customers for centuries.

Marzipan_fruits   Rinascente_food_court

(Above left) Marzipan fruits, (Above right) Rinascente food court

And so my first impressions of Milan were of magnificent, ancient stone buildings, elegant fashions and delicacies, very slender girls and women “alluringly” dressed – many smoking, scooters and bicycles careening through the traffic, and church bells ringing out for evening Mass in the crisp, blue-skied air redolent with the Our next stop was Sant’Ambrogio, a Basilica built under the direction of Bishop Ambrose of Milan during his reorganisation of the early Christian Church, and consecrated by him in 387. He was later canonized, as a defender of Christianity against Arianism, was buried there, and became the patron saint of Milan. It is one of the most ancient churches in Milan, built from 379-386, in an area where numerous martyrs of the Roman persecutions had been buried.

The first name of the church was in fact Basilica Martyrum. The relics of two local martyrs were used, and Ambrose was buried next to them after his death in 397.

Cloister_of_the_Frogs_SantAmbrogioBishop Ambrose was also responsible for the organisation of the Christian liturgy, and, most significantly, the music of the early Christian church – which became the very basis of our Western art music. He is credited with having introduced hymnody from the Eastern Church to the West, and, under his direction, a system of plainchant which came to be known as Ambrosian Chant evolved – a style that preceded that developed by Pope Gregory two centuries later (Gregorian Chant). It is not known whether Ambrose or Gregory actually composed any music themselves, but they certainly initiated these styles, which are still used in Christian (specifically Catholic) church services to this day.

Like all plainchant, Ambrosian chant is monophonic (one melody line only), and a cappella (unaccompanied). In accordance with Roman Catholic tradition, it is primarily sung by males, and many Ambrosian chants specify who is to sing them, using phrases such as cum Pueris (by a boys’ choir) and a Subdiaconis (by the subdeacons).

After a self-selected salad lunch in a café opposite the hotel, we all set out on foot for the Brera, and its famous art gallery. The name for this lively, traditionally Bohemian quarter in Milan, populated by art students attending the Accademia di Belle Arti, comes from the Germanic word braida, which referred to a grassy field. It is a colourful area, with many cafés, restaurants, galleries, antique shops and night clubs. On certain Saturdays the narrow streets are lined with tables laden with colourful antique flea market-type wares, sifted through by throngs of eager bargain-hunters: old crockery, jewelry, books, pictures, clothes, shoes, accoutrements and ornaments.

Our main destination that afternoon was the Pinacoteca di Brera – a picture gallery containing masterpieces by leading Italian artists from the 13th to the 20th centuries. It is housed in a late 16th-early 17th century palace, constructed on the site of the 14th century Santa Maria di Brera Umiliati convent (Order of the Umiliati). It was subsequently taken over by the Jesuits, who made this into a wonderful cultural centre, establishing a prestigious school, the Brera library, the Astronomical Observatory, the Lombard Institute of Science and Art, and the Academy of Fine Arts – all supported by the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, who founded the Academy di Belle Arti after the Jesuit order was suppressed in 1773.

The majority of the collection – which was originally intended as study material for the students at the Academy – is comprised of paintings taken from churches during the Napoleonic period, and has since been further enriched through exchanges, donations and purchases. The Gallery acquired further stature in 1882, since which time it was separated from the Academy, and opened to the public.

Our guide, Dr. Whitely, gave us in depth analyses of eight pictures, before allowing us free reign of the Gallery.

I loved Caravaggio’s simple Caravaggio Supper at Emmaus (1606), with its stark lack of background decoration, or Francesco Hayez’s The Kiss (1859) – a patriotic and sentimental work epitomizing the optimism that prevailed after the Unification of Italy in 1860.

But the crowning glory of the Gallery was, for me, Raphael’s large altarpiece “The Betrothal (or Marriage) of the Virgin” (1504), a marvelous study in perspective, as well as of perfect, oval, serene faces. It depicts a marriage ceremony between Mary and Joseph, each of whom have five attendants. The story illustrated here is not Biblical, but relates to a legend which suggests that so many were Mary’s suitors that the High Priest ordained a test to determine who would find favour for her hand. Every eligible man in the Davidic line was given a dry rod to place on the altar, and he who’s rod flowered, would gain her hand in marriage. Joseph’s rod was the only one to flower. The young man in the foreground, breaking his dry rod over his knee, is postulated as being a portrait of Raphael himself, or possibly the man behind him, with the black cap.

I preferred to have supper on my own that evening, and so made my excuses to the group, muttering something about tiredness and room service. But instead I found myself happily wandering through the colourful streets around the cathedral area, window shopping, people watching, and idly looking for a simple steak. This I eventually found, in one of the ubiquitous Italian restaurant-coffee-shop-bars, aglitter with serried ranks of alcoholic beverages displayed before mirrored shelves, vast floral displays, and piles of confectionary and exotic chocolates.
Traditional Milanese fare is rich: risottos are flavoured with butter, onion, stock, wine, grated Parmesan and golden saffron. Even asparagus can be served topped with an egg and grated cheese. Filling minestre soups contain beef marrow, beans and pasta or rice – the latter a legacy from Spanish rule during the 16th century and the Spanish dish paella. Saffron, cultivated locally, is added for flavour and colour. Maize (corn) was introduced during the 18th century, and polenta soon became a staple food, and is today as popular as rice and pasta.

The Milanese are great meat eaters – pork, veal and game are very popular, and fish from the nearby lakes – Maggiore, Como and Garda. Pike, eel, carp, tench, shad, trout and sardines are plentiful, and are served poached, fried or grilled, or used in risottos, soups and patés, or as ravioli filling. Osso bucco appeared regularly on the menu in Milan: veal shanks braised very slowly in white wine.

Garda extra virgin olive oil, from local mills, capers, and delicious honey are other regional products found in Milanese cuisine. However, ever mindful of my recalcitrant midriff, I was able to get grilled steak, and simple tuna salads or chicken dishes.

This article was first published in

 – Read Part Two –

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