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 Two –

Monday was dedicated to La Scala – one of the most famous opera houses in the world – and the main reason I had embarked upon this short tour.

La Scala derives its name from a church called Santa Maria della Scala that once stood in that location, built in 1381 for Bernabó Visconti’s wife, Regina della Scala. 

The building suffered much bomb damage in 1943, and was rebuilt 3 years later. Further extensive renovations were executed more recently, including a stage tower designed by Mario Botta. It was reopened on the 7th December 2004 – the traditional opening night for all new opera seasons, as it is the feast day of St’Ambrogio – with a production, conducted by Riccardo Muti, of Salieri’s Europa riconosciuta – the opera that was performed at La Scala’s inauguration in 1778. Tickets for the re-opening cost up to €2,000!

We began with a wonderful private tour of the opera house itself, in the foyer – a large mirror-lined space resplendent with marble flooring, glittering chandeliers, busts of famous opera composers, and fluted Corinthian columns with gilded acanthus capitals. 

Our enthusiastic young guide allowed us a glimpse into the auditorium, which has a seating capacity of 2,015 people. Technicians were busy preparing the vast, 1,200 square meter stage – one of the largest in Italy – for that night’s performance of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier – the highlight of our tour.

Our guide also showed us into a number of private boxes – one in which seventeen layers of paint had been removed, revealing the original, pale blue and gold colour scheme (incongruent with the red-and-gold of the house today) which has now been retained, the Royal Box with its magnificent Rococo ceiling, ornate with plump cherubs and mythological characters, and another with its own tiny fireplace. These small private spaces were like miniature salons, in which parlour games and romantic trysts were arranged.

La_Scala_interior   Curtain_call_for_Anna_Schwanewilms   La_Scala_foyer

Conditions in the auditorium, too, could be frustrating for the opera lover, as Mary Shelley discovered in September 1840: “At the Opera they were giving the Templario. Unfortunately, as is well known, the theatre of La Scala serves not only as the universal drawing-room for all the society of Milan, but every sort of trading transaction, from horse-dealing to stock-jobbing, is carried on in the pit; so that brief and far between are the snatches of melody one can catch.” The circular ceiling, which appears to be of carved, ornamental plaster, is tromp l’oeil – in reality completely flat, with designs painted on its surface. In the centre is the most magnificent chandelier of Bohemian crystal, resplendent with 383 light bulbs.

La Scala Theatre Museum, accessible from the theatre’s foyer and part of the opera house complex, contains a collection of paintings, drafts, sculptures, costumes, and other documents regarding the history of La Scala, and opera in general. Most fascinating for me were the numerous ancient keyboard instruments: harpsichords, spinets, and “table pianos”.

It was then time to hasten back to a small conference room at our hotel, where the German prima donna (lead soprano), Anne Schwanewilms, gave us a talk about her work as an opera singer, and her role in Der Rosenkavalier. 

She spoke at length about Herbert Wernicke, a renowned stage director and designer, who used for his interpretation – evidently with Richard Strauss’s blessing – a series of vast moving mirrors, intended to act as a “duplicator” or “multiplier”, reflecting back upon the audience, highlighting various aspects of the drama, creating “double meanings”, and forcing both the audience and the characters on stage to “confront their issues”.

She told us of her extensive background reading and research for this role, including reading the many letters written between Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsdal – his librettist.

Anne’s favourite roles are this – the Marschallin in Rosenkavalier, particularly for the long, soft low notes – her particular speciality (“for which I have much air”), Elsa in Lohengrin, Elizabeth in TannhauserArabella in Arabella, and the Countess inCapriccio, as well as recital singing – such wonderful masterworks as Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Strauss, always Strauss!” (pronounced with a guttural ”r”) she declared enthusiastically, acknowledging this Post-Romantic composer’s passion for the soprano voice, due mostly to that of his wife.

The afternoon was spent in another wonderful gallery: the Museo Poldi Pezzoli,formerly a private museum established by the nobleman Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli, and opened to the public in 1881. The building is a late 19th century aristocratic Milanese residence, and contains a fine collection of sculpture, rugs, armour, glass, watches, textiles, and paintings by famous Lombardi artists such as Luini, Bergognone, and the “Leonadesque” painters such as Cristofori Moretti and Vincenzo Foppa.

Again Antonia drew our attention to a few works therein, particularly Botticelli’s The Dead Christ Mourned (Pietá) (1495) – a busy, dynamic work, darker coloured than his famous “Birth of Venus” or “Spring”, and featuring Joseph of Aramethea and the Three grief-stricken Maries. Andrea Mantegna’s age-damaged  Portrait of a Man” (1506) is remarkably realistic, showing the man’s stubble. There are also Lucas Cranach’s portraits of Martin Luther and his wife, and works by Piero della Francesca – St. Nicholas of Tolentino”, Tiepolo, and Lotto Giovanni Bellini. Moroni’s The Black Knight” is almost monochrome – a “symphony in blacks”.

I then returned, alone, to Santa Maria presso San Satiro, a smaller church from which we had been turned away on Saturday night, due to consecutive evening Mass services.

The original nucleus of this church was founded in 876 by Archbishop Ansperto da Biassono, of which all that now remains is the Lombard Romanesque bell tower, and the Sacello della Pietá (Chapel of Pity), altered by Bramante in the 15th century.

In 1478 Bramante was asked to rebuild the church in order to salvage a 13th century fresco that was said to have miraculous powers. He set it on the high altar, and solved the problem of the lack of space by creating a marvelous trompe ‘oeil apse which is only 97 cm deep, but looks much deeper. At last it was time to re-enter the sacred portals of La Scala, to which we all walked, since it was not far from our hotel, and a pleasantly mild evening.

Unfortunately this production was a disappointment for a number of reasons.

The opening string passages were ragged (La Scala Orchestra), and MRT had booked us terrible seats, a few rows from the front, which resulted in the orchestra being submerged from view. It was also far too large for the Mozartian concept Strauss had intended emulating. The singers, Anne in particular, had to sing across the wall of sound produced by the orchestra, rendering her inaudible half the time. We could hear her voice weaving erratically through this great wash of sound, fading in and out in a most frustrating manner. Her dress, too was an unwise colour – the same unattractive maroon as the immense bed which occupied most of the front stage, and upon which she and Octavian had been making merry before the curtain rose. She was thus rendered not only aurally lost, but visually lost as well.

Perhaps the new stage was too vast for the singers, though Joyce DiDonato, as Octavian, carried far better. I had the great fortune to see her in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos at Covent Garden in April 2005, and was greatly impressed by this American mezzo’s energetic and vibrant performance.

The vast mirror sets were not impressive at all, for instead of moving smoothly from side to side, they wobbled unsteadily into place for each new scene, giving the impression of imperfect stage technology, and reflecting members of the orchestra and the audience (Wernicke’s intention), as well as bright stage lights from the back of the house, which shone into our eyes. They were also at odds with the quasi-Rococo décor of the interiors.

The mixture of periods represented in the characters’ costumes was also unsuccessful: footmen wore authentic, 18th century attire, but the Marschallin’s dress dated from the 1930’s; Herr Faninal wore an outfit like a Prohibition hoodlum – with spats, and Baron Ochs and his henchmen wore comic Tyrolean costumes, complete with little feathered hats, and braces.

The manner in which the singers faced the audience for their longer routines was disturbing, instead of their facing, and engaging with, each other. This made the performance resemble a recital, rather than a convincing opera scenario.

But there were some ravishing moments: the Marschallin’s aria “Kann mich auch an ein Mädel erinnern” (“I too can remember a young girl”), the duet when Octavian meets Sophie (Jane Archibald – “I need a husband before I can be anything”), and the famous female trio, Hab’ mir’s gelobt” (“I promised”), sung by the Marschallin, who is then joined by Sophie and Octavian.

This “comedy for music” (Strauss’s words) combines elements of intrigue, farce and satire, as well as truly touching pathos. It is an opera about time and the passage of time – or aging – hence the musical memento mori. The Marschallin laments her advancing years (at 35 she is already “past it”), and tries to stop all the clocks in the palace. This reminded me of WH Auden’s poem “Stop the clocks, cut off the telephone”.  One member of our group suggested that the mixture of periods represented in the costumes were meant to signify that the passing of time, and aging, are not period-specific, but universal – bedeviling each age. I wasn’t convinced.

The waltz themes that pervade the opera are delightful, reminiscent of those of Johann Struass II (no relation), and I enjoyed other “Straussian signatures” in this work – which is by no means my favourite opera – extensive use of the French horns, delicate, very high passage-work in the violins, lush orchestration, and piquant, but bearable dissonances and bitonality.

I always admire opera singers who can memorise vast tracts of music in these “through-composed” works – music in which there are no discernible breaks, or set “numbers”, the music seeming to flow without cessation. Wagner favoured this “through-composed” style.

This was Tibor and Judit’s (my Hungarian acquaintances) third Rosenkavalier – a more tasteful, truly Rococo rendition in Vienna, with Agnes Baltsa in the leading role, having been their favourite thus far.

Apart from the disappointing performance and seats, it was nonetheless a wonderful experience, and a privilege, to at last fulfill my longing to attend an opera in this beautiful and venerable old house.

The last morning of the MRT tour was spent enjoying a guided tour of the Scalo Ansaldo – the La Scala Workshop, a massive converted warehouse where we were shown, from walkways high above ground-level, various aspects of opera production: vast pieces on scenery, attached to wooden frames, lay on the floors in various stages of completion, piles of polystyrene “rocks” were being carved and shaped with electric handsaws, and spray-painted. We were also taken to the costume department, where hundreds of beautiful costumes are stored in plastic sheaths in numbered, glass-fronted wardrobes, and to the studios where hats and costume jewelry are made.

Literally hundreds of people are employed to create the marvelous accoutrements for this popular art form, and I was struck by the massive industry which is opera – both in England and in Italy, and of course elsewhere in the world. Escaping into the fantasy world of fictional characters, the talented artists and musicians involved, and the tremendous amount of administration involved that necessitates a successful production, are clearly as popular today as they were when first conceived during the late 15th century – and are still as costly to mount, and usually supported by the State.

After bidding my new acquaintances farewell – they were then bound for the airport – I made my way slowly back to the old centre of the city, enjoying a wander through the precincts of the Castello Sforza Museum complex – a vast collection of many museums. (I had booked an extra day in Milan, never having been there before).

This awe-inspiring complex boasts seven centuries of history, and bears witness to the glorious periods and dramatic moments in the history of Milan. Galazzeo Il Visconti began work on this fortress in 1368, and it was completed by his successors, one of whom converted it into a magnificent ducal palace. Francesco Sforza, when he became Duke  in 1450, and his son Lodovico il Moro, made it one of the most magnificent courts in Renaissance Italy, decorated by, amongst others, Bramante and Leonardo da Vinci.

Under Spanish and Austrian domination, the Castello gradually declined, as it was converted to its original military function. It was saved from demolition by the architect Luca Beltrami, who from 1893 to 1904 restored it, and converted it into a museum centre.

My route back to the hotel took me along the Via Dante, a delightful pedestrianised boulevard of marvellous shops and boutiques, linking the Castello Sforzesco and Piazza Cordusio. Tourists could be seen strolling along this avenue, enjoying lunch and a cappuccino at one of the many side walk cafés. Here I had a tuna salad lunch, taking time to watch the Italian autumn fashions, and marvelling at the slenderness and panache of the Milanese women.

I enjoyed drifting through the various floors of the marvellous La Rinascente department store, near the Piazza di Duomo, displaying everything from perfumes and cosmetics and high fashion and shoes to designer lingerie, interior furnishings and decoration, menswear, children’s clothes, and baby wear.

I then made my way to the top floor restaurant of Rinascente, and fortified myself with some delicious  “Meditation tea in a flower”, with a strange aroma, and delicate, spicy flavour. On this top level is a glorious emporium of Italian delicacies, reminiscent of Harrods food court, but on a smaller scale. There are shelves of overpriced but fabulous Italian delicacies – which also make wonderful gifts, and just across the hall there is “Esperya” – a  mouthwatering selection of Italian cheeses(Grana Padano, Gorgonzola, Fontina, Bel Paese, Mascapone and Taleggio), cured meats, and mixed platters of delicatessen fare.

I marvelled at the shelves laden with delicious items: panettone, refined oils and vinegars, truffles of many varieties, chef’s speciality pasta, jams and preserves, ”designer” mineral waters, and a wide selection of wines. For the sweet tooth there are exquisite chocolates, nougat, and creations with nuts, caramel, chocolate and cherries, such as various panefortes with different ingredients. I loved the displays of life-size chocolate shoes, small handbags and hearts, and piles of marzipan treats in the shapes of fruits, biscuits and cookies, and glazed fruits.

La Rinascente has several restaurants on the top floor, and it is a fun place to see wonderful views of the upper levels of the Duomo – with its over one thousand statues and spires – and to people watch. The food there is fresh and delicious, offering, amongst other things, salads (caprese, chicken ceasar) and lasagna, and the service is reasonably quick, and courteous. There is much catering to the tourist trade there, as well as the local Milanese.

To quote the store’s ”Company Sheet”: A floor dedicated to taste, rendered unique by windows which give an ideal view of the Cathedral. The ideal place to spend your time, from breakfast until after dinner. Here, you can choose between the My Sushi sushi bar, the Vineria YN, the mozzarella bar Obikà, the historic sandwich bar De Santis, the restaurant Maio, the Juice Bar, the cold Italian meats and cheeses corner Esperya, the Lounge Bar and a food market with an abundance of high quality Made in Italy and international gourmet products. The perfect place for anyone who prizes refinement and originality, even at the table.

I then made my way to the Palazzo Reale, and another exhibition, dedicated to the monumental works of a woman artist by whom I have been fascinated for years, and whom I admire tremendously: Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1652). She was aBaroque painter, today considered one of the most accomplished painters in the generation influenced by Caravaggio (one of the “Caravaggisti”). In an era when women painters were not readily accepted by the artistic community, she was the first female painter to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. She painted a number of pictures of strong and suffering women from mythology – victims, suicides, warriors – and made a speciality of the Judith story. Her most famous painting, “Judith Beheading Holofernes” (1614-20)  shows the decapitation of Holofernes (after Judith had seduced him, and inebriated him with wine), a scene of horrific struggle and blood-letting.

Supper that night was a simple meal in one of the numerous café-restaurants in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II: chicken poached in lemon and olive oil, with roasted vegetables – a simple but delicious combination of aubergines,  red peppers, and thin peelings of zucchini. I was amused by a French couple nearby, who engaged in a lively conversation with a pair of young Chinese tourists in Europe for their honeymoon, while a taciturn young fellow next to me wolfed down an enormous pizza.

My last morning was spent making my own, unhurried tour of the interior of the Duomo – our earlier attempt as a group having been far too short. The first level of the western façade is Baroque, but was only completed during the 19th century, with Neo-Gothic ogival windows and spires.

As rain threatened, the sunny weather of the previous four days having come to a dreary end, I escaped to the glories of the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana – a gallery established in 1618 by Cardinal Federico Borromeo, the cousin of San Carlo, and his successor placed in charge of the archdiocese of Milan. Borromeo planned the gallery as part of a vast cultural project which included the Ambrosiana Library, opened in 1609, and the Accademia del Disegno (1620) for the training of young Counter-Reformation artists. The initial collection, intended to inspire emerging artists, contained some 172 paintings, some of which belonged to Borromeo, and others were purchased later, after extensive research by the Cardinal.

I again loaned an audio guide – which was not as good as those in the London art galleries, but sufficed – and sought out the highlights. Of musicological interest to me was a wood panel painting by Leonardo (the only one in this medium in Milan) ofA Musician, thought by some to be the first “genius” in music history, Josquin des Prés. However, judging the subject’s swarthy complexion, and Latin good looks, he is more likely to have been Franchino Gaffurio, the court composer of the Sforzas, and choirmaster at the Cathedral. (Des Prés was Franco-Flemish, and more likely fair-complexioned).

Then there was the Basket of Fruit (1594) by Caravaggio, an incredibly realistic work, and most likely one of the first pictures in the still life genre. The fruit evidently alludes to the symbolism of the Passion of Christ, and includes both fresh, and worm-eaten fruit, with crinkled, dead leaves, symbolic of the transience of life. Botticelli’s Madonna del Padiglione has been greatly restored, revealing the Master’s brilliant colours and elegant brushwork. I also loved Ghirlandaio’s Adoration of the Child and Bernardino Luini’s Holy Family with St. Anne and the young St. John the Baptist.

The Biblioteca Ambrosiana has over a million books, some of which are incunabula, others manuscripts, as well as Arab, Syrian, Greek and Latin texts. There are also over a thousand pages of Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus, which was removed to Paris by Napoleon in 1796 and only partly returned in 1815. The entire work is now back in Milan. It consists of 1,119 folios, which have been subjected to the delicate task of being unbound, and carefully mounted individually, so that they may be best preserved, and the Codex seen in its entirety. It is the largest collection of the Master’s drawings, and includes maps, diagrams, and mathematical workings, and will be displayed to the public at this library, and in the Sacrestia del Bramante in Sant Maria delle Grazie through a series of 24 exhibitions.

Cardinal Borromeo wanted the library to have a multicultural orientation, as he believed that books belonging to cultures and faiths other than Christianity can “give us several benefits and make us become knowledgeable about many beautiful things and are very beneficial”. A perspicacious thinker indeed.

It was then time to retrieve my suitcase from the hotel, and take a cab to the Stazione Nord at Cadorna metro station, and the Malpensa Express for Milan’s other airport, set further out from the city centre, Malpensa. This was a disappointing exit from a beautiful city, with only a noisy cafeteria for a barely adequate supper, a few expensive designer boutiques, and the usual “duty-free” chocolates, alcohol, cosmetics, perfumes and souvenirs.

But I will never forget my first night at La Scala – which I hope to be the first of more such evenings, enjoying the glamour and glitter of opulent crimson-and-gilt décor and crystal chandeliers – the marvellous art works, the magnificent cathedral, the elegant boutiques, and mouthwatering delicacies so beautifully and enticingly displayed in the windows. I shall also remember the courtesy of the Milanese gentlemen – and the fashionable women, the ornate old churches, and the fascinating, decorative history of this city, so rich in flavours, sights, scents and sounds.

This article was first published in


– Read Part One –

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