The feast day of Milan’s patron, Saint Ambrose, falls on December 7. It is also the annual opening night of the city’s venerated La Scala theater. Every year La Scala celebrates the occasion with a new production – this year it was Puccini’s Tosca with the superstar Anna Netrebko in the title role—for an audience of the international great, good, and not-so-good willing to pay up to €3,000 for the privilege of attending. Preening actresses, captains of industry, titans of fashion, royals, aristos, and the paparazzi who document them for glossy magazines crowd into the annual cultural event, which always sells out and always hums with energy. The favored few continue the party afterward at one of Milan’s historic gentlemen’s clubs, the Società del Giardino, where a deluge of champagne precedes a gala dinner with the performers and creative team. As an “Omaggio a Cavaradossi,” the opera’s ill-fated tenor lead who is bloodily tortured and finally shot by a firing squad, this year’s menu sardonically featured a gorgonzola risotto drizzled with lines of red turnips.
At one point in second act, Tosca’s villain, the sadistic Old Regime police chief Baron Scarpia, mocks the singer Tosca for her real-life dramatics over the fate of her politically suspect lover Cavaradossi (a “Voltairean,” among other things), declaring that she has never acted so well on stage. La Scala openings are rarely immune from the dramatic intrusions of Italy’s turbulent political life, with annual demonstrations by anti-globalist leftists challenging the sensibilities of their betters across the piazza. This year’s demonstration was surprisingly muted, given the raging protests that are rocking regimes from Beirut to Bolivia. Milan’s local police and the paramilitary carabinieri easily outnumbered its few participants, while the well-heeled crowd inside the theater showered Italy’s centrist president, Sergio Mattarella, with more than five minutes of sustained applause for his deft handling of the country’s divisive politics and attendant crises.
La Scala’s music director, Riccardo Chailly, has indulged in what Italian critics have called “a personal Puccini Renaissance” revolving around an excavation of the composer’s original scores, presented as they were before being revised into the versions we know and love today. This curatorial approach raises the question of whether artistic mistakes recognized and corrected by an artist truly deserve our attention. Chailly’s earlier treatments of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Manon Lescaut proved interesting and well cast, but were not exactly crowd-pleasing favorites.
Tosca, which premiered in Rome (where it is set) in 1900 and has never before opened a La Scala season, is not all that different in its original version. The divergent material neither adds nor detracts much from the Tosca we know. The first-act duet, for example, includes a couple of extra lines for Cavaradossi to assuage Tosca’s jealousy, though they leave the impression that he attaches more importance to it than he really should. In the original score, Tosca’s famous second-act aria “Vissi d’arte,” a meditation on the injustice of her pain and suffering, has an anti-climactic coda in which Scarpia crudely asks her whether she has yet made up her mind to yield to his lust to save the imprisoned Cavaradossi’s life. After she deceptively assents and then stabs the police chief, a minute or so of music suggests superfluous reflection on the deed before she finally muses that all Rome had trembled before him. The opera’s original finale moves the loud and devastatingly ironic strains of the love motif that normally end the opera to the moment right after Cavaradossi’s execution, which is followed by a slightly different orchestration of the rest of the scene, culminating in Tosca’s suicidal leap from the walls of the Castel Sant’Angelo.
Anna Netrebko’s move into Puccini’s heavier soprano roles has not been universally well received, and her first Toscas were mixed successes. Here, however, she showed an uncanny command of the role’s vocal demands with a splendid middle range and riveting high notes. “Vissi d’arte” stood out as a model of Golden Age–quality singing. Netrebko also captured the role’s almost hysterical jealousy, which other performers tend to submerge under the character’s more attractive mixture of pathos and saccharine goodness. The sunny-voiced tenor Francesco Meli sounded underpowered in the opera’s first two acts, and some high notes were noticeably strained, but his lighter lyrical talents were well suited to Act III’s intimacy, especially in Cavaradossi’s bittersweet aria of memory and lost hope, “E lucevan le stelle.” The role of Scarpia demands moments of aristocratic charm to balance his psychopathic ruthlessness, but the baritone Luca Salsi’s coolly collected malevolence allowed for little refinement. As conductor, Chailly navigated the score and its odd additions with aplomb in a performance that sometimes seemed a bit lost in the weight of the plot.
The director Davide Livermore staged Verdi’s Attila here last season in a production with fascist overtones that meditated on Italy’s complicated role in World War II. His new Tosca has delivered Milan’s audience from the late Luc Bondy’s despised production of the opera, which La Scala had the misfortunate of sharing with the Metropolitan Opera, where it was also swiftly replaced. The first-act sets for the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle slide around the stage to offer different perspectives and highlight the religious service in preparation for the Te Deum finale. The effect might have been cinematic, but it tended to draw attention away from the action. Scarpia’s headquarters resembled the Farnese Palace of other traditional productions but curiously looked in on the action from the side rather than the front. The stage elevator raised the floor to allow a distracting visual of Cavaradossi’s torture beneath, which is typically left offstage to focus attention on Tosca and Scarpia’s more compelling drama. In Act III, the set design wrapped the Castel Sant’Angelo in the wings of the angel whose statue rests atop it, but the stage elevator came to the rescue and restored the dual representation of Cavaradossi’s jail—here a prison cell he shares with thieves and prostitutes—and the parapet where he is executed and from which Tosca jumps. While Bondy’s hapless production staged Tosca’s suicide as the beginnings of a simple leap, Livermore suspended a stunt double illuminated by spotlights to create the illusion of Tosca’s body falling through space. The music stops before the descending soprano hits bottom, but the fade out was probably more tasteful than a splat or splash.
La Scala’s general director Alexander Pereira has attracted some controversy during his five-year tenure, and this was his last opening night with the company. The remaining 2019–20 season, however, is one of the more interesting in recent years and includes a selection of old chestnuts and appealing rarities. Refreshingly, and without the faintest hint of controversy, the season’s healthy concert program will include a December 15 gala to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the legendary tenor, baritone, conductor, and administrator Plácido Domingo’s La Scala debut. In a healthy reminder that outside of North America “#MeToo” is best translated as “#SoWhat,” there is no sign of outrage or even “concern,” but only puzzlement over his cancelation from the classical music world in the same hemisphere that gave the world the Salem witch trials and Joseph McCarthy.