opening night at la scala

Yesterday was Saint Ambrose’s Day. Oops, miss it again?

If you lived in Milan the occasion would be second nature, a fact of life in the Lombard capital. December 7th is the traditional feast day for St. Ambrose, the city’s patron saint. For that very reason no matter what day of the week December 7th turns out to be, it’s also traditionally opening night at La Scala Opera Theatre.

As I stripped off my down coat and wool scarf to settle in for yesterday’s live HD presentation at Burlington’s Roxy Theatre (Noon in Vermont, 6pm local time) I couldn’t help but notice the contrast in the two audiences. Ours: casual, dressed for warmth in boots and gloves on the day of the season’s first real snowstorm. Milano: spaghetti straps, open-back dresses, Armani, Armani, Armani. Strictly the “rattle your jewels” echelon of opera patrons; a glimmering audience befitting one of Europe’s foremost cultural events.

Yet there we all were. In Burlington, Vermont and in Milan, Italy – half the world apart and gathered together at the same moment for the purpose of sharing a special musical experience.

Accessibility and affordability (relatively speaking) are the hallmarks of the new HD opera presentations, now in their fourth year. I’ve been fortunate to see a few productions in that time, yet for all the reasons I know I should enjoy them I can’t say I have. Not completely. At least, not until yesterday.

I think what it comes down to are the decisions that are made with the camera work. Too many times has the screen been enthralled with the wet, freshly polished details of the tenor’s (2-foot tall) left molar…while another character makes an important singing entrance that the cameras miss completely. I recall my first time having that experience, in the Metropolitan Opera’s HD presentation of Hansel und Gretel a couple of years ago. In the opera’s fantasy “banquet scene”, the camera lingered sumptuously on the multitude of cakes, pies, tarts…and the next thing you know there’s…a  human-sized FISH on stage, dressed as a waiter, carrying a tray and walking around. Wait a sec, where did that come from? Oh, the trapdoor stage left. While the camera was drooling over the pastries, a completely new character was introduced to the scene and is now strolling around center stage. ARGH.

In the subsequent live HD Metropolitan Opera productions I’ve seen, I keep thinking that for this format to be meaningful there must be some balance achieved between preserving the full-stage opera experience, and selectively using the flexibility of camera technology for the closeups, pans, crossfades, etc. to offer the insight that even a live experience in person can’t provide.

Yesterday’s presentation from La Scala happily found that balance. It was great!

This one had none of the Met Opera’s trademark intermission features, backstage interviews, or insightful vignettes: when the intermission lights went up at La Scala and the patrons began to stand up and mill around, so did Burlington’s audience. That was it. And, after a half hour, the lights dimmed, Daniel Barenboim resumed his seated helm in the La Scala pit, and the story continued. Just like it would in a live experience. I enjoy the inventiveness and spontanaeity of the Met’s intermission features, but for an alternative, true-to-life opera experience, La Scala’s HD presentation was it.

La Scala’s opening night production was George Bizet’s timeless Carmen, with German tenor Jonas Kaufmann (who stole the show as the heart-broken, love-crazed soldier, Don José), Uruguayan baritone Erwin Schrott (as Carmen’s bullfighter/lover Escamillo), and the dark, firey Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili in the title role as the reckless free-spirited Gypsy girl. Terrific portrayals by all three of the leads.

The Roxy’s next live HD opera presentation is La Scala’s new production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, at 12:30 this Sunday afternoon (with an encore next Thursday evening at 6pm). Recommend it? Oh yes, I can. Just another grand afternoon “at” La Scala.

But go ahead and wear your earmuffs and mittens into the theatre if you want, no one will think twice about it: it’s December, and this is Vermont!

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