No other opera event in the world can possibly generate the public excitement of La Scala’s annual season-opener. It is not only the feast day of Milan’s patron saint and the social event of the year on the Italian calendar, it is also an act of participatory public theatre. Protesters, police, onlookers, press, politicians, celebrities, bankers and socialites all passionately play their appointed parts. What happens at La Scala on December 7 is both game and fight, a projection screen for the state of the nation.
With ticket prices up to €2,400, the event boasts a plush exclusivity that is almost as far removed from the everyday world of opera-going as a trip into space. There are officials with plumed helmets, there are jostling crowds of screaming camera crews, and the glossy programme books are so hefty that they could be used as murder weapons.
It is hard to imagine how an evening of opera – even one of Wagnerian length – could be worth the price of a second-hand car. But in any case, there is a reasonable expectation that whatever is offered will be more or less as good as it gets.
Last Friday at La Scala, it really was. Controversies over the choice of repertoire were well founded – this is the third Wagnerian season-opener in six years at La Scala, which has everything to do with Daniel Barenboim’s ability to call the shots, as well with the imperatives of international co-productions. But the Scala audience can be forgiving, especially for a Lohengrin of this calibre. Intendant Stéphane Lissner’s appointment of Claus Guth and his team reads like a summation of all he has done in the past seven years to win over the Milanese audience for opera stagings that are complex, profound, and well-made – a very far cry from the stand-and-deliver style of the Muti era.
What makes a world-class cast for Lohengrin today? Jonas Kaufmann in the title role seems a no-brainer – not even those who quibble over the lieder-singer ease with which he navigates the role’s manifold difficulties could have failed to be entranced by the ethereal beauty of his upper register, the seductive warmth of his chest voice, his magnetic charisma and musical acumen. René Pape as Heinrich is authoritative yet ambivalent; Evelyn Herlitzius makes an intense, damaged, vulnerable Ortrud, Tómas Tómasson delivers a Telramund of arresting sensitivity, more wounded pride than evil rage. But the undoubted star of the evening was Annette Dasch, leaping in at slightly less than 24 hours’ notice for the ailing Anja Harteros.
Guth’s production is a bleak, meticulous examination of Bismarck-era militarism and its emotional consequences. Elsa and Gottfried are children of a system so ruthlessly strict that both retreat into an inner world of fantasy, dissociation and hysteria. This is a society where madness is regarded with dawning scientific curiosity but treated with barbarity, and Christian Schmidt’s set is a masterpiece of Gothic associations, from the mad-house to the false promise of freedom on a reed-fringed shore.
Dasch’s performance in this context is a breathtaking feat of improvisation, guts and professionalism; she moves as though the production had been conceived around her, and sings with unerring accuracy and unfettered fervour.
Lohengrin is Barenboim’s party piece, from the ethereal delicacy of the overture to the marshal thunder of Heinrich’s army, and the Scala orchestra plays for him as if it were born to it. If it has to be Barenboim, it may as well be Wagner.