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Opening at La Scala shows life after Muti
Alan Riding
Herald Tribune 10/12/2005

For the first time in 19 years, the commanding gestures and flowing locks of Riccardo Muti did not stand between the audience and the stage at the gala opening of the Teatro Alla Scala's season on Wednesday. Indeed, after a staff revolt prompted his resignation in April as the legendary opera house's longtime music director, his fans predicted that La Scala would never be the same.
But the show went on. And after the traditional Dec. 7 opening, it was apparent that there is life after Muti at La Scala. The man who demonstrated this on the podium was a modest 30-year-old Englishman, Daniel Harding, who, even more than several fine singers in the cast, won a 12-minute ovation for his interpretation of Mozart's "Idomeneo."
Behind the scenes, credit was also owed to another man, Stephane Lissner, a 52-year-old Frenchman and the first foreigner to head La Scala since its creation 227 years ago. Since succeeding both Carlo Fontana as general manager and Mauro Meli as artistic director in May, he has not only restored calm, but also begun charting a new more modern and international course for the house.
But the season's opening is always a special occasion. It is held on the Day of St. Ambrose, Milan's patron saint, and draws all Milan in its finest apparel, with Italy's president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, in tie royal box this week. It is also a traditional opportunity for protests by La Scala's workers or by anyone who wants to draw attention by demonstrating in front of the theater.
This year, with mounted police officers assigned to keep order, one group was objecting to a new Alpine railroad and another was complaining about cuts in cultural subsidies by Silvio Berlusconi's government. Inside La Scala, however, Lissner seemed more concerned with the audience and critical response to "Idomeneo."
"For the first time in 20 years, there is not a threat of a strike at La Scala on Dec. 7," he said in an interview. "Relations with the unions are good. We have worked nonstop to resolve accumulated problems."
That Harding had passed the test was already apparent at the intermission, when orchestra members could be heard drumming their feet with approvaL At the final curtain, his success was sealed. The headline Thursday in the Italian daily La Repub-blica read, "Harding, the Boy Maestro, Opens the Era for the New Scala." And in Corriere della Sera, the headline was, "Harding Conquers La Scala."
Still, if Lissner took a risk by recruiting Harding, it was not the first time he has done so. When Harding.was just 22, Lissner named him to alternate with Claudio Abbado in conducting Mozart's "Don Giovanni" at the Aix-en-Provence festival in France. Lissner, who steps down as director of that festival next year, has since included Harding in his "family." When Lissner arrived here in May, with the 2005-06 season built around Muti, he called on this family the directors and conductors he has long worked with to help him out. Luc Bondy, a frequent associate, was named to direct this "Idomeneo." Other friends, like the conductors Riccardo Chailly, Daniel Barenboim, John Eliot Gardiner and Jeffrey Tate, will also lead La Scala's orchestra this season.
This approach also suits Lissner's decision not to name a new music director immediately. Rather, over the next two or three seasons, he said, he wants the orchestra to "get to know" various conductors, and vice versa, before he appoints a successor to Muti. Lissner's contract expires in 2009, but he does not disguise his desire to stay here longer.
For "Idomeneo," networking also resulted in acclaim for two relatively unknown singers: Steve Davislim, a young Vienna-based Australian tenor, who sang Idomeneo, was recommended by Gardiner; and Emma Bell, a British soprano, who sang Elettra, was suggested by Harding. In the opera's other two key roles, Monica Bacelli was Idamante and Camilla Tilling was Ilia. Even the choice of the work was fortuitous. Muti was to have conducted Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte." But Lissner said, "Daniel Harding felt that out of respect for Riccardo Mutij we should do something else, and 'Idomeneo' hadn't been done here in 15 years." Muti, who did not attend the opening, will conduct five performances of Mozart's "Nozze di Figaro" at the Vienna State Opera starting Saturday.
What has not changed here is the plan to highlight Mozart in 2006, the 250th anniversary of his birth. Along with "Idomeneo," generally considered Mozart's first mature opera, La Scala will present "Don Giovanni," "Le Nozze di Figaro" and "Ascanio in Alba," which the teenage Mozart wrote for Milan in 1771.
Bondy's somewhat dour production of "Idomeneo," with 1930s refugees moving against a tsunami backdrop, prompted a few heckles from a Scala audience more accustomed to lush staging. But with its succession of long arias, this opera leans heavily on its singers. Davislim was singled out for his voice and presence, while Bell thrilled the house with Elettra's final aria of despair as she realizes she has lost her beloved Idamante.
"La Scala is, above all the singers," Lissner noted.
So, he was asked, does he feel trapped by tradition here?
"La Scala is a theater like no other," he said, "its history, its public, the people who work here. But I don't feel this tradition as a burden. It's very positive. This has been a great discovery for me. It's a meeting between me and a great theater."


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