As the curtain opens on the second act of Don Pasquale, I hear a rustle of discomfort. Donizetti’s opera has not been seen at La Scala since 1994. Its restoration, on the orders of a new music director, sets off a critical flutter and Davide Livermore’s new production, set in the Cinecittà film studio during the 1950s dolce vita, seems designed to tweak the Roman nose of national vanity.
Italy is supposed to be a serious country these days, burying buffoonery and hedonism among the Coliseum ruins. Even Silvio Berlusconi is seen as an archaeological relic, not to be disturbed. So Riccardo Chailly’s embrace of opera buffa in his first full season as music director provokes the kind of disquiet that we might feel if Covent Garden reinstated Gilbert and Sullivan.
In a state with more governments in half a century than I’ve owned overcoats, La Scala has long been a beacon of stability — only three music directors since Claudio Abbado’s appointment in 1968, each struggling to balance national heritage against much-needed renewal. Abbado, the most radical, put on cut-price shows for factory workers, engaged the innovative Giorgio Strehler and premièred complex modernisms by Dallapiccola, Nono and Stockhausen.
His successor, Riccardo Muti, focused on restoring the composer’s cut, culminating in a Rossini William Tell that lasted nearly six hours. After Muti quit in a 2005 staff revolt, there was a decade’s interregnum in which Daniel Barenboim took the baton for a bit. Chailly’s arrival last year was greeted with internal relief, the return of a maestro who has known the place inside out since he was a kid in short pants, who became Abbado’s assistant when he was just 18. Now 65, he has headed the orchestras of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and Leipzig’s Gewandhaus, but La Scala was always a life’s mission he was never going to shirk.
When he accepted the chalice, Chailly told me: ‘Italian opera is not just Verdi and Puccini. There are great composers that have been left untouched. We must bring them back.’ Now, when I challenge him on Don Pasquale, he cries, ‘But it’s a masterpiece! Look at it again. It can be a perfect opera. The music sparkles. The humour is fresh from the market.’ There is a personal attachment. Forty years ago, Chailly made his Covent Garden debut in this opera with Geraint Evans in the title role. ‘He knew the style. He was magnificent.’ Can this international conductor sell cornettos back to Italy?
Not many operas are cornier. A rich old fool is tricked into marrying his nephew’s frisky girlfriend… need I go on? The story needs a reboot. Transplanted to Cinecittà, it becomes a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? round on Fellini, Antonioni, Rossellini, De Sica and the rest. I counted two bicycle thieves in the second act, La Dolce Vita’s lone trumpet, a lesser-known movie by Monticello and — eat your hearts out, car buffs — the yellow Lancia Aurelia B24 that is driven by Vittorio Gassman in Dino Risi’s Il sorpasso (OK, I had to phone a friend for that one). This is not so much opera buffa as a three-course buffet of film nostalgia served up on a bed of instrumental extravagance.
Chailly’s orchestra has the two best solo cellos on earth and a woodwind section that sopranos are queuing up to die for. International awards are rolling in. A casual swagger has returned to the playing, the kind that pit orchestras don’t often get to express. The Don Pasquale cast — Ambrogio Maestri, Rosa Feola, Mattia Olivieri — is not the usual set of international interchangeables but Italians trained in commedia dell’arte who can turn on the world-weariness of Marcello Mastroianni, the false innocence of Sophia Loren. This is how La Scala used to be before we were born. Some things, says Chailly, haven’t changed. ‘This is a public that reflects and responds deeply to the mood of such a piece,’ he feels. ‘There is a huge sign of joy in the house.’
The following night, La Scala revives Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, last seen here in 1959. ‘It’s a bit of a collector’s piece,’ admits the director David Pountney, passing by with a sheepish grin. You can see why it got shelved. Zandonai worships at the altar of Richard Strauss, trying to shock us with teetering chords and incestuous sex. In this day and age?
Pountney resets D’Annunzio’s medieval tale in Mussolini’s heyday, complete with fascist salutes. Francesca marries a cripple and fancies his pretty brother; they are betrayed by a jealous third sibling. From the tendrils of a first-act cello solo, we know this will end in blood. Acts One and Three are footling foreplay to the sex in Acts Two and Four. Pountney, decent chap, spares us the worst. In a big international cast, only one singer — the Argentine tenor Marcelo Puente — has ever sung this opera before. Maria Jose Siri, the Uruguayan soprano, has put in three years of preparation.
But where are the Italians? The last Francesca at La Scala was Magda Olivero, who died not long ago, aged 104; her tenor was Mario del Monaco. Francesca da Rimini used to be bedrock repertoire. Chailly has a point: Italy has squandered its heritage. ‘These are gaps that I cannot accept,’ he exclaims. The conductor Fabio Luisi points out to me that Norma has not been sung since 1955 at La Scala. It seems no one dares to challenge memories of Maria Callas. The weight of great heritage can be paralysing. ‘We must bring it back,’ says Chailly.
Luisi conducts Francesca da Rimini with noble restraint, finding some refinement in the unwieldy score and forsaking it only in two sexual climaxes that drain us of moral judgment. The work almost convinces. Chailly does not claim Francesca as a deathless masterpiece, rather as ‘something we cannot afford to ignore’. His green room is overlooked by a frowning Verdi and a scowling Puccini. They never look pleased. Milan’s partisan critics, on the other hand, have acclaimed the restored rep and audience ovations have lasted 15 or 20 minutes. Rai, the national broadcaster, has increased its transmissions. Chailly will open next season with Verdi’s little-seen Attila.
‘This is a theatre where you cannot predict things,’ he says, an ambiguity that combines the element of surprise with institutional insecurity. In an Italian opera house, the situation is never firmer than fragile. The heads of Teatro Regio were sacked last week by the mayor of Turin, keen to bring in his political cronies. The Maggio Musicale in Florence is on the brink of insolvency. La Scala, the rock of Italy, is only as strong as Chailly’s next move. ‘It’s a work in progress,’ he says, quietly. ‘I want to maintain the intention of my thoughts to bring back this Italian repertoire.’
Francesca da Rimini is in rep at La Scala until 13 May.