La Scala, the excellence of Italian Opera

by Rino Alessi

Teatro alla Scala di Milano, or simply “La Scala”, is one of the most famous theaters in the world, if not the most famous of all. Its name has come to represent the excellence and beauty of Italian opera.

For over two hundred years, it has welcomed internationally acclaimed artists and commissioned works that to this day are performed in opera houses around the globe. It is located in the square that bears the same name, next to Casino Ricordi, now home to the La Scala Theater Museum. The theater was named after the Church of Santa Maria della Scala, which was in turn named after the noblewoman Regina della Scala who had it built. The church was torn down at the end of the 18th century to make room for the new theater (then called “New Royal-Ducal Theatre alla Scala”), which inaugurated on August 3, 1778 with “L’Europa riconosciuta”, a ‘dramma per musica’ by Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s rival.

La Scala was built by decree of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria after a fire had destroyed her court’s theater on February 26, 1776. The project was entrusted to the famous architect Giuseppe Piermarini, who also designed the temporary structure near the church of San Giovanni in Conca, and the Teatro della Canobbiana, which has a similar plan to La Scala – albeit smaller in size – and was home to more “popular” shows. In 1918, the Ente Autonomo Teatro alla Scala was founded to manage the theater, and Angelo Scandiani named its general manager. Thanks to subsidies from the municipality and state, as well as a fundraiser promoted by one of Italy’s major newspapers, “Il Corriere della Sera”, the theater achieved independence.

In 1929, the Fascist government gave the chief of state the power to choose the Ente’s president, and imposed the presence of a representative of the Ministry of National Education in the board. Director Toscanini quit as soon as he returned from his tour in Vienna and Berlin, the following May, and moved to New York.

Right after the Fascist regime fell, manifestos urging Toscanini’s return were posted up on the theater’s walls. But on the night between August 15 and 16 of that year, La Scala was subject to a devastating bombing, with terrible damage to the main hall – the stage and backstage were completely destroyed. It was decided everything would be rebuilt exactly as it was before the war, and Antonio Ghiringhelli was put in charge of the construction work, which extended until May of 1946.

On May 11, 1946 at 9 pm “sharp” (as the playbill read), Toscanini inaugurated the new hall with the “concert for reconstruction”, starring Renata Tebaldi – bitter enemy of the divine Maria Callas. Ghiringhelli, who would later be nominated superintendent in 1948, was able to re-launch the theater during the difficult post-war period. He was, first and foremost, a capable entrepreneur, and he availed himself of talented artistic directors such as Labroca, de Sabata, Siciliani, Gavazzeni, and Luciano Chailly.

In 1972, Massimo Bogianckino was appointed artistic director and one of the founders of the Piccolo Teatro, Paolo Grassi, became La Scala’s new superintendent. Under this new management the theater reached its highest level of productivity, staging almost 300 shows a year. Siciliani replaced Bogianckino in 1974, and in turn was replaced by Claudio Abbado in 1976; in the same year, Carlo Maria Badini – who had been superintendent of Bologna’s Teatro Comunale – replaced Grassi, and prepared for an unforgettable season of celebrations for the theater’s bicentennial.

After Abbado’s “reign” it was time for his distinguished rival, Riccardo Muti, followed by Lissner and Barenboim – who brought a new air of internationality. A fitting example is the cast of the imminent “Traviata”, which will open the theater’s 2013-2014 season this December 7: conducted by the Italian Daniele Gatti, it will feature the vocal trio Damrau-Beczala-Lucic, directed by the Russian Tcherniakov. Performances of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” and “Simon Boccanegra” are listed alongside Mozart’s “Così fan tutte”, Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana”, Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”, and Rossini’s “Le Comte Ory”. There is much excitement for the new staging of Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” directed by Pappano, and of Strauss’s “Elektra” directed by Salonen. Barenboim, who has decided to step down from artistic director in 2014 and will be succeeded by Riccardo Chailly, will take on Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Tsar’s Bride”.

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La Scala, the excellence of Italian Opera

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