Brava La Scala

After three years, 60 million euros and countless behind-the-scenes tantrums, the curtain is set to rise on the world's most famous opera house. Peter Popham goes to Milan for a sneak preview
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The Independent Culture

The alarm was raised after a satirical television programme flew a helicopter over La Scala Opera House and filmed a scene of total devastation: the national cultural institution, the "world's most famous opera house", the revered shrine of Bellini, Rossini, Verdi and the rest, had apparently been reduced behind its 18th century, neo-classical façade to a chaos of rubble and bulldozers. Then the writs began to fly: with the pretext of restoration, it was claimed, Milan's centre-right government had in fact demolished most of the opera house and was now going to have to build it again from scratch.

The alarm was raised after a satirical television programme flew a helicopter over La Scala Opera House and filmed a scene of total devastation: the national cultural institution, the "world's most famous opera house", the revered shrine of Bellini, Rossini, Verdi and the rest, had apparently been reduced behind its 18th century, neo-classical façade to a chaos of rubble and bulldozers. Then the writs began to fly: with the pretext of restoration, it was claimed, Milan's centre-right government had in fact demolished most of the opera house and was now going to have to build it again from scratch.

There are still a little more than two weeks to go before the theatre's inaugural bash and the site is still teeming with workers - more than 1,000 of them backstage alone. But enough of the refurbishment is now complete for it to be clear that the environmentalists and leftists who tried to stop the restoration badly overplayed their hand, and the magistrates who, one year ago, threw out their case were right to do so.

Because, after its €60m re-fit, the opera house that for more than two centuries has been the highest symbol of Italian cultural vitality now looks poised - in its architecture and fittings, at least - to take on the challenges of a new age.

The reason that the helicopter of Striscia la Notizia was able to capture such dramatic footage was because half of the theatre had indeed been demolished. But it was the half that, from the point of view of the punters, doesn't matter: the stage, the wings, the dressing rooms, the fly tower. A theatre, as Elisabetta Fabbri, the architect in charge of conservation, reminded journalists in the opera house yesterday, is "a machine for producing spectacles", and three years ago La Scala's machinery was ready for the rubbish heap. Only special indulgence by the fire brigade in overlooking violations enabled productions to go forward at all.

Mario Botta, the Swiss architect in charge of the project, tore down the stage and all the backstage services and built a thunderous cubic fly tower that rises 38 metres (125ft) above the original theatre building. Alongside it he placed an almost equally imposing elliptical structure, uncompromisingly modern, to house dressing-rooms, a canteen and offices. Seen from the piazza in front of the theatre, the two modern volumes appear to lurk behind the original18th century buildings as if waiting to pounce. As soon as Milan learned what Botta was about, it decided it hated these big new structures.

But this antipathy, too, is unlikely to survive a visit to the interior of the restored theatre, as the dreamy looks on the faces of Italian journalists visiting it yesterday testified. People who know La Scala well say it now looks exactly as before, only better. The object of the architect was to go in two directions at once. Firstly, to haul La Scala into the 21st century technologically, because, as Botta said, "today there is video and electric light, once upon a time they used candles". But, secondly, he wanted to take the theatre back to its origins, because "with all the different renovations, La Scala became a kasbah, full of distortions and failed attempts at authenticity". Stripping off 11 layers of paint (as well as much venerable chewing gum deposited under the seats), the restorers believe they have made it, in Botta's words, "not only more beautiful but also, paradoxically, more ancient". How would Giuseppe Piermarini, the original architect, feel about the restoration? "I'm sure he's very happy," said Botta. "He's appeared to me more than once in dreams, to tell me that he was happy that his theatre will live for at least another 50 years, thanks to my work."

Piermarini's ghost might also have pointed out that while a little over two years for the restoration is pretty good - 912 days to be precise, supposing the critical 7 December deadline is attained - it is not all that great compared to the even briefer time it took Piermarini to throw up the original.

Theatre was a vital part of Milan's cultural life long before the birth of La Scala. But the Teatro Ducale, located inside the ducal palace, for which Mozart wrote three operas between the ages of 14 and 16, was a primitive structure compared to the splendid opera houses sprouting all over Europe in the latter half of the 18th century. It was also constructed of wood, and burned down three times; in 1699, 1708 and 1776. Three times in 77 years was clearly too many, it was obvious Milan needed to come up with something more robust. In fact the third and final fire was regarded as suspicious. "Many voices accused Archduke Ferdinand himself of being behind the fire," writes Giuseppe Barigazzi, the historian of La Scala. "It was said that he was sick of this theatre within the walls of the palace and no longer wanted to see a continual coming and going of people extraneous to the life of the court."

It was decided to locate the new theatre on the site of a ruined medieval church, Santa Maria della Scala (hence the name), which was demolished to make way for it. The cost of the new building was 1.4m Milanese lira, 240,000 of which were provided by the Austrian government in return for a large number of boxes in addition to the royal box; the rest was coughed up by holders of boxes in the old theatre and their friends.

Piermarini's horseshoe-shaped auditorium, composed of six floors of boxes stacked on top of each other, was intended, in the architect's words, to make La Scala "a stunning musical instrument". From the demolition of the church to the throwing open of La Scala's doors for the first time on 3 August 1778 took two years minus two days.

The opera chosen to open the new house - which will also be the inaugural performance in the refurbished La Scala on 7 December - was Europa Riconosciuta ( Europe Recognised) by Antonio Salieri, the composer whose tormented relationship with Mozart was the subject of Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus. The evening was a triumph, mostly thanks to the two castrati who topped the bill, Pacchiarotti and Rubinelli, who were worshipped by armies of fans. "You know how the drama starts?" wrote a witness of the first night to a friend. "There's a flash of lightning, and that's the signal for the orchestra to strike up the overture; at the moment the curtain goes up you see a stormy sea, lightning, plants on the river bank tossed by the wind, and the orchestra imitates the rain, the wind, the crashing of the waves, the screams of the drowning; little by little things calm down, the sky clears, the actors descend from their boat. Then in sequence there are triumphs, armed warriors, 36 horses lined up, battles, fires, struggles ... it is a magic lantern of objects badly connected, but which oblige one to pay attention."

The city's appetite for the new theatre was immense. It was used by the nobility and Milan's small but growing bourgeoisie, not like opera houses today, for the occasional, slightly stuffy, highbrow night out, but as the place one went literally night after night, to meet friends, flirt, play illegal games of chance, eat and drink and also, often somewhat incidentally, to listen to opera.

This helps to explain why the stacked box design chosen by Piermarini proved so popular: while giving all in the house a decent view of the stage, it also gave them all an excellent view of each other. After the triumph of the opening night, Salieri's opera was performed for 30 nights in a row, and quickly palled. As the historian and opera lover Pietro Verri wrote at the time, "The invention of a drama whose performance for 30 days in succession to the same audience can continue to please ... is impossible." Verri was right, but it did not really matter. La Scala was not merely a place to go for theatre, but the city's one giant, compulsory social club as well.

Because of the attendance of such a high proportion of Milan's movers and shakers, the opera house quickly assumed political significance. When Napoleon marched into Milan with his army on 15 May 1796, La Scala threw a party for him and opened the theatre to the masses. . After the return of Austro-Hungarian rule 20 years later, it became a crucible of anti-Austrian sentiment, building towards the middle of the century into a force for Italian unification. When a new Verdi production opened in 1859, posters went up all over the city apparently hailing the composer: "Viva VERDI." Those in the know however, were aware their real meaning was "Viva Vittorio Emanuele, Re d'Italia" - Long live Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy.

Throughout the 19th century, La Scala maintained its status as the world's greatest opera house, unchallenged headquarters of the Italian style, but also an important place for the very different opera (abhorrent then and now to many Italians) of Wagner.

Today La Scala is still thought of in the same terms in Italy, and with its splendid new refurbishment that status has been reinforced. But La Scala's problem is that fewer and fewer opera-lovers outside Italy feel the same way. Its celebrated musical director Riccardo Muti, in place since 1986, is an institution in Milan - but, in theatrical terms, La Scala's productions under his baton seem increasingly stale. In its new, €60m outfit, La Scala is all dressed up. But as long as Muti is in charge, critics say it has nowhere to go.

Are La Scala's days as one of the great opera houses over, despite this impressive and intelligent restoration? Not necessarily: this theatre has weathered such doldrums before. In 1838, Franz Liszt described La Scala's work in the most unflattering terms. "In this happy country," he wrote, "the mise-en-scène of an opera seria ["comic" opera] is not in fact a serious business; often 15 days is enough. The orchestra and the singers get no encouragement from the public, which chatters or sleeps (in the fifth row of boxes they eat or play cards); distracted, torpid, freezing cold, [the musicians] present themselves not as artists but as people paid a wage to make music ... The singers seem like sleepwalkers, one can truly say that they are singing simultaneously, but not together." Liszt's comments provoked a declaration of "war on Liszt" by three Milanese newspapers. And La Scala's days of glory were all ahead.

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