In February 1845, Giuseppe Verdi premiered his seventh opera, Joan of Arc, at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala. It was this, one of his least-known works, which, 170 years later, opened the new season at the world’s most famous opera house.
When tenor Francesco Meli and soprano Anna Netrebko took to the stage on December 7 – the annual launch is on the feast day of Milan’s patron saint Ambrose – they followed in the footsteps of many of opera’s greatest names.
Enrico Caruso, Maria Callas, Luciano Pavarotti, Roberto Alagna and Cecilia Bartoli are but a handful of the stars whose careers are inextricably linked with the historic theatre.
Opera was born in early 17th-century Italy and today the country’s composers, singers, even its language, remain at its heart. For the Milanese, and the millions who visit the city each year from within Italy and beyond, the Teatro alla Scala (known as La Scala) is a must-see – even if they have not been lucky enough to bag a seat at a performance.
The theatre’s special relationship with Intesa Sanpaolo – a founder sponsor and this season’s main partner – stretches back more than 10 years
and is based on both a shared and deep commitment to the promotion of Italy’s extraordinary operatic heritage, and a recognition of both institutions’ national and international standing in their respective fields.
The understanding that a successful bank must not only support Italy’s economy but also celebrate and promote its society, art and cultural life, has informed Intesa Sanpaolo’s well-established programme of funding and assistance for Italian opera and other arts.
The current building, designed by neo-classical architect Giuseppe Piermarini, was inaugurated on August 3, 1778. Under the direction of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria (Lombardy then being under Austrian control), the new theatre was a replacement for the Royal Ducal Theatre which had been destroyed by a Carnival-season fire two years before.
Ninety of the city’s wealthiest residents, who had owned private boxes in the old theatre, had requested – and would largely fund – a replacement. Opera was already at the centre of Milanese society and business life and its absence was unthinkable.
The French writer Stendhal declared it “the most beautiful theatre in the world”. Romantic liaisons, business transactions, political conspiracies, posing and gambling were all conducted to the sound of the most haunting arias of the day.
In 1840, English novelist Mary Shelley complained that so bustling was La Scala’s role as “the universal drawing room for all the society of Milan”, that it sometimes left the music hard to follow.
La Scala has since undergone two further substantial refurbishments. After it was destroyed by World War Two bombing, the theatre was re-opened in May 1946. Such swift rebuilding, at a time of deep financial crisis, makes clear La Scala’s importance to the Italian psyche.
The opening concert featured the celebrated soprano Renata Tebaldi – in her La Scala debut – and was conducted by the revered Arturo Toscanini. It caused a sensation.
There was a similarly celebratory response in December 2004 when La Scala emerged from a two-year (reportedly €39 million) renovation.
With a completely new stage and substantial modernisations, including the installation of electronic subtitles for each seat, the refurbished theatre promised improved acoustics, technical capacity and comfort.
The opening performance of Antonio Salieri’s Europa Riconosciuta – the very first work ever performed at La Scala in 1778 – was attended by the elite of Italian politics, fashion, business, music and cinema. Those not in possession of a ticket – they changed hands for up to €2,000 apiece – were able to enjoy a live relay of the production on large screens erected around the city.
Salieri’s work may have been largely forgotten by modern opera-goers, but many of the world’s best-loved works have also premiered at La Scala. The list includes, in 1831, Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, Lucrezia Borgia by Donizetti in 1833, Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco (1842), Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893) and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in 1904.
When Turandot was first performed, on April 25, 1926, the opera was left unfinished as it had been at the time of Puccini’s death two years earlier. Subsequent performances included the ending, written by Franco Alfano.
Verdi’s relationship with La Scala – which continues this season with productions of Rigoletto and I Due Foscari as well as Joan of Arc – was not always a smooth one.
His second opera at La Scala, Un Giorno di Regno in 1840, was a failure and caused the composer to consider abandoning his career. Yet, two years later, the triumph of Nabucco secured his still unparalleled association with the theatre. When the composer died, in January 1901, 250,000 Italians took to the streets, marching to the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves and calling “Viva Verdi” – a cry still heard at modern-day performances of his works.
A passionate and sometimes vociferous audience is one of La Scala’s particular characteristics. The so-called “loggionisti” – a group of noisy fans who gather in the cheaper, upper reaches of the theatre – are known for their cheers and cat-calls.
Among the stars to have fallen foul of the loggionisti are Luciano Pavarotti in Verdi’s Don Carlo (1992) and Roberto Alagna in a 2006 production of Aida. So affronted was Alagna by the audience’s jeers that he left the stage mid-song, leaving his jeans-clad understudy to step in.
Home of La Scala Theatre Ballet, La Scala Theatre Orchestra and the La Scala Theatre Chorus, the theatre’s hall of fame is not limited to the stars of opera. Violinist Niccolo Paganini, dancers Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, directors Franco Zeffirelli and Lucchino Visconti and conductors Herbert von Karajan and Daniel Barenboim have all delighted its audiences.
Key to Intesa Sanpaolo’s support for La Scala is a desire to ensure new generations are encouraged to create, perform and enjoy such brilliant performances in future.
At this year’s Expo Milano 2015, soloists from La Scala’s prestigious Academy for Lyric Opera performed at The Waterstone, Intesa Sanpaolo’s pavilion. Alongside the theatre’s students of ballet, orchestral music and technical craft, and with the continuing support of Intesa Sanpaolo, they are training to become the stars of tomorrow.
December 7 is set to remain a special date in Italy’s artistic calendar for many generations to come.
The Under 30 programme, funded by Intesa Sanpaolo, attracts younger audiences to La Scala’s ballet and opera.
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