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Saturday, 8 December, 2001, 16:01 GMT
Rapturous opening night at La Scala
Placido Domingo as Otello
This was the final production of the Verdi centenary year
By the BBC's David Willey in Rome

Placido Domingo received a 15 minute standing ovation at La Scala Opera house in Milan on Friday night for his performance in the title role of Giuseppe Verdi's opera Otello.

Ricardo Muti conducted the world famous tenor in this, the final Verdi production of the Verdi centenary year.

That sense of the sacred can be an inhibition to creativity. For the company to be able to perform in another theatre will loosen things up a little bite

Graham Vick
The first night marked the opening of the shortest opera season ever at La Scala, which is closing down at the end of the month for at least three years of rebuilding and improvement.

The President of Italy was in the Royal Box and there was a glittering turnout of Milan's high society for the social event of the year - the annual opening of the opera season at La Scala.

Black market prices

All eight performances of Otello have been sold out for weeks. Ticket touts have been asking - and getting - $2,000 and more for a box seat or a place in the stalls.

Milan's opera house, built at the end of the 18th century, was seriously damaged by Allied bombs in August 1943 during the World War II.

But the theatre has never closed again since its reopening in 1946 with a concert of arias directed by Arturo Toscanini on his last visit home from America.

La Scala
La Scala is closing for three years
Up and coming baritone Ambrogio Maestri, who sings the part of Iago, complained to me that the artists' dressing rooms have not been touched for half a century.

"They're dirty, cold, and even a danger to health," he said. He is scared of catching influenza and damaging his voice.

"It's the end of the line for the outdated stage equipment at La Scala," he says.

From January, the whole company will transfer to the brand new Arcimboldi theatre now nearing completion in the Milan suburbs. The Arcimboldi will have 2,400 seats in comparison with La Scala's 1,800.

Delay fears

The first opera will be a production of Verdi's La Traviata, directed by Italian film director Liliana Cavani.

The General Administrator of La Scala, Carlo Fontana, insisted to me that Italy's most famous opera house will reopen on time as planned in three years time.

Yet experience teaches that you never know, when a famous Italian theatre closes down, when and if it will reopen. The Fenice Opera house in Venice burned down nearly six years ago and is still closed.

Ambrogio Maestri
Ambrogio Maestri: The building could damage his voice
The director of Otello - La Scala's last opera for the time being, based closely on William Shakespeare's tragedy - is, appropriately enough, an Englishman, Graham Vick of the Birmingham opera company.

He is in favour of the forthcoming transfer of the La Scala Opera Company to the new premises in the suburbs.

"Conditions are as bad as they were at Covent Garden four years ago, before refurbishment" Mr Vick told me.

Freedom to experiment

"I think its very good for a while to shake free of the myth of La Scala. There is a certain weight of history on this theatre. It is so central to the development of the operatic form itself."

"That sense of the sacred can be an inhibition to creativity. For the company to be able to perform in another theatre will loosen things up a little bit," he said.

Arcimboldi Theatre
From January, the company will have a new home
"I think it would be wonderful if the company could attract a more popular audience in its new venue. A popular audience is as likely to appreciate Wozzeck. It's just question of marketing, encouragement and in the broadest possible sense, of education," he added.

"From the time when I was a boy in Liverpool and first discovered opera at the age of 11, La Scala has always been a golden image of extraordinary, great events. The very name itself is a brand."

"That's what everyone has become very protective about. The danger is always that the name can become more important than what happens. That's stifling and dangerous," Mr Vick concluded.

But, as Placido Domingo cries out "Desdemona, Desdemona!" in grief for having killed the woman he loved, opera goers may shed a quiet tear at the prospect of the final curtain coming down for the immediate future on this much-loved theatre - where Verdi himself attended the first performance of his Otello, 114 years ago.

See also:

06 Dec 01 | Arts
In pictures: Milan's La Scala
27 Jan 01 | Entertainment
Giuseppe Verdi: Symbol of Italy
03 Oct 01 | Arts
Conductor given Russian honour
22 Feb 01 | Entertainment
Birmingham's opera for the masses
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