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 Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch

martin A WEEKEND AT THE OPERA

BY MARTIN B. DEUTSCH

November 1, 1987 -- This wasn’t a typical run-of-the-mill weekend.

Once on a Thursday evening last April, I flew on Alitalia 747, New York-Milan, to catch an evening of opera at Teatro alla Scala—a pilgrimage I’ve always wanted to make. Like all good weekends, it was all too short; I was back on the ground—literally and figuratively—at JFK by mid-afternoon Monday.

A U.S. Customs agent was skeptical about the short duration of the trip and its purpose. "Flying almost sixteen hours for an opera?" She shrugged and signed the declaration; my smile must’ve been genuine. And she had to be thinking, "Boy, we get all kinds of nuts through here."

La Scala more than lived up to my expectations and its reputation. (Guides Michelin and the encyclopedia describe it as "the world’s most famous opera house," without qualifiers. The program at La Scala that Sunday night turned out to be a rare twin bill: Puccini’s dark, single-act story, Il Tabarro, and Leoncavallo’s perennial favorite, Pagliacci. The former is usually part a trilogy with Gianni Schicchi and Suor Angelica; the latter is almost always paired with Cavaleria Rusticana.

I’m not sure about La Scala’s seating capacity—three experts came up with numbers ranging from 2,200 to 3,600—but, whatever the count, I came away with the impression that I’d been in a relatively small theatre, one that generated intimacy and an aura of audience involvement. The plush red velvet seats are as comfortable as they look; the décor of the hall is just right—it’s not overdone. The acoustics impacted flawlessly on my layman’s ears.

The opera-going citizens of Milan, the Milanesi, who’ve been known to intimidate many a renowned artist, lent glitter and sophistication to the evening; it was a dressy and affluent crowd. A number of men wore black tie, although I did not feel out of place in a business suit.

The house was full, as it always is. The price of the tickets did not seem to discourage the attendance. My seat, C 11 (third row, left center) cost 150,700 lire, then about $125. The pricey printed program at $12.50 was also worthwhile. (The general manager of the hotel Palace Milan, Paolo Guarneri, told me that La Scala tickets are scalped as high as $800, and that the outlay for a really special event can drive a seat up to $2,000. That’s a good deal of bread, or pasta, even for Las Scala.)

This historic house was commissioned in 1776 by the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, and opened in 1778. Austria occupied this part of Italy at that time. The church of Santa Maria della Scala was torn down to make room. The current structure, heavily bombed during Word War II, was repaired and reopened in 1946. La Scala’s season begins December 7 every year, and continues into the late spring or summer, depending on the schedule. A museum is part of the opera house; it is worth the 1,000 lire entrance fee, because you also get a chance to see the stage sets under construction, although an empty theatre has the same forlorn appeal as a restaurant without patrons.

A word about the actual performances, apart from the appreciation inspired by the splendid artists who parade their talents before these occasionally threatening critics. The director was Giuseppe Patane; the music evoked was clear and compelling. In Il Tabarro, I recognized only Piero Cappuccilli, a bass-baritone who sang the title role. He and his colleagues sounded first-rate to me; this audience concurred with heavy applause. In Pagliacci, tenor Jose Carreras got several curtain calls for the aria "Vesti la guibba," (literally, put on your jacket), and there was a warm fifteen-minute ovation after the final curtain.

Not surprisingly, the opera house is on the Piazza della Scala, a central square with a statue of Leonardo da Vinci and four of his students. The plaza also leads to Galleria Vittoria Emanuele, a dome-covered complex of shops, bookstores, and restaurants. The area is often referred to as Milan’s living room. Nearby is the city’s main church, the Duomo, a late-fourteenth-century edifice of eye-please contours and dimension, which celebrated its 500th anniversary last year. The façade is renowned for its pinnacles and statuary—from the outside the upper structure looks like a cluster of stalagmites. Da Vinci’s fresco of The Last Supper sits unobserved at a nearby church, undergoing renovation. The other museums, the Sforza Castle, and the quality shops are all within easy walking distance of the Piazza della Scala.

Certainly more than just Italy’s industrial mecca, Milan is worth at least two or three days of a tourist’s time. The sightseeing attractions are augmented by handsome parks and boulevards with trolley cars, outstanding restaurants with Italy’s "best fish," and a year-round roster of fairs and more fairs. Milan is also a convenient gateway to Lago Maggiore and Lake Como, as well as the Italian and Swiss Alps, with contribute a memorable backdrop to the north. The city also has a number of outstanding hotels.

I stayed at the Palace Milan, one of four CIGA properties in this area. (CIGA is probably Italy’s most luxurious hotel chain.) An elegant hotel with less than 200 rooms and suites, the Palace’s service is low key and impeccable; and it is priced accordingly. The concierge desk is as good as any I’ve encountered without patronizing. Certainly, Mario can recommend a restaurant that won’t incur instant bankruptcy, one to which he’ll bring his family on a day off. (At Giardini, just four blocks from the hotel, a guest and I enjoyed an excellent meal for two at U.S. $41.) The Casanova Grill at the hotel is one of Milan’s finest—expensive, chic, handsome, with wonderful Mediterranean and regional cuisine, and a piano that doesn’t intrude.

A $13 million renovation will be completed at the Palace by the end of this year; General Manager Guarneri is keeping his fingers crossed that the American clientele he lost in 1986 will have returned this year and next. The Palace, incidentally, is just a fifteen-minute or a shorter taxi ride from La Scala and its satellite attractions. I’m told that walking is frequently faster than wheels. It’s undoubtedly less costly too.

With the lira at less than 1,300 to the dollar last April, prices were often staggering. A cab to Malpensa, the world’s most unfortunately named airport, was $80, the hotel limo $100, plus tip. And the dollar kept falling like the local drizzle. (Train and bus services between downtown Milan and the airport are far more reasonable.) Plans are well under way for a new, much larger Malpensa, which is the region’s primary international airport.

Just a minute or two from the Palace Hotel is another plush CIGA property, the Principe di Savoia. There, on the way home, I sampled Alitalia’s new "Spazio AZ" service, which allows you to check in for North and South American Alitalia flight from Malpensa. It’s pretty nice, and also very convenient. No lines, no crowds. Your boarding pass is issued, luggage is checked, although your bags go to the airport with you. The service is now available to all CIGA hotel guests in Italy.

Anyway, if you got nothing better to do some weekend, just hop over to Milan for an evening at La Scala. You’ll never know whom you’ll meet, like Placido Domingo or Pavarotti; or the concierge at the Palace, Mario Gambron; or the hotel’s G.M., who is the descendant of the famous violin markers, Guarnerius Stradivarius. (I believe they still make violins.) And since everything that goes round comes round, maybe you’ll meet a kinder lira.

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright © 1991-2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.