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A Very Special Weekend at the Opera
Thursday, June 28, 2007 -- It seems like yesterday, I thought tritely, regarding a weekend jaunt almost 20 years ago to Milan for a once-in-a-lifetime visit to La Scala. I'm told by those who have made the pilgrimage to the mecca of the opera fraternity more recently that, despite a recent renovation, nothing of real note has changed--except maybe the prices. Nor has Milan undergone any memorable facelifts although the hotel scene has been altered. CIGA Hotels, once the plaything of the Aga Khan, was sold to Sheraton, which has become Starwood. The CIGA name has disappeared--as has the Italian lira and Alitalia's Spazio AZ service. Milan's airport, Malpensa (Italian for "bad thoughts"), has lived down to its name and often rates as the worst place in Europe to change planes. Anyway, here is an admiring report on a Weekend at the Opera from two decades ago.
November, 1987 -- This wasn't a typical, run-of-the-mill weekend.
Once on a Thursday evening, I flew on Alitalia Flight 747, New York to 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 my trip and its purpose. "Flying 16 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 huge reputation. (Le Guide 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: Giacomo Puccini's dark, single-act story, Il Tabarro, and Ruggero 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 Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana.
I'm not sure about La Scala's seating capacity--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. Plush red velvet seats are as comfortable as they look. The décor of the hall is just right, not overdone. Its acoustics impacted flawlessly on my layman's ears.
The opera-going citizens of Milan, the milanese, who've been known to intimidate many a renowned artist, lent glitter and sophistication to the evening. It was a dressy, affluent crowd. A number of men wore black tie yet I did not feel out of place in a business suit.
The house was full, as it always is. The price of tickets didn't seem to discourage attendance. My seat, C 11 (third row, left center), cost 150,700 lire, then about US$125. The pricey printed program at US$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 La Scala.
This historic house was commissioned in 1776 by the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa and it 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. 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 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 at La Scala before these occasionally threatening critics. The director was Giuseppe Patane and 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 giubba," literally, put on your jacket. There was a warm 15-minute ovation after the final curtain.
Not surprisingly, the opera house is located 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 Vittorio Emanuele II, 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-pleasing contours and dimension. 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. Other museums, 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 finest fish and a year-round roster of fairs and more fairs. Milan is also a convenient gateway to Lago Maggiore and Lake Como and the Italian and Swiss Alps, which contribute a memorable backdrop to the north.
I stayed at the Palace Milan, one of four CIGA properties in this area. (CIGA is probably Italy's most luxurious hotel chain.) A small, elegant hotel with fewer than 200 rooms and suites, the Palace's service is low-key and impeccable. It is priced accordingly. The concierge is as good as any I've encountered. Certainly, Mario Gambron 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 US$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.)
At the Palace, a $13 million renovation will be completed 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 15-minute 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 around 1,300 to the dollar when I visited, prices were often staggering. A cab to Malpensa, the world's most unfortunately named airport, was US$80, the hotel limo US$100, plus tip. (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 flights 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've 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 general manager, who is the descendant of the famous violin marker, Guarnerius Stradivarius. And since everything that goes round comes round, maybe you'll meet a kinder lira.
This column is Copyright © 1987-2019 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2019 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.