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The Very Model of a Modern Major Opera House

Milan's Refurbished La Scala Steps Up to the 21st Century

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 29, 2004; Page C01

MILAN -- Near the stage of Teatro alla Scala, inside a second-level box, stands a fireplace. The box belonged to Giuseppe Piermarini, architect of the 18th-century theater, and the fireplace was useful in many ways. Central heating was unknown, and since operas were all-day affairs, it was convenient to have someplace for servants to cook up a cutlet or polenta to ease hunger between acts. If the performance was a bust, a nice, soft-boiled tomato could be made readily available to be tossed onstage.

The original form and light blue color of Piermarini's loge was a surprise discovery recently, as La Scala has been completely renovated for the first time since it was built in 1776.

Milan's La Scala stands ready to reopen on Dec. 7 after a two-year makeover, which includes the latest in acoustics and stage mechanics, a revamped floor, and new rehearsal rooms and offices. (Luca Bruno -- AP)

Not just a plaster fix here and there or a repair after World War II bombing or construction of a lobby where one never existed or a wiring of the place for electricity. Instead, a new theater has grown up within La Scala's neoclassical walls, which for opera lovers is Yankee Stadium, Madrid's Las Ventas bullring and London's Globe Theatre rolled into one.

On the surface, it is still the familiar La Scala, with its dowdy neoclassical shape, yellow walls, gilt decoration and oversize chandeliers. But a two-year makeover has made it altogether something new. It contains the latest in acoustics, up-to-date stage mechanics, an expanded stage, more seating, a revamped floor and new rehearsal rooms and offices hidden among towers at the rear of the building.

"It is the old Scala and yet is a new Scala," said Artistic Director Mauro Meli. "The old Scala is the history of music. The new Scala must demonstrate that it is the greatest theater in the world."

Such talk may seem excessive for a building that lacks the spectacular looks of such temples of music as Paris's Opera House or the Metropolitan. Yet, La Scala's subdued elegance symbolizes the refinement of a city where a well-made pair of shoes or a finely cut jacket is an expression of civic pride. The annual Dec. 7 opening night at La Scala is arguably the most elegant fashion evening anywhere in the world. The flashiness of Rome or glitz of Los Angeles is out of place at La Scala, whose facade looks something like the entrance to a public library.

Its renovation was a major civic event. Newspapers fretted over whether it would be finished for the annual concert on St. Ambrose Day, which celebrates Milan's patron saint. Only during World War II was the Prima, as the opening performance is called, canceled. This year, "Europa Riconosciuta" by Antonio Salieri, which debuted at the original building, will reinaugurate the theater. Workers are hammering away to make sure the deadline is met.

The media debut earlier this month was more like a political rally than a cultural event. The right-wing mayor and his municipal sidekicks went out of their way to knock leftist naysayers who complained that the restoration had destroyed important relics or complained about the new towers that house the intricate set-moving mechanisms. Mayor Gabriele Albertini boasted that construction was completed on time -- within two years -- and that cost overruns were kept at 10 percent of the total 60 million euro cost, or just over $78 million.

"In Italy, this is very unusual," he said. "Opponents tried to intimidate us, but the most modern stage in the world speaks for itself. It cost less per square meter than redoing a Milanese apartment."

Everyone seemed to agree that the building needed a full renewal. Innovations abound. The floor, repaired quickly after the 1943 bombing, was torn up to excavate rubble. The replacement floor is 12 layers of different materials, including marble dust. It has a section where wood is supported by struts to make it hollow like a string instrument; thus, harmonious notes are prolonged rather than absorbed. The boxes, too, are lined with reflective material that bounce notes back into the theater rather than absorb them.

Patina was preserved. Venetian-style terrazzo has been recovered and polished in the hallways. Marbleized painting decorates the walls, and air conditioning has been refurbished. Because fire exits have been expanded, La Scala can now seat more than 2,000 spectators, compared with the previous 1,500. Seats are equipped with electronic screens to provide English, Italian and French translations.

The original La Scala was sponsored by Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, who felt that Milan, a provincial capital of the Habsburg empire, needed a proper theater. It was built atop the abandoned medieval Santa Maria alla Scala church. "I think we have done a good imitation of Maria Theresa of Austria, who made Piermarini's theater in two years," said Albertini.

The theater effectively belonged to the patrons who owned the balconies -- sort of the original skyboxes. The enclosures were decorated according to the tastes of the owners. They were, in effect, satellite living rooms. Paintings hung on the walls, striped wallpaper was all the rage, the front curtains could be drawn to offer privacy, and coteries of servants served food. The uniform red-and-gold-velvet wallpaper was a later innovation, to symbolize royalty. A staircase ran from the balcony level directly to the street, all the better for the discreet arrival of mistresses. Floor spectators stood.

Piermarini's double box contained gilt-framed mirrors to intensify light from the candles that lit his balcony. The smoke exited through holes in the ceiling. The box is being preserved as in his day, though smoke is no longer allowed.

Business should be better than ever. Because the new machinery permits the mounting of three operas in a single day, La Scala will increase its production schedule and potentially make more money. "It's very emotional to return home and find La Scala more splendid than ever," said Meli.

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