La Scala's Opening Produces the Usual Scandal, Intrigue, Opera

Stuart Neill, left, is reliable if not expressive as Don Carlo, the role that belonged to Giuseppe Filianoti until 24 hours before the show opened in Milan.
Stuart Neill, left, is reliable if not expressive as Don Carlo, the role that belonged to Giuseppe Filianoti until 24 hours before the show opened in Milan. (La Scala Via Associated Press)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dec. 7 is the feast of Sant'Ambrogio, Milan's patron saint; the annual opening of La Scala; and thus a time of scandal in the opera world. This year, the intrigue, the music and, inevitably, the booing were available to American audiences. On Sunday, St├ęphane Braunschweig's production of Verdi's "Don Carlo" was broadcast live to movie theaters around the United States -- including the Charles Theater in Baltimore, which was well filled though not sold out.

The tenor was the main story of the evening, though not quite in the way one might have anticipated. Those of us who were expecting the Italian tenor Giuseppe Filianoti in the title role were startled to see a considerably larger Don Carlo. I briefly wondered if Filianoti, under stress due to the persistent rumors about the poor state of his voice these days, had ballooned 200 pounds since I last saw him, but soon realized that the singer was in fact Stuart Neill, a reliable American tenor who can be counted on to make a sturdy sound and hit all the notes, though not always with great expression.

Neill acquitted himself honorably if not breathtakingly; the boos he got were due, I suspect, mainly to the fact that La Scala had pulled Filianoti 24 hours before the curtain. Filianoti's response in the Italian media was that the management had stabbed him in the back. Since his voice on previous hearings has seemed too light for Don Carlo, it is not surprising that he might not be able to deliver the goods in the role; the surprise -- and scandal, if you will -- is that it took the powers-that-be until opening week to do anything about it.

Despite the boos (and there were plenty), Braunschweig's largely gray-and-white production -- with small children gratuitously cast as innocent alter egos of Carlo, Elisabetta (Fiorenza Cedolins) and Rodrigo (Dalibor Jenis) -- was not particularly noxious, just tepid.

But there were two things to love: Dolora Zajick and Ferruccio Furlanetto. Zajick blasted away any questions about the security of her top notes these days with a powerhouse performance as Eboli. I usually have reservations about the way she hammers the first top note in her first aria, the "Veil Song," but on Sunday that big sound was one end of a dynamic range that ended in delicate filigree.

And with the caveat that the camera and the microphone can distort one's perceptions of a performance, I felt that Furlanetto's King Philip was one of the most powerful fusions of singing and acting I have experienced in opera. His aria "Ella giammai m'amo," in which the proud and rigid king mourns the fact that his young wife has never loved him, was a true dramatic monologue in which he moved from stifled, brooding emotion to majestic anguish to dejection; I don't remember ever seeing the entire scene so well acted. Did the camera further this impression? It hardly mattered. This production opted to include the final scene over Rodrigo's body in which Philip sings music that Verdi later turned into "Lacrymosa" in the Requiem; on Sunday, no one was going to argue with anything that gave us a chance to hear Furlanetto sing some more.

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