The "Arturo Toscanini" foyer of La Scala (La Scala was inaugurated in 1778)Teatro Alla Scala
Statues of Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi are dotted around La Scala’s foyer. These are some of the composers whose reputations the theatre forged, and the highs and lows of their careers, in turn, form important tracts of La Scala's history.
Bust of the composer Christophe-Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) by Guillaume Francin (1741-1830)Teatro Alla Scala
Imperial composer Christoph Willibald Gluck was asked to write a new work to inaugurate La Scala. Engaged at the time with writing Iphigénie en Tauride for the Paris Opera, he declined.
Playbill for Europa Riconosciuta, Teatro alla Scala (1778/1778)Teatro Alla Scala
Instead, Antonio Salieri’s Europa riconosciuta, a tale of love and power struggle in ancient Tyre, inaugurated La Scala on 3rd August 1778, with a lavish production that showcased the theatre’s new state-of-the-art stage equipment. In 2004, following a major 3-year renovation, the opera conducted by Riccardo Muti returned to La Scala’s stage.
Frontespizio Pietra del paragone 1812 - melodramma giocosoTeatro Alla Scala
La pietra del paragone (1812), the 20-year-old Rossini’s first La Scala commission, was an instant success. According to Stendhal, “they came flocking from Parma, Piacenza, Bergamo and Brescia”.
Portrait of Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868" (First half of XIX century) by Luigi Riccardi (1808-1877)Teatro Alla Scala
"You will kindly arrange for Maestro Gioachino Rossini to be exempted from military service[...],” wrote Eugène de Beauharnais, Napoleon's Viceroy in Milan. “We are perhaps losing a mediocre soldier, but we are surely saving a man of genius for the nation."
Aureliano in PalmiraTeatro Alla Scala
The “swan of Pesaro” (eventually) takes flight
Even so, both Rossini’s Aureliano in Palmira (1813) and Il turco in Italia (1814) were coolly received. In the latter case, the audience wrongly concluded sections of the music had been copied from L’italiana in Algeri</i<>
Libretto La Gazza LadraTeatro Alla Scala
But La gazza ladra (1817) saw Rossini return to form, the opera winning a “delirious” reception, according to Stendhal. Italy was gripped by Rossini mania at the time, and he had been snapped up as director and composer of the Neapolitan theatres in 1815. Even so, the composer also found time to write a further opera, Bianca e Falliero, for La Scala in 1819.
Portrait of the composer Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) (First half of XIX century) by AnonymousTeatro Alla Scala
A Romantic battleground
In the years that followed, a fierce rivalry played out between Vincenzo Bellini, the child prodigy from a musical family in Catania in Sicily, and Gaetano Donizetti, the son of a caretaker raised in poverty in Bergamo.
Portrait of the composer Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) (First half of XIX century) by Il Piccio (Giuseppe Carnovali) (1804-1873)Teatro Alla Scala
Donizetti kicked off with Chiara e Serafina (1822), which he wrote in under two weeks after Felice Romani’s libretto was delivered late. Unsurprisingly, the premiere was a failure -- and Donizetti had seen it coming. "I suggest that you bring a Requiem to the performance,” he had written to Simone Mayr, his teacher, days before. “For I shall be slaughtered, and thus the funeral rites can be taken care of."
Lithograph depicting the composer V.Bellini by G.FocosiTeatro Alla Scala
Bellini capitalised on his rival’s setback, with Il pirata (1827) proving so popular it was performed to 15 full houses in the space of a month. Soon after, the premiere of La straniera was "a clamorous success", according to Milan’s Gazzetta privilegiata (1829).
Norma 1834Teatro Alla Scala
But Bellini’s fortune was short lived. Norma (1831), best known for its showpiece aria "Casta diva", and considered the “Everest” of bel canto opera today, was rejected at the premiere. Bellini blamed the tired singers, as well as the claques he believed had been planted in the theatre. “Fiasco, fiasco, solemn fiasco,” he later recalled.
Letter to «Monsieur le Duc» [Carlo Visconti di Modrone] (1835-08-07/1835-08-07) by Maria Felicia Malibran (24 March 1808 – 23 September 1836)Teatro Alla Scala
With Maria Stuarda (1835), based on the figure of Mary Queen of Scots, Donizetti capitilised on growing fascination with English and Scottish Tudor history. The title role was sung by the fiery Spanish soprano Maria Malibran, who defied the censors to sing the original line “Profanato è il soglio inglese/vil bastarda, dal tuo piè!” (“vile bastard, England’s throne is defiled by your feet”). The production was swiftly withdrawn.
Donizetti survived the debacle, subsequently writing Gianni di Parigi (1939) and Maria Padilla (1841) for La Scala.
Portrait of the theatre impresario Bartolomeo Merelli (1793-1879) by AnonymousTeatro Alla Scala
A Verdian tragedy
Bartolomeo Merelli, manager of La Scala, took a punt on the young Giuseppe Verdi, scheduling the premiere of Oberto in 1839. It was “not an enormous success, but good enough," judged the powerful publisher Giovanni Ricordi.
Photography portrait of composer G.Verdi by AnonymousTeatro Alla Scala
The composer’s next opera, Un giorno di regno (1840), was an unmitigated failure, and was immediately withdrawn following the premiere. It was another heavy blow for Verdi, whose wife and two young children had all recently died within the space of a few months. The composer vowed never to write another opera.
Photography portrait of composer G.Verdi by AnonymousTeatro Alla Scala
Merelli persisted, eventually convincing the composer by slipping him a copy of Temistocle Solera’s libretto for Nabucco. The composer was kept awake at night by a burning desire to read the text. Slowly, Verdi began to compose, verse by verse, note by note.
Giuseppe Verdi, version for solo chorus of "Va pensiero" from Nabucco (1842/1842) by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)Teatro Alla Scala
When the opera premiered in 1842, the Italian Risorgimento was gaining pace. The work’s libretto depicting the Jews exiled from their homeland by the Babylonian King Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar II) struck a chord in these revolutionary times, the "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" drawing such feverish applause it had to be repeated. At the curtain call, cries of “Freedom for Italy!” mingled with boos for the Austrian oppressors.
The work was performed 57 times in three months, a La Scala record. Further operas for La Scala -- I Lombardi alla prima crociata (1843) and Giovanna d'Arco (1845) -- swiftly followed.
Playbill for Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito, Teatro alla Scala (1924/1924)Teatro Alla Scala
The audience was less receptive to Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele, premiered in 1868. The leading composer of Milan’s bohemian Scapigliatura movement, he scandalised La Scala with his audacious musical language. George Bernard Shaw described the opera as “a curious example of what can be done in opera by an accomplished literary man without original musical gifts".
Nerone, which had occupied the composer for nearly 50 years and was unfinished at the time of his death in 1918, was posthumously premiered by conductor Arturo Toscanini in 1924. It was a triumph.
Photography portrait of composer G.Verdi. by AnonymousTeatro Alla Scala
Following the Cairo premiere of Aida in 1871, Verdi began to withdraw from public life. Giulio Ricordi, Verdi’s publisher, was eager not to see Italy’s foremost composer go into retirement.
A plan was hatched. During dinner with Verdi, Ricordi and Franco Faccio, the conductor of La Scala’s orchestra, artfully steered the conversation towards the topic of Shakespeare. “At the mention of Othello I saw Verdi fix his eyes on me, with suspicion, but with interest," wrote Faccio. The composer was intrigued.
Copertina Illustrazione Italiana FalstaffTeatro Alla Scala
Otello’s gestation was slow, and its 1887 La Scala premiere was feverishly awaited. On the opening night, the gallery was packed to the rafters, and most boxes were filled to double their usual capacity.
After the performance, Verdi received 20 curtain calls, and delirious crowds gathered outside the Albergo Milano, the composer’s lodgings, where as he stood on his balcony he was serenaded by guitarists below. Toscanini, then a cellist in La Scala’s orchestra, rushed home, waking his mother with cries of “Verdi is a genius! Verdi is a genius!”.
Falstaff, another Shakespeare setting, premiered at La Scala in 1893. The guest list included aristocrats, leading arts figures and members of the Italian Royal Family. Tickets sold for 30 times their usual price.
Richard Wagner Galerie (1876/1876) by August Ludwig Theodor Pixis (1 July 1831 – 19 July 1907)Teatro Alla Scala
The search for Verdi’s successor was already underway, and the giovane scuola, a group of innovative composers connected with the Milan Conservatory, came to the fore. Tastes were influenced by musical developments north of The Alps, particularly those of Wagner, while verismo literature from southern Italy provided the literary impetus.
Copertina libretto EdgarTeatro Alla Scala
Giacomo Puccini’s Edgar (1889) was “an honest success, and cordially received,'' according to La Perseveranza. The composer was less optimistic. “If I found a way to earn money I’d come to where you are living. Is there any work?” Puccini wrote to his brother in Buenos Aires.
Playbill for Andrea Chenier by Umberto Giordano, Teatro alla Scala (1925/1925)Teatro Alla Scala
Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally, with its passionate vocalism and unconventional setting in the Tyrolean mountains, won thunderous applause at the 1892 premiere. Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier (1896) depicts gruesome post-revolutionary France with the descriptive objectivity of a film score. The composer won 20 curtain calls, and the opera was scheduled for 11 further performances. Giordano’s Siberia (1903) was less warmly received.
Poster for Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini (1904/1904) by Adolf Hohenstein (Pietroburgo, 18 March 1854 – Bonn, 12 April 1928)Teatro Alla Scala
Puccini is lynched
The premiere of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904) saw one of the biggest fiascos in La Scala’s history.
The expectant audience, which included Pietro Mascagni and Giordano in the front row, found the work overly long, and too similar to La bohème. Moreover, Puccini's hyper-realistic musical language was deemed tasteless, the use of birdsong-like flutes for the evocation of a Nagasaki dawn drawing uproarious laughter. Puccini called it a “lynching”; La Perseveranza described it as “a fiasco without periphrases”.
Score of Giacomo Puccini's TurandotTeatro Alla Scala
Toscanini in tears
Puccini died in 1924, leaving Turandot unfinished. Franco Alfano was tasked with completing the score, but at the 1926 premiere Arturo Toscanini performed only the music written by Puccini himself.
Two bars after the words "Liù, poesia!" in Act 3, the orchestra stopped. Toscanini laid down his baton, and turned to the audience. "Here the opera ends, because at this point the composer died," he said. The curtain was slowly lowered. Toscanini stepped down from the podium, his face reportedly streaked with tears.
TurandotTeatro Alla Scala
Riccardo Chailly opted for an alternative solution in 2015. Rather than finishing with Alfano’s ending, he closed with the version by Luciano Berio, in which Puccini’s 23 uncompleted fragments are refracted through a modernist lens, which Chailly himself had premiered thirteen years earlier.
Assassinio Nella CattedraleTeatro Alla Scala
For much of the 20th century the La Scala seasons regularly presented new operas and ballets, in particular by Italian authors. In 1932 Ottorino Respighi brought on stage the lush oriental atmosphere of his ballet Belkis regina di Saba; Nino Sanzogno conducted the premiere of Il Cordovano by Goffredo Petrassi in 1949.
Ildebrando Pizzetti had six world premieres at La Scala between 1915 and 1965 including his most famous, Assassinio nella cattedrale after Eliot, which was conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni in 1958.
Dialoghi Delle CarmelitaneTeatro Alla Scala
In 1957 La Scala was the stage for the premiere of Poulenc's I dialoghi delle Carmelitane after Bernanos, in Italian version with Leyla Gencer, Nino Sanzogno conducting. The premiere of the French version took place at the Paris Opera a few months later.
Era Proibito /malheurs D'orphee /tiresias - TiresiasTeatro Alla Scala
New music at the Piccola Scala
The Piccola Scala stage, a 600-seat theatre built after the war next to the main hall, was the ideal place for novelty and experimentation. Among the many premieres there are some works by Luciano Chailly such as Una domanda di matrimonio (1957, by Chekhov) and Era proibito (1963, libretto by Dino Buzzati). Giacomo Manzoni, who presented his Doktor Faustus in 1989 in the Piermarini hall under the direction of Bob Wilson, saw the juvenile opera Atomtod conducted for the first time at Piccola Scala by a debutant Claudio Abbado in 1965. In 1980 Massimo de Bernart conducted the premiere of Sylvano Bussotti's Le Racine.
Al Gran Sole Carico D'amoreTeatro Alla Scala
The avant-garde arrives
The libretto for Al gran sole carico d'amore (1975), Luigi Nono's grandest and most ambitious work, depicts various suppressed uprisings through a collage of texts by writers including Bertolt Brecht, Fidel Castro and Karl Marx. The score, conducted at the premiere by a casually-dressed Claudio Abbado, features massive choral eruptions and electronic sounds. One of the project’s most controversial elements was the exorbitant cost of Jurij Ljubimov’s production.
Donnerstag Aus LichtTeatro Alla Scala
Donnerstag aus Licht, the first of the 7-opera Licht cycle that totals 29 hours of music, opened at La Scala in 1981, even though a chorus strike meant the third act had to be omitted. Samstag aus Licht and Montag aus Licht followed in 1984 and 1988 respectively.
Quartett 2010Teatro Alla Scala
Fabio Vacchi’s Teneke, whose libretto draws on the great Turkish writer Yaşar Kemal’s eponymous novel, premiered in 2007. Luca Francesconi’s Quartett, with its intense, claustrophobic production by La Fura dels Baus’s Alex Ollé, followed in 2011. Salvatore Sciarrino’s Ti vedo, ti sento, mi perdo, based on the salacious life of baroque composer Alessandro Stradella, features instrumental warbles and steely shards of sound to hypnotic effect (2017).
Fin De PartieTeatro Alla Scala
The salute of the avant-garde
In 2018, György Kurtág, aged 92, wrote his first opera. It was based on Samuel Beckett’s play Fin de partie (Endgame), and work officially began in 2010, though Kurtág had possibly been mulling over the adaptation ever since he first saw the play in Paris in 1957.
Repeatedly scheduled, cancelled and rescheduled, the premiere eventually went ahead in 2018. Kurtág, who was too frail to attend, colours the French text in myriad orchestral shards. Pierre Audi’s production was spartan and beautiful, while Markus Stenz realised the miniature beads of detailed sounds with care and precision.
“The final masterpiece of twentieth-century music had its première last month,” wrote the The New Yorker. Fin de Partie is a farewell not just to a life and a marriage, but also to a whole culture,” concluded the New York Times.
Curated by James Imam and the Teatro alla Scala