Why are La Scala's recitals like buses? No, it's not a joke, but after four-months of opera and ballet, there have been two in a week. Once there used to be a recital every month, now recitals at La Scala have become gap fillers, and filling the gaps this week were Diana Damrau and René Pape.
Damrau had gamely participated in the open-air Expo concert with Andrea Bocelli just a couple of days before in front of Milan's Duomo. She had had to cope with an uneven playing field where Bocelli's little voice miraculously covered those of the opera singers… the magic of mics and mixers. She'd also had to throw a fur shawl around her shoulders as protection against a strikingly cold and humid evening for this time of the year. Damrau brought a little of that experience with her to La Scala as there was quite a lot of throat clearing and little breaks in the voice.
Pape, however, was in full, vibrant form. His customary dour presence masks a lively musical soul. An exquisitely detailed and rich palette of dynamic and tone brought life to Beethoven, Dvořák (a striking cycle of Biblical songs unknown to me: Biblické písně), Quilter and Mussorgsky.
Damrau and Pape, soprano and bass. Distant on the musical scale but unified by nationality and the use of a music stand. While you can forgive the use of a lectern for Damrau's Rachmaninov or Pape's Dvořák, is it really necessary when they are singing in their mother tongue? A downward glance breaks contact with the audience and, even if there is a continuity in the vocal line, we know that they have interrupted their mental flow because they are reading. It may be that a singer is thinking about what to have for dinner while seemingly enraptured by the music, but the audience doesn't know that. And if the music is in front of you, you'll look at it even if you don't need to: Damrau must know Strauss's Cäcilie intimately, yet her eyes peeked down at the score throughout.
Anyway, pet hate out of the way, let's move on to other nuisances.
Unwanted background noise is so distracting and the lady who dropped her bag (which seemed to contain a quantity of gold bullion), the person who loudly closed the door of a box as though unaware that someone was singing, and the man who considerately left the auditorium stifling a cough but seemed to be wearing tap shoes, were all extremely irritating.
Then, during Damrau's many encores, in the silence just as her pianist was about to touch the keys, a Samsung device whistled its familiar notification tone. Damrau kindly grinned and bore it… well, it was an encore. Also, throughout Pape's recital, though he wouldn't have heard it, there was a high-pitched robotic sound every time he went from piano to forte, or, indeed, every time he began a Lied. The wife of the man with the deaf-aid hissed ‘battery' at him during the first part. As the noise continued after the interval, I guess he'd left his spares at home.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.