Almost exactly a year ago, I came to Milan's Expo site for the first time, invited to the Royal Opera House of Muscat's press conference. It was the hottest day of 2015. Returning yesterday for a concert in the arena created for the Cirque du Soleil, temperatures were over 30° well into the evening. Double whammy.
I drove through the semi-dismantled area of the vast Expo site – an area that the public don't see – to reach a conveniently central car parking space for orchestra and chorus. It was a little sad, like the morning after a party when a few dried up sandwiches and a glass of flat spumante are the only remains of what was a fun and lively evening.
However, walking through into the wide 500m-long corridor that connects the Open Air Theatre to the slightly-kitsch – but I dare you not to enjoy it – Tree of Life, is a part of Expo that will be kept and transformed. Known as ‘Experience', it is a centre which will develop eventually into a summer space for concerts, sports, children's events and they'll be an area called pets' paradise, so bring your goldfish!
The Tree of Life is a 37m-high wooden sculpture with hidden led lighting, lasers, bubbles, smoke, flowers, fans and fireworks that sits in the middle of a lake full of water fountains so powerful that they can send jets up to touch the top of the structure. Every now and then it throbs into life, accompanied by an innocuous world-music background, and sometimes the Bocelli bolero-style Expo song, as thousands sit and watch, in surprising silence, as it works its magic.
The other end of the corridor found another genre of musical ‘experience' with the full orchestra and chorus of Teatro alla Scala and four soloists under the baton of Myung-Whun Chung for a performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. The event was completely free… first come, first served. The Lombardy Province helped to finance what must have been a pricey enterprise, but with 10,000 people present in the Open Air Theatre, the equivalent of five La Scalas, what a magnificent way to draw in new people towards the perceived exclusive world of La Scala and classical music.
And they were new people too. I was eavesdropping like crazy, unleashing my inner Alan Bennett . One man was telling a friend, “Ballet never, opera's ok, but it's better when there's just music” – yes, sometimes those dancers, singers and scenery get in the way, don't they. A dressed-up woman, finishing off her beer in a plastic cup, remarked that the Beethoven symphony contained a tune from the Eurovision Song Contest! Maybe it was just a slip of the tongue. Whatever, I wasn't the only pro-European Brit in the audience who had a tear in his eye as the chorus sang the Ode to Joy… the European Anthem.
The orchestra and chorus gamely bore the heat: close-ups of their sweaty and mosquito-provoked suffering were offered on a huge led-wall, being that the concert was filmed for television. They were magnificent, encouraged by an inspired and inspiring Chung who's un-showy conducting led them through an important sounding, some might say ‘old-fashioned', rendition with broad romantic waves of sound.
From where I was seated (side-on to the stage at chorus level!) the necessary amplification wasn't noticeable until the four soloists sang, when there was a slightly echoey and muffled effect – probably sound from the foldback speakers entering into the mix – but that got sorted out, or my ears got used to it. Ricarda Merbeth shone out, handling the deadly soprano part deftly, almost defiantly.
[clickToTweet tweet=”Listening to music in the open played to the dizzying standards of La Scala, is a great luxury indeed” quote=”Listening to music in the open played to the dizzying standards of La Scala, is a great luxury indeed.”]
The arena is close to a railway line with trains regularly doing their thing; during quiet passages the lorries on the nearby motorway could be heard too; it was hot, and programmes used as improvised fans flapped away on all sides… but it didn't matter. The atmosphere was bewitching. Like eating outside makes food seem to taste better, even if you end up getting mayonnaise on your sleeve and have trouble juggling your plastic plate, so listening to music outside has a magic all its own. And listening to music in the open played to the dizzying standards of La Scala, is a great luxury indeed.
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.