La Scala remembers the great conductor Victor de Sabata with an exhibition in the theatre foyer (which opens tomorrow, Sunday 12 November) and Riccardo Chailly has chosen to dedicate Andrea Chénier to his memory, which is the opera which opens the theatre’s season on 7 December.
De Sabata first arrived at La Scala in the 1920s, and was the theatre’s Musical Director from 1929 to 1953, as well as being its Artistic Director from 1949 to 1963. He died fifty years ago, on 11 December 1967.
It was de Sabata who in 1951 began the tradition of opening the theatre’s season on Milan’s Saint’s Day, 7 December. The opera was I vespri siciliani with Maria Callas. There is also a partial recording of Andrea Chénier which de Sabata conducted in 1949 with Mario del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi, a title which Chailly has chosen for this year’s opening opera, a work which hadn’t been performed at La Scala since Mario del Monaco sung it with Maria Callas in 1955 until Chailly himself conducted it in 1982 and 1985 with José Carreras and Anna Tomowa Sintow, then Eva Marton.
Chailly has long admired de Sabata also as a composer and in 2012 he recorded for Decca the ballet suite from Le mille e una notte (A Thousand and One Nights).
Chailly says that de Sabata would have the strings sing along with the trombone glissandi at the climax of Ravel’s Boléro, and Chailly himself asks orchestras to do the same thing.
The exhibition Victor de Sabata – Una vita per la Scala (A life for La Scala) runs until 7 January 2018 in the foyer which already has a bust of de Sabata by the sculptor Igor Mitoraj.
De Sabata worked with legendary voices – Callas, Tebaldi, Corelli, Del Monaco – but had to stop conducting in 1953, after a heart attack during the recording sessions for Tosca with Callas, Giuseppe Di Stefano and Tito Gobbi, at La Scala.
Victor de Sabata told EMI record producer Walter Legge, “If the public could understand, as we do, how deeply and utterly musical Callas is, they would be stunned.”
Wikipedia rounds up some opinions on Victor de Sabata’s Conducting style:
De Sabata’s conducting style combined the fiery temperament, iron control and technical precision of Toscanini with greater spontaneity and attention to orchestral colour. He was exceptionally demanding of his players: according to one musician: “Those eyes and ears missed nothing… the players had been made to work harder than ever before and they knew that, without having been asked to play alone, they had been individually assessed”. On the podium he “seemed to be dancing everything from a tarantella to a sabre dance”.
A violinist in the London Philharmonic Orchestra compared de Sabata with Sir Thomas Beecham, saying that while Beecham made the orchestra “red hot”, de Sabata made it white hot. Another player described de Sabata’s appearance when conducting as “a cross between Julius Caesar and Satan”. Double-bass player Robert Meyer, who has played under many leading conductors including Furtwängler, Karajan, Klemperer, Giulini, Walter, Koussevitzky and Stokowski, describes de Sabata as “undoubtedly the finest conductor I have ever encountered”. He conducted rehearsals, as well as concerts, from memory.
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.