The usual throng found buzzing under the portico outside La Scala while waiting for the doors to open, was replaced by a slow trickle of spectators. The theatre had opened a full hour before curtain up. A new number was printed on the tickets, indicating the entrance door to use, rather like turnstiles at a football stadium. We were confronted by a machine that reads body temperature, and the electronic tickets – printed at home or displayed on a smartphone as the box-office is closed – were scanned. We proceeded along a cordoned corridor cutting across the foyer, serving to keep the audience for each sector of the theatre separate, and were greeted by an usher. Delightfully, in Italian, a ticket-tearer is called a ‘maschera', which also means mask, which in this case they were all indeed wearing. In fact, two: a KN95 face mask and a transparent face shield. With their traditional all-black uniform they looked like a cross between Forbidden Planet's Robby the Robot and Nosferatu.
After receiving our free programme, we went up to our seats. I was by myself in a box meant for five people; some boxes housed a couple. Looking down into the stalls, the 13-seat rows that stretch out from the corridor had a maximum of four people in them, sometimes only two, so as to respect social distancing not only on the left and right but also to the front and back. I was told, even alone in my box, to wear my facemask at all times.
It was certainly all very strange, and although some people I spoke to found it depressing, I found the atmosphere quite moving. The concert was very good indeed, and thankfully the applause didn't sound weak as it can do when a theatre is less than a third full.
Soprano Federica Lombardi and tenor Francesco Meli shared the stage for the opening and closing sections which consisted of opera arias. Both were in fine voice. As they began Otello and Desdemona's duet Già nella notte densa, I couldn't help but wonder what would happen at the end when he asks her for a kiss (un bacio) and then another (ancora un bacio). Would they blow each other a kiss being that they were a couple of metres apart? They stayed where they were and looked lovingly towards each other.
No taking of the accompanist's hand for the applause either, but respectful mutual clapping. Before pianist Giulio Zappa handed over to Joonas Ahonen, who accompanied the wonderful Patricia Kopatchinskaja for Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata, the piano tuner arrived with spray and cloth to sanitise the keyboard, music rack, and piano bench.
Kopatchinskaja plays her violin in bare feet, and it seemed that her big toe acted as a metronome, while the other toes wiggled along with the music. Ahonen's digital sheet music tablet mesmerised me as it magically turned the pages – look, no hands! – thus doing away with La Scala's page-turner who wouldn't have been able to maintain a metre's distance anyway.
The concert was without an interval, for obvious reasons, but there was an encore. The three soloists performed Parigi o cara with Kopatchinskaja still barefoot, though Meli kept his black patent leathers on, and Lombardi was still in her little silver shoes – presumably, Kopatchinskaja had a ‘foot sanitiser' in her dressing room. They politely clapped each other at the end and went on and off for the audience applause trying to juggle distancing and chivalry, aiming to let the women precede the men, but with mixed results. It's going to take some getting used to.
Leaving the theatre from my seat was not by the usual route but through a side door which opened onto the long, straight, marble staircase which goes from ground level right up to the gods. It was built during the major restoration of the opera house twenty years ago. However, it was closed off after being declared dangerous, with the possibility of tripping and rolling down its entire length… and with hundreds of people walking down together, probably bringing everyone else with you. Whoever devised the Covid entrance and exit strategy obviously considered that this route out of the building was the lesser of two evils.
NEW VOICES AT LA SCALA, 13 July 2020
CHAMBER SCALA, 15 July 2020
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.