Long-neglected 'Chernier' makes heroic return to La Scala

MILAN — Umberto Giordano's long-neglected opera "Andrea Chernier" made a heroic return to the La Scala stage for the gala season premiere Thursday, with long applause for celebrated soprano Anna Netrebko and husband tenor Yusif Eyvazov who sang opposite each other as ill-fated lovers.

The well-heeled La Scala season-opening audience applauded for more than 10 minutes, with a smattering of boos that seasoned opera-goers said was the work of the famed "loggionisti" — the hardcore La Scala attendees who populate the theater's uppermost tiers — seeking to moderate the enthusiasm of the singers' fans.

Breaking the tradition of taking individual curtain calls, Netrebko, in the role of the countess Maddalena, and Eyvazov, in the title role, took their bows with Italian baritone Luca Salsi, who sang the role of the revolutionary Carlo Gerard whose lies seal the lovers' fate at the guillotine. Admirers showered them with flowers and golden glitter.

"It went very better than anyone thought, than anyone hoped," Eyvazov said backstage, standing with Netrebko. "I am very happy tonight. I can say it is the evening most emotional and most happy of my artistic life. I haven't yet understood where I am. "

His La Scala debut was made easier by having Netrebko by his side, he said: "I didn't have to act the love."

Netrebko, who appeared in her third La Scala season-opener, sang the role of Maddalena for the first time.

"We were nervous, of course. Especially him," Netrebko said, adding that the support of everyone at La Scala and the audience helped to make the opening night a success. "We keep doing this for another seven performances. And everyone will be even better than this."

"I love to sing with him, because I think our voices are matching together," the Russian soprano said of her husband, whom she met on stage nearly four years ago in Rome.

Although "Andrea Chernier's" history is closely tied to La Scala, where it made its debut in 1896, it had fallen out of fashion along with the Italian "verismo" genre of booming tenors that it represents. Riccardo Chailly, now La Scala's music director, was the last to conduct it at the famed Milan opera house in 1985, and he was determined to bring it back as part of the theater's efforts to revive both the verismo and bel canto traditions.

After a 32-year break, Chailly said, he had to start nearly from scratch with the orchestra because only a handful of the musicians had ever played it.

"The orchestra adores this opera," Chailly said backstage. "It doesn't just love it — much more than that. There was a desire to give their best. Everyone was invested in the fact that a beloved masterpiece was returning to the theater where it was born. "

Set in the French Revolution and written more than 120 years ago when the composer was just 29, "Andrea Chernier" touches on how women are used, sexually and otherwise, by men in ways that seem particularly relevant today.

The inclusion of the scene in the third act depicting the revolutionary Gerard's rape of Maddalena elicited a protest by a singer-activist who attended the premiere with a temporary tattoo reading: "The rebirth of dignity" to draw attention to the abuse of women at the hands of men they love.

Mario Martone, the Italian film director who staged Chernier, said the difficult scene "demonstrates how the masculine dynamic always looked at women like prey. To stage a scene like that during times like this is especially strong."

The season premiere, held each year on the Milan feast day of St. Ambrose, is considered one of the highlights of the European cultural calendar, attracting leaders from culture, industry and politics. Italy's culture minister attended in the royal box, along with Milan's mayor.

Salsi, the Italian baritone, said he hoped the country's cultural officials in attendance would give more support not only to big opera houses like La Scala, but to the thousands of smaller theaters around the country.

"Seeing that I am a revolutionary in this role, the real Italian revolution needs to start from here, from the culture and above all from the music, seeing we are musicians," Salsi said. "We need to start there, with the culture, to rebuild our country."

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