Coda

Coda: The Performance I Can't Forget

by CAROL VANESS

Coda Idomeneo hdl 414
Muti at La Scala, 1990, with some of his Idomeneo team: Delores Ziegler, Patricia Schuman, Vaness and Gösta Winbergh
Lelli & Masotti © Teatro alla Scala 2014

I met Riccardo Muti for the second time in 1988, at the first rehearsal of the Salzburg Festival's Clemenza di Tito. (We had previously collaborated on a Verdi Requiem in memory of Eugene Ormandy, with the Philadelphia Orchestra.) Maestro Muti was sharing some fascinating observations about the recitatives — there are lots of them in La Clemenza di Tito — and I was scribbling notes on a pad of paper, painfully aware that I was getting weaker in the knees the longer the Maestro spoke. Great mind. Great charisma. Great hair. My gaze was clearly making him nervous, and finally he asked if I was all right. I said, "I'm sorry, Maestro. You're the most beautiful man in the world. I can't help it." He started laughing, and from that moment on, we had a great working friendship. He was very strict; there's a foundation of truth for all the stories about what happened inside La Scala's infamous Sala Gialla. He likes to gather all the principal singers together in that rehearsal room and assign you letters: one soprano is "A," one soprano is "B," one soprano is "C." You had to show up prepared, because he often interrupted in the middle of the arias; soprano "A" might be halfway through, and he would stop suddenly and tell soprano "B" to pick it up. It didn't bother me that much; I was more bothered by watching how upset it made other people. One girl, singing Donna Elvira, got so frightened that all of a sudden she started giggling hysterically, like a heroine in some old 1940s movie who has just gone insane and is hoping for an Oscar. 

I can recall only one time when I witnessed Riccardo losing his temper. It was a Don Giovanni I did with him at La Scala in 1993. Renée Fleming was the Donna Elvira, and I was the Donna Anna. It was stressful for Renée. She was young, and the Maestro demanded a simpler, cleaner line than what she was giving him. For a time it looked like her job might be on the line, but to her credit, she swallowed hard, took a deep breath and gave him what he wanted. 

Muti and I did have a tiny argument once, but it wasn't about the music. It was during a Scala rehearsal of Iphigénie en Tauride in 1992. We were working on the recognition scene, and the chorus was all offstage — talking loudly. Gluck has a lot of very delicate recitative; it's not exactly bash-it-through singing. I couldn't hear the accompaniment for the recit, so I went off on the chorus. Riccardo picked up his mike and said, "Carol, just be patient and look at me." I said, "I'm sorry, I can't hear well enough to be patient." Again, he said, "It will be fine. Just be patient." I wasn't trying to be difficult. I just wanted the choristers to quiet down. 

Under Muti I sang a lot of different roles — both Donna Anna and Donna Elvira, Tosca, plus the Verdi Requiem. But the performance I remember best was my La Scala debut — as Elettra in Idomeneo, which opened the season in 1990. Elettra had already been a lucky role for me. At La Scala, the costumes featured big platform shoes and heavy, outsized hats that seemed at times in danger of causing serious damage to the singers' necks. We had a terrific cast, including Delores Ziegler and Gösta Winbergh, and we all went through rehearsals laughing and making fun of the costumes. Everything seemed to be going well enough, but I noticed that as time went on, Muti was getting more and more nervous. He had chosen to do Idomeneo uncut, so we had the ballet and all the arias no one ever does, and it was a long show. Eventually, the cast was called into a meeting with the Maestro. Riccardo said that he had great confidence in us, and that he wanted to assure us that we were the greatest Idomeneo cast in the world at that time, but that maybe, just maybe, we should expect that the audience might not take to the uncut version of the opera. "So," he said, as calmly as he could, "if people start booing, don't pay attention. Just look at me. This will be about me. Not you." 

On a couple of occasions, I was booed personally. (A Paris Opera Norma stands out in my memory.) The hardest booing I was ever onstage for happened when I was singing Leonora in a Covent Garden Trovatore. The tenor was so petrified that he dropped down an octave to stumble through "Ah sì, ben mio, coll'essere" and couldn't sing any of "Di quella pira" — all he could do was shout "All'alarmi!" At the end, while I lay in a heap on the stage, the entire theater of normally polite Londoners screamed and hissed. Anyway, that day in Milan, Delores and Gösta and I sat there looking at each other and quietly trying not to freak out. 

On opening night, we got to the theater to find that the animal-rights anti-fur protesters had shown up for the gala dinner that preceded the performance. While La Scala's most venerable patrons and longtime subscribers came in, people were shouting obscenities at them and hurling pig's blood all over the front of the theater. It made me think of Sissy Spacek and William Katt's prom date in Carrie. At first, I didn't quite understand. I thought, "Gee ... in Idomeneo, there's no sacrifice until the last act…." 

So the curtain went up, and nobody booed. Nobody did much of anything. I mean, this had to be quietest audience in the history of La Scala. Finally, it was time for Elettra's last aria, "D'Oreste, d'Aiace," which I sang faster than I'd ever sung it in my life. I finished, and the audience erupted. But just before the applause started up, someone screamed out from the top, "YOU GO, GIRL!" I couldn't believe it. At La Scala — "YOU GO, GIRL"? There was still another twenty-five minutes or so to go, but as the applause went on, I forgot all about my earlier terrors and exited laughing. spacer 

CAROL VANESS, one of the preeminent lyric spinto sopranos of her generation, is a "Commitment to Excellence" Professor at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music and "Coach in Residence" at L.A. Opera's Domingo–Thornton Young Artists Program. 

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Current Issue: December 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 6