California Literary Review

Daniel Barenboim at La Scala

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December 11th, 2007 at 11:17 am

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Daniel Barenboim

On December 4, 2007, three dramas were played out simultaneously in one of the posher surviving precincts of grand opera, the Teatro della Scala in Milan. The occasion was the five-hour dress rehearsal for the gala first night of the La Scala season. By tradition the season opens Dec. 7, the eve of the holiday honoring the medieval saint Ambrose, patron of Milan. This year the choice to launch the 2007-2008 season fell on Wagner’s hyper-romantic opera Tristan und Isolde, and drama number one was on stage, at the climax of its first act. To some of the most enthralling music ever composed, the star-crossed couple finally quaffs, from a golden goblet, the love potion that will precipitate their deaths by Act III. But that is the future: just now Tristan and Isolde are tumbling into each other’s arms, tearing at each other and then dropping onto the floor in the most feral of embraces. Ring down the curtain.

Drama number two was performed behind the scenes. The musicians, taking the quickest of bows from the enthusiastic audience of press, friends and relatives, literally raced backstage for—no, you have not guessed it—a trade union assembly called to discuss, for the umpteenth time in the past three months, their threat to go on strike and ring down the curtain on that first night.

The musicians’ pay, as union representatives explained, is only a hair above that of the La Scala theater employees and workmen, just when many Italians (and not only the Milanese) are beginning to feel the economic pinch. On the other hand, the presidents of Italy, Germany, Greece, Austria and the emir of Qatar, plus dozens of ministers from a dozen nations, were expected for the first night. The uppercrust ladies’ toilettes and their couturiers had already been described in the papers, and tickets had long since been sold out at one thousand euros a pop, and sometimes twice that. For the orchestra members, the dilemma was this: their going on strike for higher wages would cause a significant loss of income for the theater. Should they milk the cash cow, or kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? By the time the lights dimmed for Act II, no decision had been reached, meaning that the strike had been at least postponed. The show would go on.

Drama number three was the presence on the podium of Daniel Barenboim, the child prodigy born in 1942 in Argentina to Russian parents, who moved with him to Israel when he was ten. This opera performance, which furthermore inaugurates the newly restored theater, was the first by Barenboim as conductor of the orchestra that had performed under the batons of Arturo Toscanini and, more recently, the flamboyant Riccardo Muti.

Although Barenboim has performed Wagner many times elsewhere, La Scala audiences have not seen a Wagnerian opera for three decades, and his making this selection can still raise a few eyebrows. It is not simply that, because Hitler liked Wagner, no one else ought to; Wagner’s own anti-Semitism is a disturbing fact, however typical of his era. Wagner himself had first anonymously published, and a decade later signed with his own name, a notorious pamphlet entitled Judaism in Music.

La Scala opera house, Milan, Italy

Nevertheless, La Scala is first and foremost about music, and neither politics nor union umbrage could upstage the raw passion of Wagner’s orchestrations, revolutionary for their time.

Like Wagner, but in a different way, Barenboim is a revolutionary, as is evident in his forthcoming book, Music Awakens Time, which will appear simultaneously in 2008 in the US and Britain under the Orion label and in German and French translation as well. His two previous books were A Life in Music (1992) and Parallels and Paradoxes (2003), a series of conversations with the late, Palestinian-born Edward Said.

Unusual in publishing, the new book, the result of “two years of work and many years of thought,” was launched November 29 in Italian as La Musica Sveglia il Tempo, translated from the original English by Laura Noulian. The book is dedicated to the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which Barenboim created together with Said. The orchestra is composed of both Palestinian and Israeli musicians, and some of the chapters are accounts of their extraordinary, and occasionally harrowing, personal experiences of living, traveling and performing together in concerts all over the world, not excluding Ramallah.

In his introduction Barenboim says, “this is not a book for musicians, nor is it one for non-musicians, but rather for the curious mind that wishes to discover the parallels between music and life and the wisdom that becomes audible to the thinking ear.” A polymath, Barenboim explores and integrates politics, philosophy, which he began reading at thirteen, and musical theory, which he expresses with the brilliance of simplicity: if you have never grasped the simplest notion of music, here it is, music for enlightened dummies, presented in an interesting way. Expanding upon ideas familiar to his admirers from his recent six Norton Lectures at Harvard and his five BBC Reith lectures two years ago, he writes that the performing of music by an orchestra is inherently democratic and indeed cannot exist without democracy:

“Every note must be aware of itself, but also of its own limits; the same rules applicable to individuals in society are applied also to musical notes… No note can make itself valued by trying to be louder, stronger than that which preceded it; if it did, it would challenge the very nature of the phrase of which it is a part.” (This rough re-translation is from the Italian version, the original English not yet available).

Barenboim carries his protest of the tragic disharmony between the Palestinian and Israeli peoples outside the sphere of music. In May 2004, in his speech of acceptance of a major Israeli award, the Wolf Prize, he told the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, bluntly (the entire speech appears in the appendix):

“Can we ignore the fact that, despite all our conquests, there is an intolerable breach between what our Declaration of Independence promised, and what has been achieved, between the idea of Israel and its reality?

“Occupation and dominion over another people: how does this reconcile with the Declaration of Independence? What sense does the independence of a people have at the cost of others [loss] of fundamental rights?

“The history of the Jewish people is a repertory of prolonged suffering and ceaseless persecution. How can Israel show itself indifferent to the rights and sufferings of its neighboring people?”

In an interview in Milan November 26 Barenboim told an Italian journalist that Israel is losing its way, “in a manner impossible within any musical form.” During the Fifties, he went on to say, the nation was building a society inspired by social democracy, but after the 1967 war the profile of the state was altered: “certain millenary values of justice appear annihilated, and the sense of morality, the historical capital of Hebrew thought, is being lost in the occupation and creation of new settlements in territories which do not belong to Israel.”

Ian Storey and Waltraud Meier in Tristan und Isolde

The morning after the first night the Italian music critics began their comments. Along with Barenboim, kudos were lavished upon the director who works in tandem with him, Patrice Chéreau; the sturdy British tenor Ian Storey who sang Tristan and the pretty (and powerful) slender German soprano Waltraud Meier; the set designer, who had used plaster of paris to make an authentic-looking ancient Roman wall, from an authentic wall; the costume designer, who had everyone in bleak hues for long dusters over breeches. Among early reactions was the headline of La Repubblica daily, which proclaimed, “Tristan overwhelmed by applause; La Scala forgets its troubles.” Not everyone was enthralled, in truth. The Italians are the masters of the glittery, beribboned operatic costume, and some in the audience and a few critics took exception to the deliberately drab costumes, which had sailors in rags and the hero in little better, as “too Brechtian.” There was also a hint of national wounded pride, for, as critic Carla Moreni wrote in the financial daily Il Sole-24 Ore, after many years of difficult administration, it came as something of a surprise that a foreign team could produce such a mind-boggling work. This consideration brought to mind that the English member of that foreign operatic team, Ian Storey, is a true late-comer to grand opera. A knee injury prematurely ended his sports career, and so he began to sing in a local chorus while learning carpentry and furniture design. At age 32 he began to sing seriously. His personal commitment and discipline are extraordinary; he spent seven months studying German and the music for his La Scala debut.

Daniel Barenboim made his debut with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 1953, later becoming pianist/conductor for the English Chamber Orchestra. In 1967 he married the cellist Jacqueline du Pré; their marriage and her death from multiple schlerosis in 1987 was the subject of a film, NAME TK (YEAR TK). From 1975 to 1987 he was musical director of first the Orchestre de Paris and then of the new Paris Opéra at Place de la Bastille until 1991, when he became musical director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where he remained until 2006.

  • robert berger

    Correction: The statement that La Scala has not seen a Wagner production in three decades is incorrect.Former
    La Scala music director Riccardo Muti conducted a
    production of Wagner’s Ring cycle in the 90s.

  • Peter Bridges

    Judith Harris’s fine essay needs no comment, yet I will add one. She brings out beautifully the figure of the superb Israeli musician conducting at La Scala a masterpiece by the great anti-Semitic German. Robert Berger comments that before this new production of Tristan und Isolde, Wagner was performed at La Scala in the 1990s. The whole question of Wagner and Italy is fascinating, and one hopes Judith Harris will have more to tell us about it. I find, in a few minutes’ search, that a Wagner opera was first performed in Italy in 1871–Lohengrin, in Bologna. A bit late, perhaps, for an opera that appeared in 1850; but its first New York performance was that same year, and it was first performed in London only four years later. In any case, the Italians grew to be good fans, and by the end of the nineteenth century Wagner led the list (Verdi was second) of composers whose operas were being performed in Italy. Some decades later, the Duce said he liked Wagner better than Puccini–but Vittorio Mussolini often saw his father asleep during a Wagner opera. Now, Ms. Harris, tell us more!

  • jane dashwood

    i hav always wanted to go to the la scala opera house. can someone describe the place for me and its history?

  • http://www.judith-harris.com Judith Harris

    Very belatedly for Jane Dashwood: Wikipedia has an excellent article on the 17th century La Scala opera theater in Milan, with illustrations. The history also includes the problem of obtaining tickets. Plan way ahead–but do this once in a lifetime at least. My own first visit was a birthday gift in a box seat to see a performance of Peter Grimes, Riccardo Muti conducting. I shall never forget it. –Judith Harris

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