The Froth But Not the Coffee

 Last weekend took me on a last-minute press trip to Milan and Lake Como. More about that later in "Journeys"  when I can transfer my pictures to the Mac. But, for now a confession. My hotel, The Four Seasons, was a hundred yards from La Scala but I could not make it to a performance. On the Friday night they were giving Massenet's  "Manon" - never a favourite and on the Saturday, Verdi's "Luisa Miller." I had no ticket and the press trip kept me out and about and just far enough  from the great temple of opera, on the Friday night,  to feel that, if I cupped my hand to my ear, I might even hear a few sublime voices echoing through the hot, turgid Milan night air. Saturday took me to Lake Como, to a gorgeous resort called "Casta Diva" - once the home of legendary 19th century soprano, Giuditta Pasta and just across the lake from a villa that once housed composer, Vincenzo Bellini. It is said that he could hear her rehearsing. 

I was far enough away by then for those fantasies of hearing present-day singers to fade away. And the "Casta Diva" resort did their best to compensate by providing a young soprano and tenor to serenade us during dinner. But the longing for La Scala was too great. I ate a starter, applauded the fine young singers, looked at my watch and calculated that I could perhaps, just perhaps, find a way to sneak into  the last act of "Luisa Miller."   My hosts saw my dilemma and provided a taxi. I rode the 50 minutes into Milan in the company of Luigi, an articulate and informed driver, who told me stories of the "Clooneyisation" of Lake Como. More on that in "Journeys."

Luigi and I arrived in town too late  for that last act. I bid him farewell, and made my way to the great green doors of the opera house. I pulled one open and stepped inside. La Scala's ushers, Le Maschere, as they are known, were standing around in little groups waiting for their working evening to end. I was too late so what was I hoping for?
"Can I just sneak into the ovations?" I heard myself asking . "We can't do that," said an usher. "Please - just a  quick glance." This was tantalizing. I could hear a tenor off in the distance. I hadn't looked at the cast, hadn't had the time but even through the thick walls, I sensed it was one of the greats. "Go on," I persisted, "just a peek." I was advised to come back when the show was over in 15 minutes. I wandered outside for those 15 minutes. On this late June night, the air was thick with heat and unmoving. Lovers kissed among the trees on the little piazza in front of the theatre. The great glass-roofed 19th century Galleria arcade was quiet. Nearby a new gelato parlour beckoned but I had my date with the ovations.

When I returned to the theatre, a kind young usher, ushered  me into the auditorium. THAT auditorium. The one that still somewhere in its ether, holds the echoes of voices from Caruso to Pavarotti.  This is the theatre that looks the way we all imagine a great opera theatre should look. Red velvet, gold filigree, chandeliers - all wildly impractical for truly listening to and seeing an opera but this is La Scala and most of us don't careThe singers came out for their bows. And sure enough, there was one of my favourite tenors, the great Argentinian, Marcelo Alvarez And wonder of wonders, there was baritone, Leo Nucci, 70 years old and bowing to tumultuous applause. I joined in. How daft is that? But by now I had realized that I was getting the froth if not the coffee in the cappuccino. And in Italy how bad could that be? 

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