The Teatro alla Scala was founded, under the auspices of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, to replace the Royal Ducal Theatre, which was destroyed by fire on 26 February 1776 and had until then been the home of opera in Milan.
The cost of building the new theatre was borne by the owners of the boxes at the Ducal, in exchange for possession of the land on which stood the church of Santa Maria alla Scala (hence the name) and for renewed ownership of their boxes.
Designed by the great neoclassical architect Giuseppe Piermarini, La Scala opened on 3 August 1778 with Antonio Salieri's opera L'Europa riconosciuta, to a libretto by Mattia Verazi.
The early period of the theatre's artistic history is linked to the tradition of "Neapolitan" opera buffa, whose leading exponents were Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816) and Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801). Among the numerous operas performed may be mentioned La frascatana (1780), Il barbiere di Siviglia (1786) and Nina pazza per amore (1804) by Paisiello, L'italiana in Londra (1780) and Il matrimonio segreto (1793) by Cimarosa.
The theatre's repertoire was renewed between 1793 and 1798 with L'oro fa tutto by Ferdinando Paër (1771-1839) and Un pazzo ne fa cento by Giovanni Simone Mayr (1762-1845). Thus La Scala opened towards the neoclassical French taste and to the subsequent, more radical evolution of musical theatre. Paër and Mayr historically represented the junction and passage between opera buffa and the romantic opera of Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868). With the advent of Rossini in 1812 (La pietra del paragone), the Teatro alla Scala was to become the appointed place of Italian opera seria: of its history dating back more than a century and of its subsequent tradition up till the present. The catalogue of Rossini's works performed until 1825 included: Il turco in Italia, La Cenerentola, Il barbiere di Siviglia, La donna del lago, Otello, Tancredi, Semiramide and Mosé.
During that period the choreographies of Salvatore Viganò (1769-181) and of Carlo Blasis (1795-1878) also widened the theatre's artistic supremacy to include ballet.
As for its foreign repertoire, outstanding were the productions, in 1816, of Die Zauberflöte, one of the operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) given during the nineteenth century, and, in 1822, of La vestale by Gaspare Spontini (1744-1851).
In 1806 Alessandro Sanquirico (1777-1849) was appointed director of stage design. He renewed the theatre's concept of productions by adjusting them to the new romantic tendency. In 1814 the depth of the stage was increased, to occupy part of the site of a demolished convent in what is now via Verdi.
In 1821 the candle lighting at La Scala was replaced by a large central chandelier with safety lamps (called "argants"), which remained in use until the gas lighting system was introduced in 1860.
An exceptional new season of serious opera opened between 1822 and 1825, with Chiara e Serafina by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) and Il pirata by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835). The later operas of Donizetti performed at La Scala were (until 1850) Anna Bolena, Lucrezia Borgia, Torquato Tasso, La fille du régiment, La favorita, Linda di Chamonix, Don Pasquale, and Poliuto. These were followed (until 1836) by Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Norma, La sonnambula, Beatrice di Tenda and I puritani.
Among the foremost artists of the Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini repertoire should be mentioned the sopranos Isabella Colbran (1785-1845), Teresa Belloc (1784-1855), and Giuditta Pasta (1797-1865), the mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran (1806-1836), the tenor Luigi Pacini (1767-1837), the male sopranos Gasparo Pacchiarotti (1740-1821) and Giovanni Battista Velluti (1780-1861). In ballet, three of the greatest stars in the Scala's history rose to fame: Maria Taglioni (1804-1884), Fanny Cerrito (1817-1909) and the Austrian Fanny Elssler (1810-1884), who in 1848 was forced to leave the Theatre due to suspicions that she was a police informer.
With them must be mentioned the Frenchman Marius Petipa (1822-1910), who also achieved fame for having created in St Petersburg The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky. In 1839 Oberto Conte di San Bonifacio inaugurated the cycle of operas by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), the composer whose name is linked more than any other to the history of La Scala. After the dismal failure of Un giorno di regno, Nabucco was performed in 1842. It was the first, decisive triumph of Verdi's career. At the same time, the strong patriotic feelings stirred by Nabucco founded the "popularity" of opera seria and identified its image with the Scala. After two more operas (I Lombardi alla prima crociata and Giovanna d'Arco), in 1846 Verdi's collaboration with La Scala came to an abrupt halt.
For many long years the works of Verdi were performed elsewhere. But after 1869, reconciliation gradually came, with productions of the master's new version of La forza del destino. In 1872 the first "European" performance of Aida was given at La Scala, and in 1874 Verdi conducted his Requiem there. In 1881 he presented the revised Simon Boccanegra. In 1887 and in 1893, the Scala gave Otello and Falstaff, the last two masterpieces resulting from the composer's collaboration with Arrigo Boito (1842-1918). Among the greatest historic singers of Verdi opera at the Scala must be mentioned the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi (the maestro's wife, 1815-1897), Adelina Patti (1843-1919), Teresa Stolz (1834-1902), Francesco Tamagno (1850-1905, the first to play Otello), and the baritone Victor Maurel (1848-1923, the first Falstaff).
In 1881 Luigi Manzotti (1835-1905) and Romualdo Marenco (1841-1907) created the ballet Excelsior, one of the masterpieces of choreography at La Scala and still part of its repertoire today. In 1883 the lighting of the auditorium and stage was fully electrified. In 1898 the Theatre's financial troubles led to the first experiment in modern management techniques, implemented by Duke Guido Visconti di Modrone, Arrigo Boito and Giulio Gatti Casazza, who was entrusted with the general management (a role later covered by the Superintendent).
Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) became the artistic director and introduced radical reform into the theatre, both in its organisational aspects and in its relations with the public. Toscanini, one of the greatest conductors of all time, took up Verdi's musical inheritance and launched a tradition of interpretation that continued uninterruptedly and was renewed during the twentieth century. It was he who reappraised and regularly performed at the Scala the works of Richard Wagner (hitherto only belatedly and inadequately recognised). He also firmly extended the Scala's orchestral repertoire to include symphonic music. Operas by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) were given at the Scala in 1884, starting with Le Villi. This was followed by the others, Manon Lescaut, Madame Butterfly, La fanciulla del west. In 1926, Toscanini conducted the premiere of Turandot (1926), a work regarded as conclusive to the history of Italian serious opera.
In 1891 Cavalleria rusticana marked the first appearance, in the Scala's repertoire, of Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) and of musical realism. It was followed by numerous other titles by him (Iris, Parisina, Le Maschere), and by the principal works of Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919), Francesco Cilea (1866-1950) and Umberto Giordano (1867-1948). In 1906 the performance of Richard Strauss's Salome came both as a turning-point in the theatre's repertoire towards the new musical movements, and as a decisive opening towards foreign composers. The next few years saw performances of operas or music by such composers as Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, Ferruccio Busoni, Ippolito Pizzetti, Riccardo Zandonai, and Ottorino Respighi. The new artistic trend, one of whose protagonists was the conductor Tullio Serafin (1878-1968) afterwards became a permanent part of the theatre's repertoire. On 8 March 1913 the Scala Theatre Museum was opened, after the purchase of collections from the Parisian antique-dealer Jules Sambon.
In 1921 ownership of the boxes was transferred from private subscribers to the Milan City Council, a measure that had been made necessary by a new economic crisis aggravated in 1917 by the difficulties of the First World War. The Scala was transformed into a State-controlled municipal corporation, which guaranteed the annual financing of its activities. An important enlargement of the stage and the complete refurbishment of its technical systems were carried out. The period between the two wars witnessed a succession of appearances at the Scala by the great artists of the time, among whom were Feodor Scialiapin, Magda Olivero, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Titta Ruffo, Gino Bechi, Beniamino Gigli, Mafalda Favero, Toti dal Monte, Gilda dalla Rizza and Aurelio Pertile. Also significant were the innovations introduced in the standards of scenic design promoted by Nicola Benois.
In 1943 La Scala was severely damaged by bombing. Reopened on 11 May 1946, with a historic concert conducted by Toscanini, the theatre rapidly returned, under the management of Antonio Ghiringhelli, to its highest levels of production and art. Vittore Veneziani, who had been dismissed in 1938 due to racial laws, returned to direct the Chorus. In 1948 maestro Guido Cantelli (1920-1956) made his debut and established himself as one of the leading postwar conductors. Numerous opera performances productions (the Wagnerian cycle conducted in 1950 by Wilhelm Furtwängler, the Verdi repertoire by Victor De Sabata, etc), concerts (Herbert von Karajan, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Bruno Walter, etc), singers (Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Mario Del Monaco, etc), ballet performances (Margot Fonteyn, Serge Lifar, Maya Plissetskaya, Rudolf Nureyev), and productions (Luchino Visconti, Giorgio Strehler) belong not only to the history of the Scala, but to that of the history of musical theatre since the war.
In 1954 Norberto Mola was named director of the Chorus. In 1955 Carla Fracci made her first appearance at the Scala. As far as the contemporary repertoire is concerned, between 1947 and '60 and in particular under the artistic directorship of Francesco Siciliani, operas or music were performed by, among others, Sergei Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten, Alban Berg (Wozzeck, 1952), George Gershwin, Francis Poulenc (Dialogues des Carmélites 1957), Ferruccio Busoni. The following decade included works by Arnold Schoenberg (Moses und Aron, 1961), Dmitry Shostakovich (Katerina Ismailova, 1964), Luigi Dallapiccola (Volo di notte, 1963), Kurt Weill (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, 1964) and Paul Hindemith (Cardillac, 1964). In 1965 Liliana Cosi and Luciana Savignano made their first appearance at the Scala. In 1963 Luciano Berio made his début as a conductor and composer (Passaggio) as did Bruno Maderna (1920-1973) as a conductor; followed, in 1965, by Giacomo Manzoni and Claudio Abbado with Atomtud; in 1968 by the composer Franco Donatoni (1927-2000) and in 1969 by the pianist Maurizio Pollini. The creations of Roland Petit and Maurice Béjart renewed the theatre's choreography. The production of Semiramide (1962) and Guglielmo Tell (1965), which had been absent for many years from the Scala, began a re-evaluation of Rossini's serious opera repertoire, known as the "Rossini-renaissance". A pre-eminent role in the musical life of the Theatre was played by conductors like Gianandrea Gavazzeni and Antonino Votto (with Roberto Benaglio as chorus-master from 1963). In 1970 Riccardo Muti made his debut at the Scala as a symphony conductor.
In 1972 Claudio Abbado was named conductor of the Scala Orchestra. Until 1986 he directed among other works Il barbiere di Siviglia, Cenerentola, L'Italiana in Algeri by Rossini, Simon Boccanegra, Macbeth and Don Carlo by Verdi, the recent Al gran sole carico d'amore by Luigi Nono, and Pelléas et Mélisande by Claude Debussy. He also conducted numerous concerts. The chorus-master was Romano Gandolfi. In 1975 the ballet dancer Oriella Dorella debuted at La Scala. Among other contemporary composers, up till 1986 the Theatre continued to give works by Luciano Berio (La vera storia), Franco Donatoni (Atem) and Karlheinz Stockhausen (Samstag aus Licht).
In 1978 a major exhibition was held at the Palazzo Reale in Milan to celebrate the bicentenary of the theatre. In 1981 Riccardo Muti debuted at the Scala as an opera conductor (Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro). Giulio Bertola was appointed to direct the Chorus. In 1982 the Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala was established. In 1985 Alessandra Ferri made her debut at the Scala. In 1986 Riccardo Muti was appointed musical director. From 1989 to 1998 he reintroduced the best-loved works (Rigoletto, La traviata, Macbeth, La forza del destino) and numerous other titles by Verdi including Falstaff and Don Carlo.
He went on to direct the Italian Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy, as well as Idomeneo and La clemenza di Tito. His repertoire at the Scala includes Parsifal by Wagner and editions of the Ring and of Beethoven's symphonic Cycle, Fidelio, four operas by Christoph W. Gluck (including Armide, 1996), Lodoïska by Luigi Cherubini, La donna del lago by Rossini, Pagliacci by Leoncavallo, Nina, ossia La pazza per amore by Paisiello, Tosca by Puccini, and Dialogues des Carmélites by Poulenc. Among the other contemporary composers, performed until 1986 were the works of Luciano Berio (Outis), Hans Werner Henze (Lo sdegno del mare, Undine), Giacomo Manzoni (Doktor Faustus), Fabio Vacchi (La station thermale), Salvatore Sciarrino (Perseo e Andromeda), Aldo Clementi (Carillon) and Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story).
In 1991 Roberto Gabbiani took over the directorship of the chorus. In 1997 La Scala was converted into a Foundation under private ownership, thus opening a decisive phase of modernisation. In September 2000 a new tour was made in Japan.
On 16 November 2000 the Giuseppe Verdi Centenary (1901-2001) opened with a concert conducted by Riccardo Muti, attended by the President of the Republic Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, and with a major exhibition at the Palazzo Reale in Milan.
During the Verdi season, which began with Il trovatore, Riccardo Muti conducted the Messa da Requiem, Rigoletto, La traviata, Falstaff (a second production of which was staged at the Teatro Verdi in Busseto), Un ballo in maschera and Macbeth.
In February 2001, work began at the new Ansaldo Workshops, where the production, design and rehearsals of performances are rationally concentrated. From October to November the Scala was on tour in Romania, Poland, Russia and Spain.
On 7 December 2001 a new production of Otello, conducted by Muti, concluded the Verdi Year and, for the time being, performances at Piermarini's original building in Piazza Scala. Major restoration and modernisation works of the Theatre began in January 2002.
On 19 January 2002 the new Teatro degli Arcimboldi, built in the former Pirelli-Bicocca industrial area, opened with La traviata, conducted by Muti, while on 23 May the Theatre Museum opened at Palazzo Busca. The Milan City Council approved the project by the architects Mario Botta and Elisabetta Fabbri for the restoration of the Scala Theatre. In September 2003 the Scala was again on tour in Tokyo.
On 7 December 2004, with Antonio Salieri's Europa riconosciuta conducted by Riccardo Muti, the restored Scala theatre reopened. The Scala Theatre Museum, newly designed by Pier Luigi Pizzi, also returned to Piermarini's original building.
In the spring of 2005, Riccardo Muti left the Theatre after having been its musical director for 19 years. The 2005-2006 Season, dedicated to the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, was inaugurated by Idomeneo conducted by Daniel Harding.
The 2006/07 season saw the return on 7 December of an opera by Verdi, Aida, conducted by Riccardo Chailly, and the launch of the Celebrations for the 50th Anniversary of Arturo Toscanini's Death.
On 7 December 2007 the 2007/08 season opened with Tristan und Isolde conducted by Daniel Barenboim. The opera marked the beginning of a closer collaboration between the Teatro alla Scala and the Israeli-Argentinian Maestro.
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