Monday, October 16, 2006

La Scala. It's so much more than opera.

If you've been following this blog since the beginning, you know that chief among the things that move me are opera, Puccini, food and the Italian notion of bella figura.

I found them all in my day at La Scala, followed by the performance of Massenet's Manon we attended that evening.

Here's how the whole evening played out.

We rode the subway for three short stops to the Piazza del Duomo, then strolled to La Scala with the intention of partaking in the city's tradition of aperitivo, a pre-dinner drink and snack. So into the elegant La Scala restaurant we went, right into the midst of the Milanese crowd, proudly displaying the fashion for which their city is renowned. Any time I've gone to the opera or classical concert here in the U.S., audiences are predominantly dressed in black; but here was an explosion of color, from pastels to electric blues, greens and fuschia. Teenagers to grandparents, clad in designer duds. Suits impeccably tailored. Shoes - well, they're not just Italian shoes, they're in MILAN - need I say more? They engaged in animated conversation, sipped their drinks and nibbled on olives, chips of parmigiano reggiano, grissini wrapped in prosciutto, and various other bocconcini (literally, "little bites.")

As I enjoy people-watching, the wait was not a problem. There were many multi-generational family groups, which was wonderful to see. Not so wonderful is getting elbowed. It seems waiting in line is not the best way to get service. Instead, one should be pro-active: cut the line, as the staff attends to whomever catches their attention first at the front of the counter. You watch, you learn, and then you give a little elbow yourself!

I picked up some aperitivo terminology and tips: to order a small beer one asks for un bock di birra; freshly-squeezed juice is spremuta. And my all-time favorite aperitif, Campari, is also available is a clear and slightly sweeter version. (I'll stick to the red. Some habits die hard.)

Arianna had booked tables for a post-opera dinner at a nearby restaurant named Nabucco (Would we have been humming Va, pensiero over the salad?) But the long winded and utterly self-absorbed Manon, waxing over and over about her beauty,
didn't quit her narcissistic fit till after 11:30! And Nabucco, sadly, closes at it was back to the La Scala restaurant for dinner. We were told it was a very good restaurant, and the prices surprisingly on par with those of the surrounding eateries.

The wait staff was dressed beautifully, service was excellent and properly unobstrusive. (Don't you hate waiters who present the list of specials by waiting for an imaginary spotlight to illuminate their importance before they begin the recitation? I'm here for the food, bozo, not you!) My entree was a filet mignon in a reduced barolo sauce topped with truffle butter. Talk about "try a little tenderness!" I could have tossed the knife and sliced through that beef with the fork alone. The presentation was sparsely elegant, on an oversized white platter with drizzles of truffle butter and a light dusting of minced parsley around the rim; the magenta sauce and dark beef playing beautifully against the creamy white truffle slivers. The wine, suggested by the sommelier,was a perfect pairing - of course. Any annoyance at Manon was forgotten for the night.

If you love opera, you'll get yourself to the performance even if it's not one of your favorites. Let's face it - there are many things about the genre that are open to ridicule - from improbable story lines to stage manAging disasters (the prop master forgetting to put a knife in Tosca's fruit bowl, so she has to improvise and stab Scarpia with a banana, for example!) No, you go for the experience: size up the singers and staging. Sometimes you giggle at the disproportionate angst-ridden responses. Sometimes a performance is so powerful you just give in to the emotions and allow your senses shift into overdrive. And if the senses are treated to a great meal after the show - well, that's just the ticket to planning a repeat pilgrimage to La Scala.

Gillian Coldsnow

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