On certain evenings at La Scala the stakes feel exhilaratingly high, and this performance – the first of Il pirata at the house for 60 years – made for one of those evenings. It is the work with which a 26-year-old Bellini made his name in Milan in 1827, and it has enjoyed legendary performances at La Scala since. The last time it appeared, in 1958, Maria Callas sang the the role of Imogene to great acclaim. Sonya Yoncheva's succession was always going to be a baptism by fire. The Bulgarian passed the test in style, providing a scintillating delivery that drew feverish approval from the public.

Sonya Yoncheva (Imogene) © Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Sonya Yoncheva (Imogene)
© Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Not everyone involved in the production fared so well. Il pirata's rich history at La Scala makes it one of the works the loggionisti – the most zealous and widely-feared portion of the local audience – feels a sense of possession over, and it will temper its ire for nobody it perceives to be under the bar. Applause for Yoncheva was succeeded by savage curtain-call booing for the baritone Nicola Alaimo, director Emilio Sagi and conductor Riccardo Frizza. The latter two cases felt unfair, and such contrasting verdicts made for a strange evening. But it was nevertheless the Yoncheva's triumph that defined the occasion.

The soprano sounded in complete control as she cooed and blazed through the score, and formidable technique was in evidence when she streamed between her rich middle, ringing upper and ample bottom registers with insouciant aplomb. Legato phrases and quickfire coloratura were putty in Yoncheva's hands as she avoided vocal extravagance for its own sake to invest each phrase of Felice Romani's libretto with nuance and expressive depth. The vitality and multidimensional nature of her characterisation made for an unwaveringly gripping delivery: the sense of despair in "Lo sognai ferito, esangue" was profound, the transformation from crepuscular fragility in "Geme l'aura d'intorno" to glowing introspection in "Col sorriso d'innocenza" and blazing defiance in "Gualtiero! oh periglio!" stunning.

Piero Pretti (Gualtiero) and Sonya Yoncheva (Imogene) © Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Piero Pretti (Gualtiero) and Sonya Yoncheva (Imogene)
© Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Piero Pretti was a heroic Gualtiero, and while he sometimes sounded monochrome compared with Yoncheva, his bright, strident voice rang out tirelessly throughout this challenging role. The tenor also provided imaginative embellishments and impressive, if on occasion vinegary, top notes. Nicola Alaimo, the towering baritone, can sound surprisingly small of voice in a large theatre, and while he provided a pleasingly menacing depiction of the villain Ernesto, he was underpowered. In the smaller roles, Francesco Pittari and Riccardo Fassi gave solid contributions as Itulbo and Goffredo.

Nicola Alaimo (Ernesto) and Sonya Yoncheva (Imogene) © Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Nicola Alaimo (Ernesto) and Sonya Yoncheva (Imogene)
© Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Riccardo Frizza drew a well-portioned and shapely interpretation of Bellini's beautiful score, the Sinfonia zipping along at a sprightly pace, its melodies blooming elegantly. The punishment meted out to Frizza at the curtain call perhaps suggests his detractors wanted a bolder, terser reading as has been achieved by some of his predecessors on disc, but the conductor's refined reading was both valid and effective. There could be no reservations about the chorus, which made fine contributions throughout and was on ear-splitting form in the opening vision of a raging storm.

Sonya Yoncheva (Imogene) and chorus © Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Sonya Yoncheva (Imogene) and chorus
© Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The storm was resourcefully portrayed by director Emilio Sagi, who evoked turbulent waters with little more than strobe lighting, writhing chorus members and projections on a scrim – a typical example of the director's deft handiwork throughout this production. Sagi opts for abstraction over precise setting in time and place, providing a raked stage in Act 1 counterposed with a mobile panel of ceiling mirrors which together form a tapering tunnel that narrows completely as the panel descends. It rises to reveal various backdrops, including churned battlefields seen from above and a wintry woodland scene, like spectral images. There is little direction of the cast, but the clean sets, also featuring moving mirrored walls and neon lighting, as well as the opulent costumes in black and white, cohere in a powerfully atmospheric whole. In a striking funeral scene, Imogene emerges from a chain curtain holding a starkly-lit black drape which she slowly pulls over Ernesto's coffin during her showpiece aria. It was the highlight in a performance that will surely see Yoncheva enter La Scala's hall of fame alongside Callas.

****1