Singers often use recitals, whether live or on disc, to perform roles they never would otherwise. Sometimes this is a hint of things to come; other times the performance is a one-off. The Teatro alla Scala’s program of arias and overtures found Maria Agresta on familiar ground with Desdemona and Maddalena di Coigny, while attempting Manon and Wally for the first time, while Francesco Meli tackled roles entirely new to him. Whether Puccini’s Des Grieux and Verdi’s Otello are signposts further down the road of heavier roles remains to be seen. Agresta, on the other hand, could conceivably jump into a production of La Wally or Manon Lescaut tomorrow.

Maria Agresta
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The effect of Italy’s recent move into a third lockdown was palpable in Nicola Luisotti’s closing, heartfelt appeal for the arts and for patience in the face of the new restrictions as well as in the heightened emotions of the performers. The La Scala orchestra was on top form, the plush, responsive strings outstanding in painting the colors of dawn on the flow of the Rhine and its forested bank in Catalani’s prelude to Loreley and voicing Marco Tutino’s intermezzo to 2015’s La Ciociara as an affirmation of life following the brutal rape of the title character and her daughter. The Stiffelio sinfonia featured the exceptional, seamless and lyrical legato of the trumpet solo. Luisotti was in perfect synch with his singers, though he didn’t keep the orchestra from covering them at times, most noticeably in the Manon Lescaut excerpt where Agresta and Meli strained to be heard on the duet’s highest note.

A svelte Agresta changed gowns twice during the program’s 35 minutes, striking in red satin for the last two selections. Singing without a score she was consistently involved dramatically. Manon and Wally were as clearly defined as Desdemona, a role in her repertory since the beginning of her career fifteen years ago. Puccini’s heroine showcased a flair for dramatic declamation while the other two roles benefited from her familiar ability to sing softly and spin long phrases to foster an intimate, contemplative mood tinged with melancholy.

Nicola Luisotti and Francesco Meli
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

With a score on the stand throughout, Meli, looking incongruously professorial in his glasses, focused on singing as accurately and expressively as possible. Arrigo’s aria from La battaglia di Legnano with its description of Milan as magnanima and valorosa was chosen as a salute to the city and its resolve during the pandemic, but it also gave Meli the opportunity for some fine legato singing to begin the concert.

He sang Otello’s Act 3 monologue in his voice as it is, resisting the impulse of some tenors to add weight and darkness. Though it was a sensitive interpretation, there was no hint of the voce soffocata Verdi asks for, nor yet the sense of Otello as a perilous, wounded animal. In contrast, the Act 1 love duet with Agresta was fully realized musically and dramatically with Meli caressing phrases like, “E tu m’ amavi per le mie sventure” and using a well chosen mezza voce for his final line. He let out all the stops for the Manon Lescaut duet, raising the emotional bar for everyone.

The Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The “Ecco l’altare” scene from Andrea Chénier is one of the opera’s most intimate and quiet and an unusual selection from this opera to close a program given that “Vicino a te” would normally be the duet of choice to do so. Perhaps the reason lies in Maddalena’s feelings of vulnerability and isolation in a time of great peril and the affirmative power of love’s capacity to bloom even amidst terror and turmoil? Given the tenor of Luisotti’s closing remarks and his intermission conversation with Marco Tutino, it seems more than likely. “Milan col coeur in man” goes the saying in dialect enshrining the city’s generous, open-hearted nature. La Scala “col coeur in man” offers this concert as a gift to Milan, to Italy, and to a world still trying to find its way through the fog of uncertainty.

This performance was reviewed from the Teatro alla Scala video stream