To coincide with the six-month Universal Exposition currently showing in Milan, La Scala unveiled a "La Scala for Expo" initiative that augmented its current season by 130 performances of opera, ballet, concerts and recitals. For the first time in its 237-year history, curtains would rise year-round, even in August, when Italians shutter city facades for the sea, remarkable for a culture uninitiated to the round-the-clock juggernaut wheels of commerce and industry, especially during the culmination of summer vacations, Ferragosto. The show must go on.

Marc Minkowski © Marco Borggreve
Marc Minkowski
© Marco Borggreve

The program bowed on May 1 under its new principal conductor, Riccardo Chailly, in a high-profile staging of Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s Puccini Turandot, and continues to lure the tourist overflow visiting the city’s Expo through October 31. Filarmonica della Scala symphony concerts, corralled under an "International Festival for Orchestras" program, affiliate heavyweights Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker, Gustavo Dudamel and the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar, and Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, among others.

For an Italian cultural institution with such a strong legacy of quality over quantity, could the “Scala for Expo” programming steer clear of the odd banality? There were no guarantees with its latest concert, which felt desultory and passive, a Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart set-list with the Filarmonica della Scala that united conductor Marc Minkowski with German soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang.

Soloist Frang's kinetic, meticulous technique was the uncontested highlight in the Violin Concerto no. 5 in A major, K.219, Mozart's 1775 string concerto that premiered in Salzburg. Ageless in demeanor, seasoned in sound, and poised in a stage-skimming, bohemian-folkish dress, Frang impishly sawed Allegro, Adagio and Rondeau movements where unaffected middle notes rustled and top notes bled into impeccable pianissimi. For her encore, she played a striking, self-possessed Norwegian folk song.

In a blushing-beige gown, tulle and jeweled, soprano Müller began with a warm, round "Ah, lo previdi...Ah, t'invola agli occhi miei", a concert aria composed by Mozart in 1777, modeled after an aria from Gioacchino Cocchi’s 1755 Andromeda. Post-intermission, Müller sang the Countess' "E Susanna non vien!...Dove sono i bei momenti" from Le nozze di Figaro. What she lacked in flexibility was supplanted in pulsing, wildcard expression, although her encore – a bafflingly repeated “Dove sono i bei momenti” – felt middling.

Minkowski opened with the final ballet, the Chaconne, from Idomeneo, Mozart's 1781 opera seria, written to accompany the coronation of Idamante. Despite strong soloists – flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets and strings – its stately themes woven into a Rondo-like structure dragged through the pas seul.

Slightly better was the Jupiter Symphony, K.551, composed by Mozart in just over 15 days during the summer of 1788 as he inked his last three symphonies. Thick with celestial brilliance and harmonic counterpoints, the Allegro opens with a common, 17th century formula – a forte chord answered by a cantabile answer. The Andante sparks new moods through key change before the graceful Minuetto ushers the famous Molto allegro finale.

Despite vibrant tempi, Minkowski's Jupiter struggled to converge, lacking finesse and cheek. A quiet riot, he flew through Mozart's ethereal composition on auto-pilot, and the music from the Age of Enlightenment sadly failed to enlighten.