It’s a topsy-turvy world. I might have guessed that something was afoot after gazing pre-live stream at a theatre playbill which flashed onto the screen, announcing that the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala’s latest concert was to be directed as planned by Zubin Mehta, but featuring the name of only one of the intended soloists and with most of the original line-up removed. Out with Mahler and Ravel, out with thematic transitions from darkness to light as promised in Mozart’s Prague Symphony, and instead a C minor overture (Beethoven’s Coriolan) to open and a C major symphony to close. Having seen the same conductor a mere fortnight previously working in entirely different conditions north of the Alps, it was more than a little dispiriting to be reminded of the stringent public health restrictions in Italy: all string players, the timpanist and indeed the conductor himself wore face masks throughout, perspex screens separated the players and the only acknowledgement at the end between conductor and concertmaster was by way of a brief fist-bump.

Zubin Mehta conducts the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala © Teatro alla Scala
Zubin Mehta conducts the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala
© Teatro alla Scala

The orchestra was seated parterre facing inward, with Mehta looking out into the golden and maroon auditorium bathed in a warm glow. As Massimo Polidori, La Scala’s principal cello, made clear in one of two pieces to camera shown during the breaks, the musicians are finding it hard to adapt to the enormous distances in layout as required by social distancing and the considerable reverberation time in the theatre. Playing without the audience’s additional energy is depressing; they even miss the coughs.

Mehta and Chen Reiss are old friends. As he explained in fluent Italian, when she first auditioned for him in Israel she was still doing her military service and came clad in her army uniform. The two concert arias by Mozart were all that remained of the advertised programme; the original order, however, was reversed. These proved an ideal display vehicle for Reiss' honey-toned voice, mixing warm lyricism with fiery temperament. She treated both as pieces of stage entertainment, the eyes flashing, the head tossed back defiantly, the hands sometimes outstretched in gentle supplication, the knowing smile of a you-can’t-fool-me minx which drew the listener in. The lower tessitura of the shorter aria, Chi sà, chi sà qual sia, suited her voice perfectly, and she was not found wanting either in the coloratura elements of Voi avete un cor fedele where her “Ah, non credo” was delivered as a stinging rebuke to the lover who proclaims his supposedly faithful intentions.

Chen Reiss and the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala © Teatro alla Scala
Chen Reiss and the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala
© Teatro alla Scala

For Schubert’s Great C major, Mehta had a much larger orchestra at his disposal than in the Bavarian opera house, with a doubling of the horns and no less than seven double basses. Timings were almost identical. As before, and in keeping with his aim of treating the symphony as a sinfonia concertante for woodwind, he had these eight players grouped around his podium in a semi-circle. In his piece to camera, the principal oboe, Fabien Thouand, underlined the considerable gains in ensemble work through the much closer eye contact. I wish I could be more complimentary about the overall sound: it was decidedly beefy and not helped by the reverberation, and there was a disappointing slackness among the string sections, with an absence of attack at the start of the Scherzo and little of the cut-and-thrust which can make the Finale a heady experience. Mehta’s focus throughout was on shaping the lyrical lines and adding large dollops of Viennese charm: Schlagobers in place of a Milanese cappuccino.


This performance was reviewed from the La Scala live video stream

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