The conductor Lorenzo Viotti may only be 28 years old, but he has established himself as an exciting talent since winning the Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Awards in 2015. La Scala's Superintendent Alexander Pereira has been trying to lure Viotti to the Milan house for a number of years, and finally succeeded in doing so this season for a variegated programme designed to showcase the conductor's versatility. Viotti has clearly wasted no time in winning over the locals. First, the media trumpeted the forthcoming arrival of a boy wonder. Then, the orchestra played for him with ferocious dedication.

Lorenzo Viotti © Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Lorenzo Viotti
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Viotti will find that encouraging, considering he is to return to La Scala to conduct Gounod's Roméo et Juliette in 2020. The programme this time round indicated the conductor's strengths: clarity of gesture, an eye for detail and a visceral intensity that inspires mettlesome playing (in this way Viotti resembled a young Chailly). It also indicated his weaknesses. By generally seeking to control every detail Viotti sometimes accentuated the small moment over the overall structure, which robbed much of this music of its transportative power.

We got off to a good start. Wagner described 1870 as the happiest year in his life, and the Siegfried Idyll, which he wrote that year, is one of his tenderest works. In Viotti's hands it was unwaveringly rhapsodic, the conductor smoothing over the flashes of pain that tremble beneath the surface to provide a sound that was consistently sweet, rich and luminous. Strings played with heavy bows and provided a sound that was buttery but never lacking the typical Scala lustre. The slow ascent to the supercharged climax seemed to look ahead to the Scriabin to come later in the programme.

Lorenzo Viotti conducts the Filarmonica della Scala © Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Lorenzo Viotti conducts the Filarmonica della Scala
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

In providing such an unwaveringly idyllic vision of the Idyll perhaps Viotti was saving something for his jet black rendition of Rachmaninov's The Isle of the Dead. Here was a performance filled with high drama from the off, the image of oarsmen tugging through the dark night evoked with all of the brooding intensity of the Böcklin painting that inspired the music. It was also replete with fine detail, Viotti drawing out coiling winds, slithering muted trumpets and the icy wail of wandering violins with razor sharp gestures matched with animal aggression. The conductor extracted vivid colours with jabs of the baton and a clawed fist plunged into the air in front of him, grunting as he drove his forces on. His compact figure, which moved less flowingly as in sharp, almost laborious motions, evoked a corresponding sense of fatigue from the orchestra which made the various points of arrival feel well-earned.

But a lack of fluidity left us wanting in the pieces that followed. Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune looked a good match for the analytical Viotti on paper, and indeed the conductor artfully shaped individual parts such as the solo flute, swashing harp and swaying horns that open the work. But this was overall a flat performance in which the sensuous hazes never entranced. Similarly, in Scriabin’s Le Poème de l'extase Viotti made engaging work of various individual sections – the furtive, jabbing theme was especially effective – yet one sensed the conductor zooming in too much on the minutiae so that the shape-shifting harmonies felt disjointed. But, while we never reached the full mystic heights Scriabin's score, playing registered an impact in moments that counted most. The great final climax, with crashing cymbals and resounding organ, was highly intense. Viotti's debut La Scala opera will be one to watch.

****1