Marshall Pynkoski was a near explosive bundle of nerves before the opening of Mozart's Lucio Silla at Teatro alla Scala in Milan. As director of the production, the co-founder and artistic director of Toronto's Opera Atelier acknowledged he was way out of his comfort zone. "And I don't like being uncomfortable."
But sometimes taking risks pays off, and it paid off Thursday evening when Lucio Silla went off without a hitch to strong, if not rapturous, applause from the notoriously critical Italian opera fans. Better yet, the "surprise" Pynkoski had promised was duly delivered.
To be sure, the lighting didn't quite work – it was too bright or too dark at times – and the singing was certainly more captivating in the second half than the first. Still, it all hung together and Pynkoski pronounced the result "a miracle" given the formidable rehearsal time constraints under which he and his wife, Jeannette Zingg, who choreographed the dancers, had worked.
"I'm feeling relieved," he said at the midnight reception after the opera. "I'm so happy for all the performers and it will only get better."
And the promised surprise?
In the last act, Croatian tenor Kresimir Spicer, who plays the Roman dictator Lucio Silla, who wants to marry Giunia, the daughter of his political foe, delivers a long aria. Since the aria goes on seemingly forever, at the risk of punishing the audience, Pynkoski had his man come off the stage, through the orchestra pit and up to the very edge of the audience. The opera fans in the first dozen rows of La Scala seemed captivated by Silla breaking through an invisible wall to address them – the opera had suddenly become personal. Yes, it was a gimmick, but it worked a charm when it could equally have flopped.
For Pynkoski and Zingg, who launched Opera Atelier 30 years ago and pushed it onto the international baroque opera map, it was a night of firsts. It was the first time the couple directed a performance at La Scala, the high temple of opera. It was the first time the elegant and willowy Zingg did not dance in a performance she had choreographed. It was the first time they put together such a complex opera, replete with sword fights, in such a ridiculously short time.
They were given just two weeks to put Lucio Silla together. They knew the work, written by Mozart when he was just 16. The duo staged it in 2012, at the Salzburg Festival in Austria, marking one of their greatest triumphs beyond home turf.
But other than having worked with Marc Minkowski, the French music conductor, the rest of the La Scala team – the five cast members, 10 dancers and technical staff – were unknown to the Canadians.
Three of the cast members were newbies. One singer was pulled, another became ill and a third briefly disappeared for a performance elsewhere. The classically trained dancers had to learn baroque technique in a hurry. After the first days of 10-hour, relentless rehearsals, Pynkoski and Zingg were in a near panic. "I found it impossible to believe we could get to the degree of detail needed for a work of this complexity," Pynkoski said.
Then, in typically Italian fashion, where progress is made only when deadlines loom, a sort of harmony emerged. "We were very stressed about how it would all go until about a week ago," Zingg said. "Then it all came together … The dancers felt like friends."
When the curtain went up, Pynkoski and a few of Opera Atelier's Canadian sponsors settled into the royal box and soaked in the breathtaking view of the elegant 1778 opera house, with its tiered galleries and massive chandelier.
Pynkoski and Zingg took their seats – on opening night, they were spectators, not directors. Pynkoski fidgeted, removed his jacket and stared intently. It was hard to tell if he was enjoying himself. But at intermission, after it became apparent that all their compressed work was paying off, and no disaster had struck, Pynkoski broke into a wide smile. "I'm so happy, " he said. "Not only am I happy, I am relieved."
The Canadians had conquered La Scala. "Just being here, being part of the history of this great opera house, among all our idols, it was a real thrill," Pynkoski said.