Milan's Teatro alla Scala is the high temple of opera, worthy only of the art form's greatest performers. But the talent had better come well tuned. Strike one false note, make one false move and the loggionisti, the fans in the cheap seats, can light up as if they're at a soccer match.
Booing and hissing is routine at La Scala, though stories of tomato tossing, at least in recent decades, are of dubious authenticity. No less than Luciano Pavarotti and Daniel Barenboim have suffered the wrath of the loggionisti. In 2006, French tenor Roberto Alagna was booed after his first aria in Aida and slunk off stage. (A few months ago, he turned down the opportunity to redeem himself at La Scala in Jules Massenet's Werther.)
So are Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, the founders and co-artistic directors of Toronto's Opera Atelier, feeling any pressure? Sure they are, for the husband-and-wife duo are about to make their debut at La Scala and the rehearsal schedule is hardly luxurious.
"La Scala is A-house, top of the rung," Pynkoski says. "I don't think anything could be more wonderful. The audiences in Milan take their opera very, very seriously."
They leave for Milan on Wednesday to whip Mozart's Lucio Silla into shape; Pynkoski is the stage director and Zingg is the choreographer. Three weeks later, on Feb. 26, Lucio Silla, conducted by Marc Minkowski, will make its La Scala premiere, using La Scala's orchestra, chorus and ballet company. While it will be very much an Italian production, the two Canadians, after Minkowski, get top direction billing. That means the quality of the performance, or lack thereof, will reflect on Opera Atelier itself.
The La Scala appearance is certainly a coup for Pynkoski and Zingg. In another sense, it is no surprise at all, for Opera Atelier, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, is building global recognition in the rarefied world of baroque opera by chalking up one international success after another. "We've always toured, but it's getting more consistent now," Pynkoski says.
La Scala is merely an exceedingly glamorous pit stop on Atelier's global itinerary. Only a few days ago, Atelier announced it would become a regular guest at the Royal Opera at the Palace of Versailles, which opened in 1770 with a performance of Jean-Baptiste Lully's Persée and a teenaged Marie Antoinette in the audience. Atelier made its Versailles debut with Lully's Armide in 2012 and returned two years later, to rave reviews, with Persée, marking the opera's first performance at Versailles since the Louis XIV era.
Laurent Brunner, director of Château de Versailles Spectacles, says Opera Atelier and Versailles are planning a production for 2017, title yet to be determined. Atelier is a proven crowd-pleaser at the palace, he says, because it works on so many levels – singing, staging, acting, costumes, movement and orchestra.
He also loves the idea of a Canadian company reviving all-but-forgotten French operas (Persée and Armide have headlined several times at the Elgin Theatre, its Toronto home). "Atelier gives us an exchange between the old world and the new," Brunner says. "The Baroque French style opera is not played a lot outside of France. We want Atelier to continue to do it."
Opera Atelier has had an affection for road trips since its early days – the first tour, to Stuttgart, Germany, was in 1989 – when the journeys had all the chaos and manic energy of a Jack Kerouac adventure. On one tour, Pynkoski arrived in the Netherlands only to learn that Atelier was $50,000 in the hole and couldn't pay Tafelmusik, the baroque orchestra in Toronto that would become its regular performing partner. Tafelmusik saved Atelier by kindly accepting a three-year payment schedule. Supported at the time by a generous grant from France's BNP Paribas Foundation, Atelier tours since the mid-1990s took the Canadians to Japan, South Korea and various parts of the United States.
For Pynkoski and Zingg, a great international triumph, perhaps their greatest, came in 2012, when they staged Lucio Silla at the Salzburg Festival in Austria. In the audience was Salzburg artistic director Alexander Pereira, who was about to become La Scala's general manager and was clearly impressed by Lucio Silla. "He said that we have to go to La Scala," Pynkoski recalls. "It seemed like it was too good to be true."
It was true, and off they went.
Pynkoski faces an exceedingly demanding schedule, with only three weeks of rehearsal time in Milan (Salzburg's rehearsal schedule was twice as long), after which he and Zingg have to launch right into Atelier's next Elgin Theatre production, Orpheus and Eurydice, which opens April 9. The turnaround time is so tight that he and Zingg are disappearing immediately after the Lucio Silla opening. "We have to hit the ground running in Toronto," he says.
A few days before his departure for Milan, Pynkoski was in his usual vivacious, frantic mood, although confident that La Scala's Italian opera fans will sit in adoring attention in spite of their unforgiving reputation. "From the musical point of view, we are on solid ground with superb singers and with Marc Minkowski, one of the most enlightened Mozart conductors in the world," he says. "As for the staging and choreography, Jeannette and I believe La Scala's audience will be thrilled to see their musical heritage treated with such love and respect."