Friday, May 29, 2009

Meeting Rossini and half the TMNG

The continuing observations of the Borths brothers in Milan (here are some photos of the events described herein)...

Teatro alla Scala:
On the other side of the Galleria is the most famous opera house in the world. To the opera world it’s the Louvre, it’s Wrigley Field, it’s the Shoe, it’s a place that embodies everything it was built for. To perform at La Scala is to be at the top of the operatic heap. Revamped in 2004, it’s a jewelry box of gilt and red velvet. Josh and I were interested in seeing a performance if we could catch one, but first we wanted to see the opera’s museum. The place has been around since 1776 and has seen as much history as, well, our country, so we assumed the museum would have some spectacular artifacts all tastefully arranged in engaging displays. It didn’t.

The museum was essentially someone’s collection of opera odds and ends. This person died and their heirs wanted to empty the attic, so they gave it to La Scala. I don’t know if that’s true, but it felt like a likely story as we glanced into cases with fans of famous Divas and busts of composers famous and obscure. The walls were covered with uninspiring portraits of people we were notable two-hundred years ago, but now stare blankly. There was a limited attempt to explain these personalities except the ones we knew about such as Verdi (they had a special devotion to him in Milan). The most interesting section of the museum was the costume display where you could observe the fastidious detail the costume designer invests in every garment. Also in the display was a series of costumes designed by Picasso for a ballet.

The reason you go to the museum is because you can peak into the theater. This was a wasted opportunity, though, since Josh and I had plans to see a performance.

How to get one of the standing-room seats at La Scala:

1) Show up early. The list appears at 1 PM. There’s only 120 of the things. We showed up way early, as in 11 AM, we were second in line and wouldn’t have companionship for an hour.
2) Make friends with the old man who’s been going to La Scala for several decades. Be sure to look amused as he speaks at you in perky Italian. You won’t understand. You probably woudn’t understand if you spoke Italian.
3) Admire the old man's ancient dog who would rather be sleeping than doing really anything else. This sidewalk is an extension of his yard.
4) Be fawned over by the old man’s friends who are entertained by these punctual Americans who seem to care about La Scala.
5) Become part of this opera family.
6) Put your name on the list for tickets at 1 PM.
7) Go back to the hotel to grab your stuff and start the labor intensive process of going down the street hotel by hotel searching for a decent price. Let on you will be back at each place and try not to act as cheap as you are.
8) Look for fashion design district and be mildly disappointed that fashion is so muted and repetitive.
9) Return to La Scala at 4:45 where the Opera Family makes sure you are in the correct part of the line to claim a ticket voucher. Receive a packet of ancient playbills from the regular while his dog snores.
10) Return to ticket office at 6 to actually claim a physical ticket.
11) Pay too much for a pizza and beer dinner at a café near the Duomo where you are besieged by pigeons. Literally. The café you are at serves chips with your beverage and the pigeons have learned to go for the snacks with a vengeance. You are but an obstacle between their appetite and your chips. If your name is Joshua, brush off the whitewash that suddenly appears on your arm thanks to the pigeons. If you name is Matthew, unsympathetically laugh. Pay the bill.
12) Back to the Opera at 7:15 for the performance.
13) Realize you may have wasted an afternoon in Milan, but also realize you’re not sure what you would have done with it if you weren’t waiting for tickets.
14) Enjoy the show.
We weren't allowed to take photos. We might have tried to sneak one, but it probably would have caused our adoptive opera-parents to raise their eyebrows in disapproval. So, this is what the interior looks like to those with a photo pass.

And we did. We were assigned seats, but couldn’t see much - so you and every other person in the back row – stand up, holding onto overhead bars so you can see and hear what’s going on. This makes reading the subtitles on the back of your seat tough to read, but this is the sacrifice we make to live cheaply while enjoying high art.
Josh looking suave outside La Scalla. He's contrapposto and the building Neo-Classical. Further proof everyone wants to be Greek.

The performance was Rossini’s “Il viagio a Rheims.” According to Josh, this was a show put together with all the aria’s Rossini hadn’t gotten into more plot driven pieces. The story involved a bunch of aristocrats from different nations trying to see the French King’s coronation in Rheims. They never make it. But they sing a lot. One scene features the harried porter packing everyone’s stuff while making gross national stereotypes about Germany, Russia, England, France, Italy, and Poland. It’s amazing how many of the stereotypes persist. They then sing about a beautiful united Europe under the kings. Obviously Rossini was writing before 1910.
Entering a castle exactly the way you would want to enter a castle.

Castello Sforzesco: A bit of a hike from the center of town (also called the Duomo) is the Castello Sforzesco, a massive bastion erected in the 14th century, that now guards a couple city museums.
Castello Sforzesco from the inside.

There’s one on Egypt, another on life in a castle, but only one was deemed worthy of our limited time: Pinacoteca del Castello Sforzesco. Or more simply, the art museum. It helped it was free. After walking past sturdy towers and a massive courtyard blanketed with lounging students, we began our tour through Milanese art history. We started in the Dark Ages with Cletic inspired carving brought in by the Lombards, the invading Germanic tribe that stomped out Roman culture and asthetics. It would be an uphill battle before ideas like “proportions” and “perspective” gained much traction.

I know it's tough to carve stone, but is it really that hard to made the head smaller than a pumpkin? Come on Medieval Artist, it's time to step it up a notch.

Josh and I were studying some massive tapestries when a guard approached us “Scuzi, uh we close soon. In 15 minutes. If you have not visited it, you should see the things later in the museum. These are more important. See Michelangelo.” We appreciated the advice. While there was plenty of artistic merit in the triptychs we power-walked past, we really did want to spend some time with Mike.

The final object in the museum is reportedly Michelangelo’s last sculpture (he had a lot of stuff in progress at the time of his death, so figuring out which piece was his “last” is kinda tough): The Rodanini Pieta. The marble sculpture is unfinished with abstract lines suggesting the faces of the dead Christ and Mary. Features such as Christ’s legs are polished, but the arms are amorphous. You can see the chisel marks in the stone. In a few days we would be in Florence where we would see some of Michelangelo’s completed works (though he didn’t complete all that much) and seeing this scene, just emerging from the rock, was an important reminder of how much effort it took to coax art from marble.

The Last Supper: In an unassuming monastery away from the city center sits one of the most famous images in western art. The artist labored for years, going past deadline and over budget. But in Milan in the late 15th century, you didn’t mess with Da Vinci. He invested his fresco with the full force of his towering, Renaissance intellect. The only problem is he really didn’t think about making sure it would last. He tried a new technique for painting plaster and the result was a work that quickly started to deteriorate and crumble.
Leonardo contemplating where to find a cheap beverage in Milan. He would soon be stumped and move on to thoughts concerning military technology.

Since its completion, people have been touching it up and restoring it until you weren’t sure what was Da Vinci and what was people trying to be DaVinci. A few years ago the work was completely restored with an effort to preserve only Leonardo’s original vision. The work once sat opposite monks at dinner, and later presided over Napoleon’s horses. Now it’s in a thermally and chemically sealed room. Only a limited number of people are allowed in for 15 minutes to look at the work under the supervision of a guard.

The thing has been hyped and analyzed (thank you Dan Brown) within an inch of its crumbling life. There was all kinds of disappointment potential. But it didn’t disappoint. The image is massive. The apostles and Christ are life-sized and larger. Everyone is a little faded, like someone forgot to put on the autofocus, but the gestures are preserved and parts of the vivid expressions. It’s packed with narrative elements I’ve never paid attention to as the apostles lean into each other with questions and theories. After being immersed in such a work I feel proud to have been Leonardo when we played Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

We also did a lot of wandering through city parks, venturing down narrow alleys that dead ended into parking lots, then sat down to pay too much for drinks. After two days in Milan we were ready to leave. She had shown us what we wanted to see. We were brusquely told off by waiters and ate more gelato. It was time to see if Venice was all it’s cracked up to be…
If this was in the States you would assume it's on the quad of some state university. In this case though, it's in a city park by a castle that was built in the 1300s.

The photos of Verona and Milan before we move on down the boot.

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