Associated Press, Dec 8, 2009
Colleen Barry
Bizét, Carmen, Milano, 7. Dezember 2009
Barenboim conducts 'Carmen'/ 'Carmen' gala opens La Scala's season
La Scala opened its season Monday night with the gala premiere of Bizet's "Carmen" conducted by Daniel Barenboim, the famed opera house's principal guest conductor.

The season premiere starred German tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Don Jose and 25-year-old Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, just a year out of La Scala's academy, as Carmen. Kaufmann received cries of "Bravo" from La Scala's upper tiers for his second act solo, while the foyer buzz surrounding Rachvelishvili was warm.

 One of the most highly anticipated cultural events of the season in Europe, the gala premiere is often attended by foreign dignitaries, captains of industry and cultural icons. Italian president Giorgio Napolitano was joined by Gabon President Ali Bongo and Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade.

Author Dan Brown, who has used Italy as a backdrop for his novels "The Da Vinci Code" and "Angel and Demons," was in the audience. Asked whether he was taking inspiration for future novels, Brown said: "It is quite possible. I'm mesmerized by this."

Among the details that caught his eye: "The architecture, the art, and of course you have an endless cast of characters that can be built on," Brown said during a break.

By tradition, La Scala opens it season on Dec. 7, the day honoring Milan's patron saint Ambrose. In contrast with recent years when labor disputes and tenor drama threatened to overshadow the event, this year's premiere seemed to be all about the music.

Rachvelishvili was making her debut on La Scala's stage as the feisty, independent Carmen. Born in Tbilisi, Rachvelishvili has told Italian media that her musical preferences ran toward rock music, and that she had to be pushed toward classical.

Barenboim said recently that she was being auditioned for a lesser role when he realized: "Why Mercedes? She is our Carmen."

The conductor said she still had to prove she was up for the role.

"She studied with a super fanaticism and great discipline, demonstrating she doesn't have just the voice and temperament, but also the seriousness," Barenboim told students at Milan's Catholic University last month.

He praised Kaufmann for his intelligence and linguistic ability.

"We have the fortune to have in Kaufmann a person of great intelligence. He speaks a lot of languages, speaks them very well. Germans are not known for their great facility with other languages, but he, on the other hand, speaks French nearly without accent and Italian without an accent."

"Carmen" is being performed in French, according to the Bizet score. The production is being directed by Sicilian-born Emma Dante, known in Italy for her avant-garde stage productions.

Uruguayan baritone Erwin Schrott performs Escamillo and soprano Adriana Damato sings the role of Micaela.

"Carmen" was previewed Friday to an under-30 audience, which gave the production warm applause.

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