Daniel Barenboim, in his first appearance as the Milan opera house's principal guest conductor, had to conduct Wagner's lengthy and complex Tristan und Isolde without shoes, according to Agence France-Presse. The new maestro scaligero ("maestro of La Scala") told the Italian news agency ANSA that the front of one of his shoes broke off completely, so he took off both of them. (Our heedless headline notwithstanding, Barenboim almost certainly conducted wearing socks.)
(The threat by 40 orchestra members, who were dissatisfied by the temporary settlement regarding pay that was reached with La Scala management last week, to perform in shirtsleeves and black armbands rather than their usual concert attire was not followed through, according to The New York Times.)
These sartorial issues were evidently the only problems in the pit on opening night, which at La Scala is always held on December 7 (the feast of Milan's patron saint, Ambrose). Critics from Italy and abroad seem unanimous in their high praise for the way Barenboim and his players rendered Wagner's score; at the end of the evening, the maestro and musicians received 15 minutes of cheers and a shower of roses, according to the Associated Press.
Opinion on the performances of the leads is more divided. The veteran mezzo-turned-soprano Waltraud Meier was widely admired for compelling acting; English-speaking critics (most notably for The New York Times) praised her singing as well; reviews from the Continent were harsher. (All of them observed that her upper register was problematic.) British tenor Ian Storey was making his La Scala debut (at Barenboim's invitation following the withdrawal of Burkhard Fritz) in one of the most challenging roles in all of opera; he evidently wasn't producing much sound and was sometimes nearly inaudible, according to reports, though some reviewers attributed his difficulties to opening-night jitters.
The new staging by director Patrice Chéreau, with whom Barenboim had wanted to collaborate on this opera for two decades, was criticized for being visually dark, murky and monochrome, though he did get credit for his work with his actor-singers.
American viewers should be able to draw their own conclusions about the production and performances in mid-January, as a high-definition video recording of this Tristan becomes the second opera in La Scala's new series of presentations in select U.S. cinemas.