Richard Wagner won over La Scala's ardent Verdi followers during the gala season premiere on Friday with a production of "Lohengrin" that packed surprises -- including the last-minute arrival of German soprano Annette Dasch in the role of Elsa after two singers fell ill with the flu.
Dasch, who has sung the role in the Bayreuth festival since 2010, got a call at her home in Berlin at 6 p.m. Thursday to take the stage for Milan's premiere cultural event the next evening.
"It's one of those moments when you think, c'mon, what kind of person am I? Am I courageous? Yes I am! So I will just do it," Dasch said back stage after the show, already changed into jeans and clutching her 10-month old daughter who traveled with her nursing mom and was still wide-eyed after a nearly 5-hour dose of Wagner from backstage.
Not an hour early, Dasch was taking curtain calls in a 15-minute long ovation along with Barenboim, tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the role of Lohengrin, Evelyn Herlitzius who portrayed Ortrud and Rene Pape as Heinrich der Vogler.
Few singers have faced been called to one of the world's premier stage on such short notice. La Scala was forced to look abroad after not one but two sopranos fell ill. Anja Harteros had to cancel with the flu both the premier and a preview performance for youth earlier in the week, which was performed by Ann Peterson, who herself then fell ill.
Dasch arrived in Milan at midnight Thursday. On Friday, she spent time with conductor Barenboim -- he put it at five minutes -- and some two and a half hours with director Claus Guth.
Dasch had worked previously with both Barenboim and Guth -- and had even sung Elsa to Kaufmann's Lohengrin in Bayreuth.
"I just tried to focus and really listen to what Claus had to say with the concepts. With Barenboim, I know he is literally the best accompanist in the world. ... So I knew I had the support," she said.
Both Barenboim and Kaufmann praised Dasch's adaptability and performance.
"It was full of surprises even for us. Usually the surprises are for the audience, but this time also for us, for me certainly, another soprano, who fortunately I already knew," Kaufmann said. "I have to say what she did was truly a miracle. To keep calm, she was fantastic."
She didn't miss a step -- not even when her 18th Century dress, in keeping with Guth's decision to set the fairytale in the Victorian era -- caught on the stage. She just circled around once until it freed.
Barenboim was elated with the evening -- citing the orchestra "capable of playing like hardly anyone in the world," the "stupendous" chorus and "top-notch" singers.
He acknowledged that a double illness was not normal even in the dramatic world of opera, but said he knew Dasch could step in having worked with her previously -- though never on Wagner. He said he has seen her voice develop from Mozart when she was young to more mature Wagner roles.
"Dasch, according to me, will be a great Wagnerian singer," Barenboim said.
The audience was completely won over from the first act, applauding enthusiastically at both breaks and giving no credence to media criticism that La Scala was inaugurating its dual bicentennial celebrations of its own Giuseppe Verdi and German icon Wagner with a Teutonic classic.
"Wagner always wins when you play the music well," Barenboim said.
Premier Mario Monti, a La Scala regular, took a break from the grueling job of reforming Italy's economy and after Thursday's moves by Silvio Berlusconi's center-right party to pull support from the government. He went back stage to meet the singers during one of the intermissions.
With no time to rest on her laurels, Dasch heads back to Berlin early Saturday for an evening performance of Mozart's "La finta giardiniera" (The Gates of Love).
"Something completely different," she said.