Wagner spectacle impresses audiences across Europe

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MILAN, Italy -- It was the season's sexiest, most scintillating multimedia extravaganza. No, not "Avatar," but Wagner's "Das Rheingold," the version that recently wrapped at Milan's La Scala.

Far from being one of those monotonous operas where dumpling-like players are decked out in dowdy dresses, it was one of the hottest tickets on the Continent at the end of May and shown in cinemas throughout Europe.

What made "Rheingold" so special was the expert melding of media disciplines and the sublime conducting of Daniel Barenboim.

The oohs and aahs began with the costumes from American designer Tim van Steenbergen, which were as sumptuous as one might expect from Italy's fashion capital. Then there were the enveloping video installations that ranged from colorful images of the Wild West to simulated "Avatar"-like projections of the players onstage.

In keeping with the story, molten gold seemed to drip from video screens as the floating costumes washed across the stage. The actors seemed to wade through puddles of water, with their shadows cast on screens. There was so much modern dance woven in that at times it seemed more like a ballet.

The action in "Rheingold" moves from the bottom of the Rhine to the underground kingdom of the Nibelungs to the palace of Valhalla, a place bathed in the colors of the rainbow.

Like most big names at La Scala, Barenboim stayed nearby at the Grand Hotel et de Milan, once used as a home by Guiseppe Verde.

All but an extension of the 3-century-old theater, the hotel's newly refurbished five-star rooms are named after some of its illustrious guests, which have included Maria Callas, Rudolf Nureyev, Luchino Visconti, Ernest Hemingway, Gabriele D'Annunzio and Enrico Caruso.

Verdi stayed at the hotel for several years and composed some of his operas in the royal suite that now bears his name.

The Teatro alla Scala was founded by the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, opening its doors in August 1778 with Antonio Salieri's opera "L'Europa riconosciuta."

Barenboim was well received, but he didn't quite get the same welcome as Verdi, who, after the premiere of "Othello" in 1887, found the horses released from his carriage, which then was drawn back to the hotel by throngs of well-wishers who seemed to think he was the James Cameron of his day.
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