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La Scala’s gala premiere of ‘Don Carlo’ celebrates Italian opera’s new status as cultural treasure

The issue of who would occupy the royal box on opening night spawned a pre-performance kerfuffle. Unions protested the seat of honor going to a far-right politician who has not condemned Italy’s fascist past

Ignazio La Russa, the president of Italian Senate, and his wife Laura De Cicco
Ignazio La Russa, the president of Italian Senate, and his wife Laura De Cicco arrive to attend the opening night of the La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy, December 7, 2023.DANIELE MASCOLO (REUTERS)

Italian melodrama’s official recognition as a global cultural treasure was celebrated Thursday with La Scala’s season premiere of Verdi’s Don Carlo, an opera that hits hot-button topics of power and oppression.

In keeping with a La Scala tradition of off-stage melodrama, the issue of who would occupy the royal box at the Milan opera house on opening night spawned a pre-performance kerfuffle. La Scala’s unions protested the institutional seat of honor going to Senate Speaker Ignazio La Russa in the absence of Italy’s president and premier.

La Russa, a far-right politician whom the unions claim has not condemned Italy’s fascist past, sat in the front row of the adorned royal box with Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala, a left-wing politician who invited 93-year-old senator-for-life and Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre to join him.

Segre received warm applause from the audience before the curtain went up, and after the Italian anthem was played someone yelled, “Long live anti-fascist Italy.”

Segre acknowledged the royal box debate as she arrived, saying, “everyone wants to sit next to me,” and reminded journalists that she has been a life-long season ticketholder at La Scala.

La Russa can expect a chilly reception from the musicians and workers when he goes backstage during the intermission to greet Riccardo Chailly, La Scala’s chief conductor. La Scala workers typically salute the arriving authorities.

But the labor organizations for theater workers put out a statement before the opening: “Fascists are not welcome at Teatro alla Scala.”

La Scala asserted itself as an anti-fascist force during the regime of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Famed conductor Arturo Toscanini refused to play the fascist party anthem in the theater or elsewhere, earning him a beating from Mussolini’s Black Shirts. After World War II, Toscanini quickly rehired choral director Vittore Veneziani, who was forced out of his job by Italy’s antisemitic racial laws in 1938.

The start of the 2023-24 season highlighted the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO’s decision to include Italian lyric opera on its list of intangible cultural treasures. The agency on Wednesday recognized the global importance of the 400-year-old art form that combines music, costume and stage direction.

La Scala’s general manager, Dominique Meyer, told the audience before the opera that Italian opera had helped “the Italian language become known and loved in the whole world.”

Chailly, the opera house’s music director, conducted “Don Carlo,” which turns around the power dynamic between the king of Spain and his son, Don Carlo, who are caught in a love triangle and hold opposing views on the Spanish empire’s oppression of its colonies.

The cast included a pair of La Scala premiere veterans: Russian soprano Anna Netrebko as Elisabeth of Valois and Italian tenor Francesco Meli in the title role.

Lluis Pasqual, the stage director, said Don Carlo’s focus on nationalism and religion remain current as the suffering in the Middle East persists.

“One is tempted to say, ‘How important is it if the soprano is a meter more to the left or the right?’ None at all in comparison with what is happening in the world,” Pasqual, who is Spanish, said. “The only way to react, we who can’t do anything to improve the situation, at least I cannot, is to do our work in the best way possible.’’

La Scala’s season premiere remains one of Europe’s top cultural events, bringing together top cultural, political and business figures as the city observes a holiday for the patron saint St. Ambrose. As such, it is often the target of protests, leading to the center of Milan being cordoned off.

Quiet protests made it inside. Some female attendees wore red shoes and jangled their keys as part of growing protests to end violence against women following the killing last month of a 22-year-old student north of Venice. And an Iranian tenor, Ramtin Ghazavi, who sings in La Scala’s choir strode the red carpet wearing a T-shirt reading: Women, Life, Freedom in support of women protesting in his native country.

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