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La Scala’s gala premiere of ‘Don Carlo’ is set to give Italian opera its due as a cultural treasure

by Ethan Kim
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La grand premiere of Verdi’s “Don Carlo” at La Scala is poised to underscore Italian opera’s status as a global cultural treasure. This operatic masterpiece delves into pressing themes of power and oppression, aligning with the rich tradition of off-stage drama associated with La Scala.

A controversy arose before the opening night regarding the occupant of the royal box at the Milan opera house. Senate Speaker Ignazio La Russa, a far-right politician, was granted the seat of honor in the absence of Italy’s president and premier. This decision sparked protests from La Scala’s unions, who assert that La Russa has not sufficiently denounced Italy’s fascist history. He will share the decorated royal box’s front row with Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala, a left-wing politician, who invited 93-year-old senator-for-life and Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre as his guest.

The theater workers’ labor organizations issued a strong statement, declaring, “Fascists are not welcome at Teatro alla Scala. We will not participate in any ceremonial institutional salute to anyone who has not ever condemned fascism, its colonial wars, and the alliance with and subjection to Nazism that generated the racial laws and much bereavement and misery among the Italian people.”

During the intermission, when La Russa greets Riccardo Chailly, La Scala’s chief conductor, he can anticipate a less than warm reception from the musicians.

La Scala has a storied history of resistance to fascism, dating back to the era of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini staunchly refused to perform the fascist party anthem in the theater or anywhere else, even enduring a beating from Mussolini’s Blackshirts. Following World War II, Toscanini swiftly reinstated choral director Vittore Veneziani, who had been dismissed from his position due to Italy’s antisemitic racial laws in 1938.

The commencement of the 2023-24 season will double as an unofficial national celebration. UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, recently added Italian lyric opera to its list of intangible cultural treasures, recognizing the global significance of this 400-year-old art form, which marries music, costume, and stagecraft.

Italian Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano, who was scheduled to attend the premiere, described it as “an official consecration of what we already knew: lyric opera is a global excellence, among those that best represent us around the planet.”

Riccardo Chailly, La Scala’s music director, will conduct “Don Carlo,” a work that revolves around the power dynamics between the King of Spain and his son, Don Carlo, entangled in a love triangle with contrasting views on the Spanish empire’s colonial oppression.

The cast boasts two seasoned La Scala performers: Russian soprano Anna Netrebko as Elisabeth of Valois and Italian tenor Francesco Meli in the title role.

Stage director Lluis Pasqual pointed out the enduring relevance of “Don Carlo,” with its themes of nationalism and religion, in the context of ongoing suffering in the Middle East. He remarked, “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. 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 a pinnacle of Europe’s cultural calendar, bringing together influential figures from the realms of culture, politics, and business. Consequently, it frequently becomes a focal point for protests, leading to the cordoning off of Milan’s city center.

Milan’s newly appointed prefect, Claudio Sgaraglia, had to negotiate with the local police union to postpone a strike planned for Thursday, a day that coincides with the city’s celebration of patron saint St. Ambrogio and the launch of the La Scala season.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Italian Opera

What is the significance of La Scala’s premiere of “Don Carlo”?

The premiere of “Don Carlo” at La Scala highlights the global cultural importance of Italian opera and its historical legacy.

Why was there controversy surrounding the royal box at La Scala’s opening night?

Controversy arose because Senate Speaker Ignazio La Russa, a far-right politician, was given the seat of honor, leading to protests from La Scala’s unions who claimed he hadn’t sufficiently denounced Italy’s fascist past.

How did La Scala resist fascism during Mussolini’s regime?

Famed conductor Arturo Toscanini refused to perform the fascist party anthem, and after World War II, he reinstated choral director Vittore Veneziani, who had been dismissed due to Italy’s antisemitic racial laws in 1938.

What is the significance of UNESCO’s recognition of Italian lyric opera?

UNESCO recognized Italian lyric opera as an intangible cultural treasure, acknowledging its global importance and contribution to culture.

Who are some notable performers in La Scala’s premiere of “Don Carlo”?

Russian soprano Anna Netrebko stars as Elisabeth of Valois, and Italian tenor Francesco Meli plays the title role, both seasoned La Scala performers.

What contemporary themes does “Don Carlo” address?

“Don Carlo” explores themes of nationalism and religion, which remain relevant in today’s context, particularly in light of ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.

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