La Scala's Gala Premiere Of 'DOn Carlo' Celebrates Italian Opera's New Status As Cultural Treasure

Patti Smith arrives to attend La Scala opera house's gala season opener, Giuseppe Verdi's opera 'Don Carlo' at the Milan La Scala theater, Italy, Thursday Dec. 7, 2023. The season-opener Thursday, held each year on the Milan feast day St. Ambrose, is considered one of the highlights of the European cultural calendar. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Patti Smith arrives to attend La Scala opera house's gala season opener, Giuseppe Verdi's opera 'Don Carlo' at the Milan La Scala theater, Italy, Thursday Dec. 7, 2023. The season-opener Thursday, held each year on the Milan feast day St. Ambrose, is considered one of the highlights of the European cultural calendar. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
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MILAN (AP) — Italian melodrama's official recognition as a global cultural treasure was celebrated Thursday during La Scala’s season premiere of Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” with some of the drama spilling out into the theater with a pair of anti-fascist cries before the curtain went up.

Singer Patti Smith and Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar joined an audience of mostly Italian glitteratti that showered the 4-hour production with 13 minutes of applause along with roses and carnations. La Scala premiere veterans Russian soprano Anna Netrebko as Elisabeth of Valois and Italian baritone Luca Salsi got the loudest reception. Michele Pertusi persisted in his role as the Spanish king despite a worsening cold that dropped into his windpipes in the third and fourth acts, winning the crowd's admiration.

“This is the most important evening of the opera theater in the world," Salsi, who sang in his fifth premiere, said backstage. "We are all colleagues, friends. I think you saw this complicity on the stage.”

“Don Carlo” hit hot-button topics of power and oppression, playing out in real time, but Italy's ongoing reckoning with its fascist past spilled over into the gala evening with protests against the institutional seat of honor going to a far-right politician who is the Senate speaker, in the absence of Italy's president and premier.

A cry of “no to fascism,'' went up from the upper tiers of La Scala's balconies before the anthem, followed by one of ”Long live anti-fascist Italy." La Scala's unions had protested even before the show with a statement: “Fascists are not welcome at Teatro alla Scala.”

Senate Speaker Ignazio La Russa, a co-founder of Premier Giorgia Meloni's party whom unions claim has not condemned Italy’s fascist past, sat in the front row of the adorned royal box with Mayor Giuseppe Sala, a left-wing politician who pointedly invited 93-year-old senator-for-life and Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre to join him.

Segre, who received warm applause from the audience before the curtain went up, acknowledged the royal box debate as she arrived, saying, “it's nice everyone wants to sit next to me,” and reminded journalists that she has been attending La Scala performances her whole life.

La Russa told reporters that he did not hear the cries.

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.”

Riccardo 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 driven apart by a love triangle with Elisabeth and Spain's oppression of Flanders.

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.’’

His direction received boos from the crowd, but he wasn't bothered. “I am here to serve Verdi,'' he said backstage.

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.

Other more 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.