MILAN — Italian melodrama’s official recognition as a global cultural treasure is getting trumpeted 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, will sit 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.
“Fascists are not welcome at Teatro alla Scala,’’ the labor organizations for theater workers said in a statement. “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.”
La Russa can expect a chilly reception from the musicians when he goes backstage during the intermission to greet Riccardo Chailly, La Scala’s chief conductor.
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 Blackshirts. 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 will serve as an unofficial national celebration of the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO including 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.
Italian Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano, who planned to attend the premiere, called it “an official consecration of what we already knew: lyric opera is a global excellence, among those that best represent us around the planet.’’
Chailly, the opera house’s music director, is set to conduct “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 colonies.
The cast includes 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 such, it is often the target of protests, leading to the center of Milan being cordoned off.
Milan’s new prefect, Claudio Sgaraglia, had to persuade the local police union to delay a strike called for Thursday, when the city observes a holiday for patron saint St. Ambrogio and the start of the La Scala season.