"Bellissima" La Scala

Italy's renowned opera house, closed for renovations for three years, reopens amid pomp and protest.

Published December 8, 2004 4:23PM (EST)

Decked out in red roses and surrounded by riot police, Milan's expanded and refurbished La Scala opera house reopened Tuesday night in wholly characteristic style: a mix of society glitz and indignant social protest. Outside, laid-off Alfa Romeo car workers waved red flags at the men arriving in dinner jackets and the women in their long dresses, jewels and furs. "We want to make our voice heard against the two Milans that are to be seen here tonight, as every year," said their spokesman.

Inside, leaflets were scattered from the gallery into the auditorium at the start of the first act by Italy's ballet dancers. They were protesting next year's budget, which includes a clause unintentionally forcing them to carry on dancing until they are 65. Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister, who arrived with his wife and daughter, judged it wise to slip in by a side door, but was still heckled by several dozen demonstrators.

Socially, the occasion was not quite as illustrious as the theater authorities had hoped. They had invited the queen of England and Presidents Bush and Chirac. Instead they got King Harald and Queen Sonja of Norway and the president of Switzerland. Berlusconi sat in the royal box surrounded by the prime ministers of Croatia, Bulgaria and Albania.

Leading figures from the world of arts and fashion were also surprisingly thin on the ground. But Umberto Eco was there, and so were Sophia Loren and Giorgio Armani. "The new La Scala is bellissima. It's all red, the color I like most," Loren said. For the gala performance La Scala's musical director, Riccardo Muti, chose the same work that inaugurated the theater's opening night in 1778: Antonio Salieri's "Europa Riconosciuta."

A sold-out audience gave 12 minutes of applause and 15 curtain calls, although some were not fully won over by the work. "You must be an expert to fully appreciate it ... I like [Verdi's] 'La Traviata,'" said Armani. "I enjoyed the singing parts and music," the Associated Press quoted Berlusconi as saying.

The area around the theater, in central Milan, was closed to traffic, and more than 1,000 riot police stood guard against possible disturbances from anti-fur protesters and others. Tuesday night's performance ended three years of exile in premises on the outskirts of the city. During those years, the theater's outdated equipment and restricted storage facilities have been replaced and a fly tower added so that more elaborate sets can be moved to and from the stage. The decorations in the auditorium were restored and, in many places, replaced, so that last night the theater radiated carmine and shone gold.

The performance was beamed to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan's venerable shopping arcade, and even into the San Vittore prison. Sopranos Diana Damrau and Desiree Rancatore sang the lead roles, inspired by Greek mythology.

By John Hooper

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