La Scala opera season opens with contested 'Lohengrin'

La Scala opera house in Milan on Friday celebrated the start of its 2012/2013 season with Richard Wagner's "Lohengrin" -- a disputed choice ahead of the bicentenaries of the famous German composer and his Italian rival Giuseppe Verdi.

The premiere coincides with the Feast of Saint Ambrose, the patron saint of Italy's commercial capital, and the country's economic and political elites were out in force for the gala.

The performance, lasting nearly five hours, was produced by Claus Guth and conducted by La Scala's Israeli-Argentinian musical director Daniel Barenboim.

The choice of "Lohengrin" to open the season caused a stir in Italy since next year is also the bicentenary of Verdi, the most famous Italian composer and a symbolic figure in Italian unification.

La Scala has defended itself against the row, pointing out that the season will see seven Verdi performances: "Falstaff", "Nabucco", "Macbeth", "Oberto Conte di San Bonifacio", "The Masked Ball", "Don Carlo" and "Aida".

The 2013/2014 season should open with "La Traviata" by Verdi. As for Wagner, the season apart from "Lohengrin" will include five more of his operas.

President Giorgio Napolitano announced he would not be attending because of the renewed political tensions but some observers said it might be linked to the fact that Verdi is not on the menu.

Napolitano himself dismissed the Wagner-Verdi debate as "futile".

"These two musical giants of the 19th century both belong to the history of European culture and creativity and they cannot both take centre stage," Napolitano wrote in a letter to Barenboim to excuse himself for not attending.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was also a no-show due to snow in Brussels.

Prime Minister Mario Monti was in attendance along with several government ministers despite a move by predecessor Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom party to withdraw its support for him.

Opera fans were able to watch the show on television where it was transmitted live on several channels. It was also being projected live in cinemas in Italy and around the world.

The Milanese will be able to watch it on a giant screen in the Vittorio Emanuele shopping gallery near La Scala and on 20 screens around the city.

Frenchman Stephane Lissner, La Scala superintendent who has been named to head up the Paris Opera, said: "I will miss this unique theatre."

He said the dispute over Verdi and Wagner was "sterile", adding that La Scala "should, on the contrary, be defended since it is a source of pride for Italy".

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