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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
National
Colleen Barry

Italy's La Scala opens season to Ukrainian protests

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Italy’s most famous opera house, Teatro alla Scala, opens its new season Wednesday with the Russian opera “Boris Godunov,” a selection that sparked Ukrainian protests of the cultural event serving as a propaganda win for the Kremlin against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, in her first cultural outing since taking office, plans to attend La Scala's gala premiere in Milan along with Italian President Sergio Mattarella and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Ukrainian critics of the work getting performed oppose highlighting Russian culture while President Vladimir Putin wages a war rooted in the denial of a unique Ukrainian culture.

A letter of protest from Ukraine's consul in Milan and a petition by the Ukrainian diaspora failed to persuade the theater to drop “Boris Godunov.” La Scala officials say chief conductor Riccardy Chailly chose the opera as the 2022-23 season-opener three years ago at the suggestion of Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov.

Abdrazakov will sing the title role, leading a mostly Russian cast as he gives his sixth La Scala season premiere performance.

La Scala officials have said it was too late to substitute a production so long in the works and underlined that Russian composer Modest Petrovic Musorgsky's opera, based on a play by Russian playwright Alexander Pushkin, unmasks the devastating price paid by a Russian czar for absolute power.

“In doing ‘Boris Godunov,’ we don’t do propaganda for Putin. ... This is a great masterpiece in the history of art,'' La Scala general manager Dominique Meyer said during a recent news conference. "We need to see the difference between the actual political situation and Russia.''

“This is a great masterpiece in the history of art,″ Meyer said. "I don’t want to hide when I read Dostoevsky or Pushkin. These are masterpieces we respect so much. Nothing in this production goes against Ukraine.”

Ukrainian protest organizers were unpersuaded.

“I don’t know why Italians tend to think Russian culture does not have anything to do with Russian government or the Russian people. It is all intertwined with the medieval mentality that created Putin,’’ said Valeriya Kalchenko, a native of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv and long-time Milan resident who organized a protest.

She noted that the Polish National Opera in Warsaw canceled its scheduled April performances of the same opera just days after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, citing the suffering of the Ukrainian people. It said it would consider staging the opera in peacetime.

“They could have reacted in the same way, because La Scala at the beginning of the war had nine months to substitute the opera with an Italian opera. There is no shortage of them; it is an Italian art form,’’ Kalchenko said.

While expressing appreciation for Italy’s backing of Ukraine in the war, she insisted that the staging of a Russian opera by Italy’s premier opera house would play into Russian propaganda efforts.

Russian media widely reported on La Scala's plan to open its season with “Boris Godunov.” They quoted Italian Deputy Culture Minister Vittorio Sgarbi, who dismissed Ukrainian demands to scratch the show as stupid. Some also cited comments by conductor Chailly, who said that canceling Pushkin and Musorgsky would amount to canceling Dante and Shakespeare and argued that politics should not prevail over culture.

La Scala management has emphasized its support of Ukraine, including a benefit concert that raised 400,000 euros ($421,000). La Scala was also the first theater in the West to cut off relations with Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, who was engaged at the Milan theater when the war broke out, after he failed to express a desire for a peaceful solution.

“Boris Godunov” previously was conducted at La Scala by Arthur Toscanini and Claudio Abbado.

The gala season-opener, which is held on the Dec. 7 holiday for Milan's patron St. Ambrose, is one of the top events on the European cultural calendar, and often attracts protests aimed at grabbing the attention of bankers, officials and policymakers in attendance.

In that tradition, climate protesters early Wednesday threw paint on the opera house’s columns to promote more urgent actions to curb climate change. The paint was quickly removed.

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