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Gala evening at La Scala celebrates culture over extremism

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The gala season premiere of Puccini’s “Tosca” at Milan’s famed La Scala received 15 minutes of applause from an audience of Italian elite, in an evening that celebrated culture as a bulwark against political extremism

The gala season premiere of Puccini’s “Tosca” starring Russian soprano Anna Netrebko and conducted by Riccardo Chailly received 15 minutes of applause from an audience of Milanese elite, in an evening that celebrated culture as a bulwark against political extremism.

For the second year, the performance opened with long applause for Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, sitting in the royal box with four government ministers. As last year, the Italian government is struggling, and the long applause was seen as a show of support for Italian institutions, which Mattarella represents in a non-partisan role.

After five minutes of clapping, Mattarella signaled for the audience to turn to the stage for the Italian anthem and the start of “Tosca.”

‘’When there is so much applause for Mattarella, like last year, it is to say that we believe in our constitution, that we believe in a single, indivisible Italy, and that we are a community that needs to grow and be open,’’ said stage director Davide Livermore, who also directed last year’s ‘’Attilla.”

“There are too many strange things. There are too few politicians who have the courage to say fascism is against the law,’’ Livermore said.

The audience of Italian business, fashion, cultural and political VIPs included senator-for-life Liliana Segre, an Auschwitz survivor who was recently placed under armed escort due to anti-Semitic threats. The Milan native recalled coming to La Scala as a 16-year-old and said she has been a season-ticket holder for 30 years.

She said she loves “Tosca” for its passion, adding, “I wasn’t always 90 years old.”

“Culture helps everything,’’ Segre said before the performance. “As Primo Levi said, knowing is absolutely necessary,” she said, referring to another Italian Holocaust survivor who recounted his experience in a series of celebrated books.

American poet Patti Smith, who recently received an honorary degree from the University of Padova, was back at La Scala, after attending the season-opening for “Giovanna d’Arco” in 2015. She lauded an Italian grass-roots movement against right-wing populism, dubbed the Sardines, as she arrived at the theater, saying “The Sardines have power.”

Netrebko starred in the role of Floria Tosca, the object of unwanted sexual attention from the powerful authority figure, Baron Scarpia, sung by Luca Salsi.

The plot — part thriller, part drama — evokes #MeToo for the modern ear, as Tosca feels forced to succumb to Scarpia in a bid to save her lover Mario Cavaradossi, performed by Francesco Meli.

“It was written in 1900, but it gives a glimpse of the future of everything that comes more than a century later,’’ said Chantilly, La Scala’s musical director. “The modernity of the subject, the greatness of Puccini’s music, makes ‘Tosca’ very contemporary, very credible and very similar to a reality that is very raw and harsh in our society.’’

One of the world’s most staged operas, “Tosca” was performed for the first time ever for the Dec. 7 gala premiere, one of Europe’s most anticipated cultural events held each year on the feast day for Milan’s patron St. Ambrose.

“Tosca” continued Chailly’s program of emphasizing Italian Belcanto and Verismo operas among its famed Italian repertoire, where Puccini in particularly had been neglected.

Chailly chose to execute Puccini’s original score, which includes musical passages that the composer himself decided to cut before the opera was performed at La Scala for the first time just two months after its Rome world premiere in January 1900.

“This is an opportunity to get to know the opera better,’’ Chailly said. “I don’t mean that this is better than the one we are used to. I simply want to make known all of the music that Puccini wrote for this opera.”

This premiere also was the final one for outgoing general manager Alexander Pereira, who is being replaced by Frenchman Dominique Meyer of the Vienna State Opera.

During his five-year term, Pereira increased private sponsorship of the theater, which also relies on government funding, and increased ticket sales while also opening up performance series to children. But his tenure was also troubled by political run-ins that nearly cost him the job before it began. He leaves to take over as general manager for Florence’s Maggio Musicale theater.

“One book closes, another opens,’’ Pereira told reporters this week.

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