Criticism on Fridays: The Politics of La Scala’s Opening Night

The Presentation of ‘Boris Godunov’ at Prima della Scala Is Not a Sign of Support For Russia or Ukraine. It’s For Italy

By Polina Lyapustina

“I believe that art should always be distinguished from politics, otherwise, we shouldn’t have to read Dostoevsky,” Gennaro Sangiuliano, the Culture Minister of Italy.

And for this, Italy stands.

This October, La Scala confirmed “Boris Godunov” for the season opener and instantly received a letter asking the company to rethink its 2022-23 season. The letter was sent by Ukrainian citizens and 23 Italian-Ukrainian associations asking La Scala to replace Russian shows. The letter also notes that Russian propaganda is capitalizing on the fact that La Scala will open the season with a Russian opera.

The theatre immediately reconfirmed its support for Ukraine but never showed any intentions to change the program. 

And here, it’s important to note that the decision on the possible change of La Scala’s season program for a week or so seemed to be discussed everywhere in Italy. You could easily hear about it at breakfast in a bar or find it in a friendly email exchange. And besides the humanist search for the right balance in how to save the great Russian culture and show support for Ukraine, the no less important matter was “who’s allowed to tell us what we can or cannot stage at our La Scala?”  

Meeting and embracing this sense of belonging and co-ownership within the Italian people is one of the main bases of the Italian state at every level, including culture.

“Boris Godunov” stands as one of the most honored Russian operas at La Scala since its Italian premiere in 1909. Over the years, it was presented by such legendary conductors as Toscanini, Guarnieri, Votto, and Gavazzeni, amongst many others. This year also marks the second season opening with this opera after the iconic 1979 performance featuring Claudio Abbado at the podium. With such a track record at La Scala, this opera has almost obtained the status of a national treasure.

Mussorgsky’s masterwork possesses many aspects — musical, cultural, and social — that have kept it at the forefront of Russian operas performed on the world’s best stages for over 150 years. Depending on time, place, authorities, artistic direction, or reading of a score, it could glorify or curse, humiliate or pity the title character, his time, or his country. So many strings are taut to make this piece vivid through the centuries and the story may (or even must) be told in a hundred ways.

And this is the power of Art. And this is probably, what allows us to put Art above politics. 

And yet…

Surprise, surprise… opera was always political. From the very first day of its creation, or better say its implementation into social life, it was designed to serve this way. And, in the cradle of European culture and operatic art — Italy — it certainly serves this way today.

The opening night at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan (and its worldwide and highly anticipated national live broadcast) began with the arrival of special guests in the box of honor. You could hardly imagine the guests of higher rank: the President of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, the prime minister Giorgia Meloni, and the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, among others. 

Outside the theater, people protested. But they weren’t many. They protested not only the choice of the opera but also the Russian invasion. There were also some people from social centers and trade unions, and eco-activists, but they were reported to be just a few dozen. Most of them would leave before the end of the performance.

Meanwhile, the main hall of La Scala was full of people. The audience applauded. And applauded. And applauded… The walls of La Scala have heard the greatest ovations praising the brightest stars of the opera world in centuries, but this stormy salutation of support and approval easily compared, if not surpassed, the numerous successes on stage. It lasted almost six minutes, despite the president’s noble gestures inviting people to take their seats, and faded only when the long-ready-to-start Riccardo Chailly commenced the Italian and European anthem.

To the sounds of national anthems, the lights reflected in the golden decoration of the hall the faces of people filled with inspiration and unity. But this idealistic picture got a pretty pragmatic sense if we only noticed who was invited to unite with those sounds: the top-ranked politicians, directors and actors, businessmen, and patrons. The presence of Superintendents of European musical institutions was especially impressive this year: Alexander Neef of the Paris Opéra; Joan Matabosch of Real Madrid; Elisabeth Sobotka, appointed to the Berlin Staatsoper starting in 2024; Valenti Oviedo of the Liceu of Barcelona; and Thomas Angyan, historic artistic director of the Musikverein. From Italian theatres, attendees included Alexander Pereira of the Maggio Musicale; Fortunato Ortombina of Teatro Fenice; Michele dall’Ongaro of Santa Cecilia; Claudio Orazi of the Carlo Felice; Fulvio Macciardi of the Comunale di Bologna; as well as the former Superintendent of the Scala Carlo Fontana.

I can only thank heavens that this time, at least, I didn’t see anything wrong in the decision of La Scala and the ideas they promote, and so many people accepted that. Yet, when I see how an operatic event can become a political manifestation, I get anxious. 

I instantly recall the documentation from the times of the Third Reich and their gatherings in galleries and theaters (as well as disputes about what kind of art should be allowed in those galleries and theaters), all the happy and featuring enlightened faces…

The public presence of all those people of power noted above is like their signature, confirming their respect and solidarity with the point adopted by La Scala. What a witty mechanic was invented to gather people under the most beautiful roofs to accumulate their support for controversial matters shown under the cover of magical performances.

The vocal performance proved the highest quality and worth of the cast, and the skill of the choristers was above heaven, as was the musical direction of Ricardo Chailly and the staging of Kasper Holten, the latter of which indeed explored the most relevant aspect of Russian history — the controversy in everyone and everything on stage.

During the intermission, there were more interviews and more recurring phrases to show the unity of the position, as if to endlessly drill it into our brains:

“…the responsibility for the war must be attributed to the government of that country and certainly not to the Russian people or their culture,” Sergio Mattarella

“We don’t have anything against the Russian people, Russian history, Russian culture,” Meloni echoes the president, “We have something against those who have made the political choice to invade a sovereign country.”

And don’t forget, it’s the opening night, and so they celebrated and praised the beauty of the night. It seemed almost illegal to be sad.

After the second part, not less bright and full of the best manifestations of art and talent, came the curtain call. Unbelievable. Thirteen minutes of standing ovations. Flowers on the stage. No boos, not a single whistle.

Just perfection.

A real success.

And well-deserved, in my opinion.

And yet, in the company of all these high-ranking officials, I had ask – was there a right to criticism? Or was it an order to praise the event no matter what, as so happened in some European theaters over the last few years?

But I saw real emotions at that curtain call — the tension and fear on the face of Ildar Abdrazakov, to the point of distrust in his ears, which brought him no hisses, followed by relief and sincere gratitude. That was real. And it was also deeply sad.

Yet, this is the win. The well-deserved victory of art and the artists. Of their talent. 

But it’s also a victory of La Scala and Italian politics. Who chose to proudly walk their way through criticism and then invited the entire world to see their triumph (made by artists, though). They proved they were right. And they got it documented and “signed” by the most powerful people from the industry and politics. 

And maybe, the world doesn’t care much, but they made the Italian people proud, and this is one of the most important goals of this evening. And the new administration will certainly take this successful trick into service, but I’m only afraid if their future intentions might be not that harmless.