Giovanna d'Arco opens La Scala season under high security

The deadly attacks in Paris were not behind the choice of Giovanna d’Arco (Joan of Arc) for La Scala’s season opener, but were on the mind of many watching the story of France’s patron saint who died following God’s call to fight for her country.

For the first time ever, visitors to the black-tie gala were screened with portable metal detectors and had their bags searched after Milan’s opera house was named by the FBI as a possible target of militant attacks after the Paris bloodshed.

However, Italy’s business and political elite would not let the Nov. 13 attacks keep them away from one of the most important events on Europe’s cultural agenda, even with around 750 police agents deployed to monitor the situation.

“We will not let what happened in Paris force us to stay at home,” Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said during the intermission. “That would have been the wrong reaction.”

The opening night of La Scala’s 2015-16 season won an 11-minute ovation, especially for Riccardo Chailly, who took over as principal conductor in January, and the show’s protagonist, performed by Russian soprano Anna Netrebko.

La Scala executives chose to return one of Giuseppe Verdi’s less known and more difficult to stage works to the Milan opera after a 150-year absence to reconnect with history and make Italian opera more prominent in its program.

“Giovanna d’Arco was essential for Verdi’s future,” the Milan-born Chailly said. “Verdi was a master at recounting internal distress “

The four-act work, loosely based on Friedrich Schiller’s The Maid of Orleans, tells the story of a peasant girl who believes that God has chosen her to lead France to victory in its war with England, but dies prematurely.

Chailly said Verdi’s seventh opera, admired and deplored alike, is rarely performed as it presents many vocal challenges for its singers. Staging it can be equally testing and did not convince everyone.

“Chailly conducted Verdi with extreme attention but the stage directors were not at all clear in their ideas,” said Gino Vezzini, president of the Amici del Loggione association, which watches every show from the top gallery of the opera house.

The Belgian-French director duo of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier placed Giovanna in her room where the tormented maiden gives her imagination and visions free rein.

“You can feel their emotional engagement from everyone present tonight and that’s very particular for a premier,” said Roberto Bolle, a ballet dancer who regularly performs at La Scala.

La Scala is again heading for break-even this year and did not benefit, as expected, from the additional performances added for visitors of the EXPO world fair over the summer months.

Giovanna d’Arco will be performed at La Scala until Jan. 2.

(Reporting by Agnieszka Flak and Sara Rossi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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