December 7, 2008 / 6:56 PM / in 9 years

Applause and boos at Italy's La Scala gala opening

<p>Lights are placed on the trees in front of La Scala Opera Theater in Milan December 7, 2008.Stefano Rellandini</p>

MILAN (Reuters Life!) - La Scala's performance of Giuseppe Verdi's "Don Carlos" drew applause but also some booing on the opening night of the opera house's new season, the highlight of the city's social and musical calendar.

The audience threw flowers on stage as the cast took a bow, some even cheered to "bravos" and U.S. tenor Stuart Neill, who stepped in after a late change on Saturday, received loud cheers for his portrayal of Don Carlos.

But whistling and boos were in store for some of the performers, the conductor and director during a seven-minute applause -- much shorter than at previous openings.

Artistic director Stephane Lissner said the booing, which began in the second act, was due to the change in tenors.

La Scala on Saturday announced Neill would replace Giuseppe Filianoti as Don Carlos. It gave no reason but Filianoti said in a newspaper interview on Sunday he thought it was due to an error he made in a pre-season performance to a younger audience.

"This is something that happens in theatres all over the world. La Scala tonight put on the best cast possible," Lissner told reporters of the change. Filianoti, present at the opening, said he was hurt by the move.

The night in the historic heart of Italy's fashion and financial capital otherwise went smoothly, after having been at risk of cancellation because of strikes and protests.

The 18th century opera house reached a deal on Monday to end a work contract dispute with a performers' union that forced La Scala to cancel several performances of "The Merry Widow" last month and had threatened Sunday's performance.

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Based on Friedrich Schiller's play, "Don Carlos" is Verdi's 1867 opera about a tortured love affair in the 16th century Spanish royal family.

Performed in Italian, it lasted more than four hours.

With tickets costing up to 2,000 euros, the event is seen as the exclusive preserve of the rich and powerful.

Before the performance, bystanders watched behind metal barriers as Italy's Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa, heads of state like Rwandan President Paul Kagame and fashion designer duo Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana arrived.

Under the glare of television cameras, bankers, businessmen and Italian celebrities mingled with hundreds of others in resplendent dress in the chandeliered foyer.

Outside union workers staged a demonstration and the tone remained sober in light of the global crisis, with some female attendees saying they had recycled old dresses for the night.

"We are all here for the music, for Don Carlos, for La Scala which gives optimism to the whole of Italy," La Russa said.

"What struck me the most were the direction and the set. The performances were more than acceptable."

With much of La Scala's audience middle-aged or older, the house performed the opera on December 4 for those aged up to 26.

The first-ever pre-season showing was aimed at attracting a younger audience, with tickets costing 10 euros.

Additional reporting by Ilaria Polleschi; Editing by Dominic Evans

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