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MILAN (Reuters) - La Scala's production of Richard Wagner's "The Walkyrie" drew a 15-minute ovation on the opening night of the opera house season on Tuesday, though the climate of austerity sweeping Europe clouded the starry event.
"Die Walkure," a powerful drama about the struggle for power, family love and incest, thrilled a packed house.
Outside, protests by artists and unions against government cuts to the arts sparked small outbreaks of violence which were quickly snuffed out by police.
In a sign of solidarity with the demonstrators, the Argentinean-born conductor Daniel Barenboim gave an unusual speech before the opera began.
"I am speaking on behalf of all my colleagues who play, sing, dance and work -- not only in this magnificent theater -- to say how much we are worried about the future of culture in this country and Europe," Barenboim said in a somber tone, heard by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano among an audience that applauded the conductor at length.
Cuts in arts funding are part of austerity measures being taken by governments across Europe to reduce budget deficits and shore up economic stability amid a market crisis of confidence in European economies.
"What Barenboim said is an alarming message for all of us. What is happening in Italy concerns all Europe," Belgian director Guy Cassiers told Reuters in the chandeliered foyer.
With tickets costing as much as 2,400 euros ($3,200), the opening night at the 18th century opera house is one of the most popular cultural events on the calendar of the rich and influential.
German mezzo soprano Waltraud Meier, who played the passionate Sieglinde, won particularly loud applause.
La Scala is in the second year of an ambitious plan to stage Wagner's four-opera Ring cycle, adapted from Norse mythology, by 2013, as part of celebrations for the 200th anniversary of the German composer's birth.
Barenboim, who is principal conductor at La Scala, said Wagner's work should be freed from a widely held prejudice against it because of Adolf Hitler's affinity for the composer and the use of Wagner's works in Nazi propaganda.
"We need one day to liberate Wagner from all the weight of ideology," said Barenboim, who is an advocate for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and who broke an unofficial ban in Israel on playing Wagner's music in 2001.
As in previous years, the first night performance was shown live in cinemas all over the world, and a pre-season showing was held on December 4 for a younger audience.
Writing by Antonella Ciancio, editing by Paul Casciato