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ROME (Reuters) - Italian conductor Riccardo Muti has fired the opening salvo in a budding opera rivalry between Milan and the Italian capital by conceding only the second encore of his entire career in Rome.
Muti's performance at Rome's Teatro dell'Opera on Thursday evening -- a part of the opera house's ambitious plans to draw a bit of limelight -- came ahead of the season opener at Milan's better known and more glamorous La Scala opera house on Tuesday.
"It was quite astounding, he had done that only once before in his career at La Scala with 'Nabucco'," Alessio Vlad, who has been working to revive Rome's Teatro dell'Opera since he was appointed artistic director a year ago, told Reuters.
"It was such a moment, how would you say, a 'spirituale' moment and it was a sign of hope, for Rome and for opera. I hope it will signify a new life for the theater."
Vlad's task at hand has no shortage of melodrama -- trying to revive opera in the Italian capital at a time when despairing artists have gone on strike over art funding cuts and students protested the opening night by peering through mock telescopes, before making off with a bottle of champagne for invitees.
Fitted out with chandeliers and plush pink balconies, Rome's opera house is sumptuous, but has traditionally lacked the prestige of Milan's La Scala or San Carlo in Naples.
Vlad's recipe for change is to bring it closer to ordinary Romans and build a new generation of opera-goers by targeting the youth -- students in jeans are just as much, if not more, welcome than Italian glitterati in diamonds, he says.
"The big problem in the past was that the opera was not at the center of the cultural life of the city," Vlad said.
"And we have to recover that with quality, by giving the public a very precise idea."
He hopes to create an identity for the house that is distinctly Italian -- keeping with a tradition of rigorous rehearsals and conductors who work with singers on lyrics.
"There's so much homogeneity these days -- it's all the same whether it's France or Germany," he said.
"When you go to the theater, you need a surprise."
Luring Muti, who left La Scala in 2005, to conduct Gioachino Rossini's "Moise et Pharaon" for the season opening on December 2 appears to have paid off -- even if the conductor said his workload prevented him from becoming Rome's musical director.
Despite the student protest, the night was hailed as a success. A sold-out crowd of men in black tie and women in fur coats on a mild winter day sipped sparkling wine and gave a thunderous applause to the performance based around Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, prompting the encore.
Video projection featured heavily in the production, with the parting of the Red Sea rendered dramatically with waves projected onto walls that open up to let the Israelites through.
"I'm against encores on principle, but with that never-ending applause and thunder of requests after the 'prayer' in the fourth act I felt uncertain," Muti said later. "Then I realised that there was the desire to once again feel an important page of our culture, a page full of emotion and spirituality."
Mindful of the traditional rivalry between Rome and Milan on things other than opera, one newspaper juxtaposed Muti's event with that of the La Scala opener to be conducted by Daniel Barenboim on Tuesday, dubbing it the "derby of operas."
Muti returns to Rome to conduct Verdi's Nabucco in March, part of an opera calendar that also includes Gaetano Donizetti's "L'elisir d'amore," Puccini's "La Boheme," Richard Strauss' "Elektra" and Verdi's "La Battaglia di Legnano."
Vlad remains hopeful for the resurgence of opera in Rome.
"Today, we have the television and Internet, and it's what you do alone," said Vlad. "When you come to the opera, you are not alone, you have to communicate with other people. It's not like TV or Internet where you don't look at someone's face. It's like going to church, a ritual."
Editing by Paul Casciato