Italy’s most treasured opera house, Teatro alla Scala, opened its new season Wednesday with the Russian opera “Boris Godunov,” against the backdrop of Ukrainian protests that the cultural event is a propaganda win for the Kremlin during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, AP reports.
Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, in her first cultural outing since taking office, attended La Scala’s gala premiere in Milan, joining Italian President Sergio Mattarella and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in the royal box.
A group of about 30 Ukrainians gathered outside the theater to protest highlighting Russian culture while President Vladimir Putin wages a war rooted in the denial of a unique Ukrainian culture.
They were kept across the main piazza, far from any interaction with arriving dignitaries and officials, and politics did not enter the theater.
The crowd of mostly prominent figures from Italian business, culture and politics showered the production with 13 minutes of applause. The loudest praise was reserved for Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov in the title role along with a cascade of flowers for chief conductor Riccardo Chailly.
Asked about Ukrainians’ objection to putting a spotlight on Russian culture as war rages in its tenth month, von der Leyen praised Ukrainians as “fantastic, brave and courageous people,” but said that Russian culture should not be conflated with Putin. “We should not allow Putin to destroy all this,” von der Leyen said, referring to great Russian writers and composers, including Modest Petrovic Musorgsky, author of “Boris Godunov.”
Meloni, who has maintained Italy’s support for Ukraine in defending itself against Russian aggression, also sought to draw a line between culture and politics.
“We don’t have anything against the Russian people, Russian history, Russian culture,” Meloni said. “We have something against those who have made the political choice to invade a sovereign country.”
A letter of protest from Ukraine’s consul in Milan and a petition by the Ukrainian diaspora failed to persuade the theater to drop “Boris Godunov.” La Scala officials say Chailly chose the opera as the 2022-23 season opener three years ago at Abdrazakov’s suggestion, and it was too late to substitute the production.
Abdrazakov was heralded for his sixth La Scala season premiere performance, the first in his native language, leading a mostly Russian cast along with La Scala’s chorus.
La Scala management have insisted that “Boris Godonov” was not propaganda for Putin. Still, Russian media widely reported on the production, focusing on officials’ dismissals of the Ukrainian protests. Russian state TV was also on hand for opening night.
In the piazza, Ukrainian protest organizers were unpersuaded by the attempt to keep politics out of culture.
“I don’t know why Italians tend to think Russian culture does not have anything to do with Russian government or the Russian people. It is all intertwined with the medieval mentality that created Putin,” said Valeriya Kalchenko, a native of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv and long-time Milan resident who organized a protest.
She noted that the Polish National Opera in Warsaw canceled its scheduled April performances of the same opera just days after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, citing the suffering of the Ukrainian people. It said it would consider staging the opera in peacetime.
“They could have reacted in the same way, because La Scala at the beginning of the war had nine months to substitute the opera with an Italian opera. There is no shortage of them; it is an Italian art form,” Kalchenko said.
Other Ukrainian organizations, including a youth association, decided against physically joining the protest despite objections to the Russian production. Instead, they gathered silently, holding sheet music written by a Ukrainian composer.
Zoia Stankovska said that “muting” Russian culture during the war “would be a gesture, a sign of solidarity, with Ukrainians, and a clear message as long as the aggression is ongoing.”