In Milan, Italy's Political Crisis Unfolds With a Wagnerian Backdrop

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Riot policemen stand as guests arrive for the opening show of La Scala's season on Dec. 7, 2012

For the 40 years that I have lived, studied, worked in and visited Italy, the national media have always seemed to use two words: Crisi (crisis) and polemica to describe just about any governmental situation or debate. If there was a rail strike, there would be a polemica about that crisi. These words were so omnipresent that I seldom paid close attention because everything proceeded and, for most people, the quality of life in Italy was quite high and kept improving. The sky never fell.

In the past couple of years, though, the crisis in Italy is quite real and very profound. Italians feel a deep sense of despair and anxiety. Americans and citizens of many other nations cannot conceive of the degree to which government action, inaction and corruption impacts on most aspects of Italians' lives. This is a nation that, proportionately, has produced more art, genius and beauty than any other. The innate level of culture in Italians has few comparisons in other countries. And yet Italy is stymied by a toxic mix of competing interests, including political parties that are more interested in self-service than public service. I will address aspects of the current Italian scene, and how opera is affected, in this article and others from Rome and Brescia.

You might ask what Italy’s current state has to do with opera, to which I would reply that it has everything to do with opera. Italy is the birthplace of opera and Italians consider it as much a part of their birthright as the glory of ancient Rome, the genius of the Renaissance, and all of the other outstanding achievements that have been made through the millennia. Milan, home of Italy’s temple of opera, is especially attuned to the role La Scala has played in the nation. Rome may have the national government and the church, but Milan had Verdi use opera to help create a united Italy in the 19th century. The collapse of the economy has meant that many theaters are struggling to stay afloat and artistically relevant.

Milan, especially in difficult times, looks to La Scala for redemption or, perhaps, insight about what is going on. The most famous example is the concert on May 11, 1946 led by Arturo Toscanini to reopen the theater following its near-destruction in World War II. This event provided crucial inspiration for the rebuilding of the city and the nation.

La Scala is a cultural institution but also a popular one, a sort of beacon whose light and heat cause national discussion throughout the year, but never more so than on December 7, the annual opening night. Most national dailies cover the days leading up to the opening in scrupulous detail, focusing more on polemica than crisi. With the year 2013 being the bicentennial of the births of Wagner and Verdi, many Italians, including some in government, said that La Scala had erred in selecting Lohengrin for the opening rather than a Verdi opera. This is silly. La Scala is Italy’s international opera house in addition to being considered the national stage and it is fully entitled to program what it wishes. In fact, in the 2012-2013 season there will be six Wagners (Lohengrin, Der Fliegende Hölländer, and the four Ring operas) and seven Verdis (Aïda, Un Ballo in Maschera, Don Carlo, Falstaff, Macbeth, Nabucco, Oberto) and the opening night of the 2013-2014 season next December will be La Traviata with Diana Damrau.

Lohengrin, to me, is a perfect opera for this moment. Amazingly, just like last season, the choice of the work was done long before the events occurred that were reflected in the opera. La Scala opened its 2011-2012 season with Don Giovanni and perfectly captured the Zeitgeist. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (right), embattled and weakened by his bizarre exploits with young women and his preening vanity about his sexual conquests, was mirrored in the opera about Il dissoluto punito (the dissolute man who is punished).

Lohengrin tells the story of a besieged nation whose leadership is fragile and whose freedom is imperiled. The King of Germany has asked why Brabant has no leadership. Friederich von Telramund, a Christian, lays claim to leadership, while his wife Ortrud a sort of old believer who practices dark arts of the past, has her own ideas. Elsa, whose brother Gottfried has mysteriously vanished, has a weak hold on power and prays for a white knight to appear as a savior.

The relationship to Italy might seem superficial, but there were remarkable similarities to actual events. Following the collapse of the Berlusconi government a year ago, President Giorgio Napolitano (think of the King) sought Mario Monti, a Milanese economist, as a technocratic white knight to save Italy, as embodied by Elsa. On the sidelines, the Catholic Church (Telramund) has sought to influence government policy while Berlusconi (Ortrud) schemed to regain power.

On December 7, there was live telecast of Lohengrin on RAI 5 and a radio transmission. There was considerable dissatisfaction about the fact that the Italian national anthem was not performed before the performance. While President Napolitano did not attend the opening of the opera, as he often does, Prime Minister Monti was present and is said to have gone backstage during the first intermission to persuade Daniel Barenboim, the conductor, to play the anthem at the conclusion of the opera.

On December 8, the Berlusconi faction in the Chamber of Deputies withdrew support of Monti’s governo tecnico (a non-partisan government designed to institute tough reforms that the parties did not achieve). The next day, Monti said he will step down within a month once the budget and monetary reforms are passed rather than serve until April, as planned. On December 10 it appeared that Berlusconi planned to run for office yet again. Monti was in Oslo as the European Union received the Nobel Prize for Peace. Berlusconi said on December 11 that the Monti government is embracing “una politica germanocentrica.” Remarkably, he was echoing the anti-German sentiment of those who said La Scala should have opened with Verdi instead of Wagner.

Berlusconi, despite continuous legal battles addressing alleged financial and other malfeasance, keeps creating instability in politics and in the country at large. At this writing, the situation is fluid. Berlusconi has said that if Monti chooses to run for Prime Minister (thus officially entering politics), he would not challenge him. In effect, Berlusconi tried to use the ostensibly non-partisan Monti to block the fortunes of the center-left. Nonetheless, one cannot help but feel that, like Ortrud, this adherent to the dark arts of the old ways of government, is scheming to gain power again if he could.

In Lohengrin, the white knight is unable to bring peace and stability because of  the doubts that have been instilled in Elsa by Ortrud. In most productions, the opera’s ending is intentionally inconclusive. At La Scala, all the characters seemed to die, asking us to believe that fate of the nation would rest in the hands of Gottfried, a small boy who is the only survivor of the crisi.

Italians interested in Lohengrin had several means, in addition to news coverage and broadcasts, to discover it. L’Espresso, a leading newsweekly, offered a two-DVD set of a 1990 Lohengrin from the Vienna State Opera starring Plácido Domingo and Cheryl Studer, conducted by Claudio Abbado for 15 euros. Imagine Time magazine selling a classic DVD of L’Elisir d’Amore for $19.50 to coincide with the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera. It would never happen, in part because, sadly, the Met and the whole American opera scene are not a consistent part of the coverage in national magazines. Similarly, the activities of leading cultural institutions such as the Met, leading orchestras, theaters and dance companies and top museums are seldom part of the national conversation.

Next year’s December 7 opening night of La Traviata at La Scala should again have a huge impact on the national conversation. This is, after all, the opera in which the heroine sings "Addio del passato."

Credits: Berlusconi: FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images; 2) Jonas Kaufmann in the title role of Wagner's Lohengrin at La Scala, Milan