MILAN (AP) -- La Scala's gala season premiere Saturday opened with spontaneous applause for Nelson Mandela's memory and closed with mixed reviews for La Traviata.
The audience of VIPS for one of Europe's most prestigious cultural events of the year gave 11 minutes of appreciative applause for conductor Daniele Gatti and the main cast, led by German soprano Diana Damrau, who received a cascade of roses for her performance as Violetta.
But the hard-to-please traditionalists who sit in the uppermost balcony booed the contemporary direction by Russian Dmitri Tcherniakov as the well-heeled crowd below cheered louder in an effort to drown them out.
La Traviata marks the conclusion of bicentennial celebrations of Giuseppe Verdi's birth, and was the last gala opener for general manager Stephane Lissner, who is leaving for the Paris Opera in August after nine seasons. He will be replaced by Alexander Pereira, an Austrian.
"I can't expect more," Lissner said backstage. "That is the job of a public theater, to confront the great repertoire with the world today. This is a moment to look to the future, not to the past."
Lissner's tenure has been marked by an emphasis on new talent and more experimental direction that hasn't always been warmly received, as well as periodic labor disputes. He also brought on Daniel Barenboim as musical director, who has announced his departure at the end of 2014, and opened the theater to younger audiences with events for young adults.
Gatti conducted his first La Scala premiere since Don Carlo in 2008 and his first La Traviata in eight years, said he was confident that some people who contested the production would repent upon reflection.
"This is theater at its best, when the audience expresses its opinion about what it hears," Gatti said afterward. "The director brings his idea and I marry this idea because we are partners."
Tcherniakov told singers and stagehands backstage that he used to leaf through a rare book about La Scala that his parents had during the Soviet era, pausing on photos of Maria Callas as Violet in Luchino Visconti's infamous 1955 production of La Traviata, and never dreaming he would grow up to be a theater director `'never mind working at La Scala."
Fashion designer Giorgio Armani and Fiat Chairman John Elkann were among the VIPs attending one of the premier events of the European cultural calendar, frequented by leading industrial, political and cultural figures. As is often the case, the gala performance was protested by austerity-minded activists - although the event has been greatly scaled back over the years with fewer ostentatious signs of wealth notwithstanding its exclusivity.
Although La Traviata is Verdi's most popular opera, it hasn't been performed at La Scala, which was long Verdi's musical home, in more than a decade.
Starring alongside Damrau was Polish tenor Piotr Beczala in the role of the young hero, Alfredo, while Serb baritone Zeljko Lucic played his father, Giorgio.
La Traviata has endured as the most popular opera worldwide with 553 performance runs over the last five seasons, according to the Operabase online database of opera performances.
La Scala's 2013-14 season includes three operas by Verdi in honor of the bicentennial celebration of his birth on Oct. 10, 1813.
Before the curtain rose Saturday, the audience broke out in applause when Gatti remembered Mandela, who died Thursday at 95. Everyone, including Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and European Commissioner Jose Manuel Barroso, rose for a minute to pay respects to the late South African president before the Italian national anthem played.
Below: The Scala audience responds with a mixture of boos and applause:
Below: Watch Diana Damrau in "Sempre Libera"