MILAN - The famed La Scala opera house inaugurated its 2012-13 season Friday with the Teutonic classic "Lohengrin" as it launched dual bicentennial celebrations of its own Giuseppe Verdi and German icon Richard Wagner.
Daniel Barenboim, La Scala's music director and a Wagner aficionado, conducted the gala season opener, one of the premier events on the European cultural calendar.
German bass Rene Pape appeared as King Heinrich and tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Lohengrin. Evelyn Herlitzius played Ortrud and German soprano Annette Dasch was singing the role of Elsa after headliner Anja Harteros was forced to cancel because of flu.
Dasch, who has sung the role at Bayreuth since 2010, was brought in after Harteros' understudy, who sang Tuesday in a preview performance for the under-30 crowd, also came down with flu, the opera house said in a statement.
The performance Tuesday was strongly applauded. German director Claus Guth's nontraditional staging sets the tale in the Victorian era.
The opener was being broadcast live in 600 cinemas around the world, as well as on Italian state television and radio. Large screens were also placed in the nearby Galleria to allow Milanese to participate in the gala event.
Opera house management has dismissed criticism by Italian media over the decision to launch the season honouring Verdi, who called La Scala home, with a Wagner opera.
Even President Giorgio Napolitano was drawn into the fray after media speculated that he would miss the opening as a personal protest over the Wagner staging. Napolitano denied any snub, calling the polemics "futile" and "pathetic." He said he had state business to attend in Rome.
Despite Napolitano's absence, the government was well-represented Friday. Premier Mario Monti, a La Scala regular, took a break from the grueling job of reforming Italy's economy and after Thursday's criticism of his government by the Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right party. Five ministers also were expected.
Verdi and Wagner were born in 1813, and La Scala has included seven Verdi productions and six by Wagner in its program this year to honour their shared anniversary.
Verdi gets his season premiere on Jan. 15 with "Falstaff." Perhaps anticipating the Wagner hostility, La Scala has already announced its 2013-14 gala premiere to be Verdi's "La Traviata" conducted by Daniele Gatti.