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Modern-dress 'Traviata' upsets La Scala puristas

By Isla Binnie

MILAN (Reuters) - Milan opera buffs who wanted a Verdi opera to open a La Scala season in the bicentenary year of his birth got their way this past weekend, but many were not pleased with the new production of "La Traviata" they paid premium prices to see.

La Scala diehards were chagrined last year when the house opened its 2013 season with Wagner's "Lohengrin" instead of Verdi in the composers' joint bicentenary year, but that production was greeted with a 13-minute ovation.

The final curtain for "La Traviata" on Saturday was followed by more than 13 minutes of applause, but boos rang out as some of the cast and crew, including Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov and Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, took their bows.

The modern-dress production of Verdi's tear-jerker about a courtesan who dies of consumption after sacrificing her love of a young man for the sake of his family had a starry cast - German soprano Diana Damrau as the doomed Violetta and Italian opera specialist Daniele Gatti conducting.

But the production also featured touches like Violetta swigging from a bottle of Jack Daniel's whisky and one of her lady friends wearing a Native American-style headdress.

Such innovations did not sit well with some of the formal-dress audience who had paid as much as 2,000 euros ($2,700) per ticket for the 2014 season opening night.

"A triumph for Violetta and catcalls for the director," the Italian newspaper La Stampa said in the headline of its review.

"After so many years of non-Italian opening nights - Wagner, Bizet and more Wagner - and especially after 'Lohengrin' greeted Verdi's bicentennial birth year at last year's opening, Scala finally welcomed its native son back to the fold, with arms wide open, regardless of Wagner transgressions," blogger "Opera Chic", who specialises in La Scala productions, wrote.

"But when they rolled back the rock, it was a Frankenstein monster. Seal it back up!"

"NOT REPEAT THE SAME SHOW"

"La Traviata", set in 18th-century Paris, has been part of performance schedules worldwide more than any other opera over the last five seasons, according to operabase.com.

"To set side by side the repertoire and the modern day is the Scala's mission, not repeating the same show as the conservatives would like," Stephane Lissner, outgoing artistic director of La Scala, told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, defending the current production.

Conductor Gatti dedicated the evening to Nelson Mandela and held a minute's silence in the lavish auditorium for the "extraordinary man" who was South Africa's first black president and who died on Thursday.

The first-night audience included Italian head of state Giorgio Napolitano, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and British politician Peter Mandelson.

"I love this production. It's gold standard," Mandelson told Reuters amid the bow-tie and evening dress-clad crowd during the interval. "I love the singing of this wonderful Violetta."

But Italian fashion designer Giorgio Armani told reporters he was "puzzled" by the production and recalled a production of Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte" he had once worked on.

"We managed to give a touch of modernity, without betraying the spirit of the opera," Italian news website Il Giorno quoted Armani as saying.

Views differed among other audience members filing down La Scala's carpeted staircase after the show.

"I enjoyed it very much," said spectator Roberto Tiezze as he left the auditorium. "It made good use of the singers, who have a great ability to communicate the story."

La Traviata will play at La Scala until January.

(Additional reporting by Sara Rossi; Editing by Michael Roddy and Mark Heinrich)

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