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Intrigue and Uproar: 'Don Carlo' at La Scala

For centuries, the world's opera houses have provided vivid drama both onstage and behind the scenes, and Milan's La Scala continued that tradition with the recent, controversial opening of its 2008-2009 season.

La Scala may well be the most historic venue in opera, and its annual, opening night productions have long drawn the attention of opera lovers around the world. As it turned out La Scala's 2008 opener, a production of Giuseppe Verdi's Don Carlo, had a double dose of backstage intrigue.

First, the production nearly didn't happen at all. Ongoing disputes with musicians' unions led to threats of a strike, which was averted just days before the scheduled premiere.

Then, just as that uproar was subsiding, tenor Giuseppe Filianoti was abruptly pulled from the title role, to be replaced by the relatively unheralded American singer Stuart Neill. Naturally, rumors swirled. But a La Scala spokesman said the last minute switch was a straightforward, artistic decision. Filianoti, it was said, had made mistakes in rehearsals, and Neill was simply "in better shape" as opening night approached.

The decision caused quite a stir. Filianoti at first said he had been "stabbed in the back" by management. Later, the spurned tenor was more magnanimous. He wished the theater well, and even showed up in the opening night audience — at least for the first act.

Not surprisingly, the production got a mixed response. Neill's performance was received sympathetically, at least from the expensive, lower level seats. La Scala's vaunted "loggionisti," highly vocal fans who occupy the theater's upper balconies, were less enthusiastic. Still, their booing seemed aimed mainly at the conductor, Daniele Gatti, whom many seemed to blame for the unexpected swap of tenors.

As for Neill, his reaction to the event was concise: "Rough crowd," he said.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us the entire show — "loggionisti" included — and it's hot off the presses, recorded in Milan on December 7, 2008.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

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