The dual bicentennial of the births of composers Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner is turning into a dueling bicentennial.
La Scala general manager Stephane Lissner on Monday dismissed as "ridiculous" criticism by the national media of the decision by the Milan opera house that was once Italian musical hero Verdi's musical home to open the celebratory season with "Lohengrin" — by German opera icon Wagner.
"This is an attack on the institution of La Scala, which is a unique in the world, and should be defended because it is a pride of Italy," said Lissner, a Frenchman who will leave La Scala in 2015 to join the Paris Opera.
No less than Italy's respected President Giorgio Napolitano has entered the fray — although only to appeal for harmony.
He wrote a letter to musical director Daniel Barenboim over the weekend rejecting press rumors that his decision to miss the gala season opener on Friday was a deliberate snub. Napolitano said he has state business to attend to in Rome, and called polemics over the staging of a Wagner opera "futile" and "pathetic."
"Those two musical greats of the 19th Century belong to the history of the culture and creativity of Europe — and cannot be missing from a place of honor in the season programs of the biggest Italian opera houses," Napolitano wrote. He recalled attending a 1981 performance of "Lohengrin" at La Scala and welcomed its return after more than 30 years.
The Milan daily Corriere della Sera launched an opening salvo in the Verdi-Wagner debate, publishing a piece last month asking whether "the Germans would have inaugurated a Wagner year with a Verdi opera."
The piece, headlined "Milan and the curse of Lohengrin," elicited a lively response from readers who both welcomed and lamented the Wagner season premiere.
Both composers were born in 1813, and La Scala has included seven Verdi productions and six by Wagner in their program this year to honor their shared anniversary. Perhaps anticipating Wagner hostility, La Scala announced its 2013-14 gala premiere to be Verdi's "La Traviata" conducted by Daniele Gatti.
Lissner said too much was being made of the Dec. 7 opening — one of Europe's most highly anticipated cultural events, where red carpet glitz and off-stage drama sometimes upstage the music.
"For me, the Jan. 15 opening of 'Falstaff' is just as important as the Dec. 7 opening of 'Lohengrin,'" Lissner said.
Highlighting Verdi's special relationship with La Scala, the opera house announced Tuesday that two of its corporate sponsors had purchased manuscripts of the maestro that they will formally donate on the eve of the Falstaff opening.
They include a telegram from Verdi to legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini after the Falstaff premiere: "Thanks, thanks, thanks!"
Despite Napolitano's absence, the government will be well-represented at the season premiere, held every year on the date honoring Milan's patron saint Ambrose. Premier Mario Monti is expected to attend along with five government ministers, as well as EU Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso.