La Scala courts controversy with Wagner gala opening

MILAN, Dec 6 (Reuters) - Richard Wagner's "Lohengrin" kicks

off La Scala's season on Friday with the renowned Milanese

theatre under fire for choosing the German maestro over local

hero Giuseppe Verdi on the biggest night of the year for the

world of opera.

With opera lovers around the globe preparing to celebrate

the 200th birthday of both composers, born a few months apart in

1813, La Scala has been accused of being unpatriotic at a time

when Italy battles a recession some blame on austerity policies

driven by Germany.

"La Scala puts Verdi in a corner, preferring the German,"

wrote il Giornale newspaper owned by former prime minister

Silvio Berlusconi's family and known for its vitriolic attacks

on German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Corriere della Sera said there was unease in the orchestra

pit over the choice of Wagner in Verdi's musical home and talked

of "a blow to national pride in a moment of crisis."

La Scala general manager Stephane Lissner, a Frenchman, has

dismissed the controversy as ridiculous.

"There are more serious problems than this Wagner-Verdi

derby," he told reporters this week, pointing out that the

theatre will stage six works by Wagner against eight by Verdi in

the 2012/13 season.

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano was careful to clarify

that he could not attend the gala opening because of pressing

state business in Rome rather than deliver a deliberate snub. In

a letter to the theatre, he called the row over Wagner "futile"

and "pathetic".

Prime Minister Mario Monti, who replaced Berlusconi just

over a year ago as Italy flirted with a Greek-style debt crisis,

will be in attendance at one of the global social calendar's

most glittering events along with five of his ministers.

For some, the debate reflects the storied rivalry between

the two great composers and their supporters. When Verdi

attended the Italian premiere of Lohengrin in 1871, he scribbled

on a copy of the score: "Mediocre impression."

The romantic opera in three acts, generally considered one

of Wagner's most accessible, centres on the doomed love between

Lohengrin, a noble knight who cannot reveal his identity, and

the daughter of the late ruler in the land of Brabant, Elsa.

Wagner specialist Daniel Barenboim conducts the opening

night, with German tenor Jonas Kaufmann and German soprano Anja

Harteros in the two lead roles.

The 234-year old theatre, which is navigating in troubled

financial waters, is hoping its glamorous gala will help lure

wider audiences and more sponsors. The performance will be

broadcast live on television and in cinemas across Europe,

Russia and Japan.

Public funds now only cover 40 percent of the La Scala

budget and Lissner warned this week that without funds from the

private sector the theatre would not be able survive.

(Reporting By Silvia Aloisi)