Glamour, protests and Wagner at La Scala opener

MILAN (Reuters) - Richard Wagner’s tale of the struggle for power tangled with familial love and incest will open Milan’s La Scala opera season on Tuesday evening for an audience of the rich and powerful.

German mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier (L), New Zealand tenor Simon O'Neill (C) and British Bass-baritone Sir John Tomlinson perform during a rehearsal of Richard Wagner's opera "Valkyrie" at the La Scala theatre in Milan December 4, 2010. Wagner's tale of a power struggle and castaway lovers will open Milan's La Scala opera season on Tuesday evening. Picture taken December 4, 2010. REUTERS/Brescia e Amisano, Teatro alla Scala/Handout

The opening night at Milan’s glitzy opera house is one of the world’s most popular events to see and be seen at for the global glitterati, who will be treated to a production of Wagner’s “Die Walkuere” (The Valkyrie) filled with stars and technological wizardry.

Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim -- who has said Wagner’s works should be separated from the 19th century composer’s anti-Semitic ideology -- has played down the concerns of some of the cast over the use of technology on stage.

Protests by artists and unions against government cuts to the arts in the current climate of austerity sweeping Europe are also expected to dampen the enthusiasm of opera lovers.

“The Valkyrie is a contemporary work,” Barenboim told reporters last week in defense of Wagner’s artistic merits. “It says people can be free only when they free themselves from social conventions.”

Adding to the hype surrounding the event, Italian media reported last week that some singers had complained that the predominance of visual effects diminished the production’s focus on the depth of the characters.

“Today there is a tendency to create beautiful images, beautiful effects, even to add external elements that have little to do with the work,” German mezzo soprano Waltraud Meier, who plays the passionate Sieglinde, was quoted as saying in La Repubblica.

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Belgian director Guy Cassiers was quick to dismiss criticism, saying technology only served the story better and Barenboim deflected the remarks with praise for the cast.

“(Singers) live on stage with excess. We love and admire them for this,” Barenboim said.

La Scala is in its second year of an ambitious plan to stage Wagner’s four-opera Ring cycle adapted from Norse mythology by 2013, as part of the celebrations for the 200th anniversary of the German composer’s birth.

The story centers around the incestuous love between Siegmund, son of the god Wotan, and his mortal sister Sieglinde.

The Valkyrie, Brunnhilde, Wotan’s warrior daughter who intervenes in Siegmund’s favor against his parents’ will, is to be sung by soprano Nina Stemme, in her Scala debut.

“(Brunnhilde) is a rebel, but at the same time she is loyal to her father,” the Swedish singer said.

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The Argentinian-born Barenboim, who is principal conductor at La Scala, said Wagner’s work should be freed from a widely held prejudice against it because of Adolf Hitler’s affinity for the composer and the use of Wagner’s works in Nazi propaganda.

“We need one day to liberate Wagner of all the weight of ideology,” said Barenboim, who is an advocate for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and who broke an unofficial ban in Israel on playing Wagner’s music in 2001.

La Scala’s opening performance starts at 1600 GMT and tickets for the first night cost as much as 2,400 euros ($3,205).

As in previous years, the opening night will be shown live in cinemas all over the world. Italian state television channel RAI 5 and French TV channel Mezzo will also broadcast live coverage.

Additional reporting by Ilaria Polleschi, Writing by Antonella Ciancio, editing by Paul Casciato