Giuseppe Verdi's rarely staged early masterpiece "Giovanna d'Arco" ("Joan of Arc"), which opens the La Scala season on Monday, seems to have particular present-day resonance, recounting the story of the French patron saint who was inspired by God to fight for her country and came to a premature death.
But the opera house's principal conductor, Riccardo Chailly, said in an interview that the production doesn't try to make a political statement, but is rather an intimate story about a fraught father-daughter relationship.
"I don't see any political implications," Chailly told The Associated Press ahead of the traditional December 7 opening gala, one of the biggest events on the European cultural calendar. "I do see one thing which is extremely contemporary, which is the conflict between the daughter and the father. It is something which goes on forever since human beings have been born."
The return of Verdi's seventh opera to La Scala after an absence of 150 years comes just weeks after the Paris attacks struck at the heart of Western culture and with La Scala itself identified as a possible target for attacks. For the first time ever, guests, including titans of culture, business and politics, will pass through metal detectors as part of enhanced security. La Scala's general manager, Alexander Pereira, has expressed confidence in the additional measures.
"I don't even want to start worrying," Chailly said. "Because it is beyond my powers to know or to control it."
Pereira and Chailly, who will take over as La Scala's musical director in 2017 after concluding other commitments, decided two years ago to open the 2015-16 season with "Giovanna d'Arco," an artistic and musical choice made as they set out to make Italian opera more central to La Scala's repertoire.
In Verdi's take on the historic tale, Joan of Arc's father is a dominant presence as he expresses his fears that his daughter's purity has been compromised by a romantic relationship with Charles VII. Russian soprano Anna Netrebko sings the title role, alongside tenor Francesco Meli as Charles and baritone Carlos Alvarez as Giovanna's father, Giacomo.
Chailly said one reason "Giovanna d'Arco" is so rarely performed is its difficulty, in terms of both the music and the staging.
"The music is very complex. But the producer has to deal with a very, very special context to this story, which has a lot to do with nightmares, dreams, visions, invisible battles. This complexity of the mind and the soul of Giovanna, to be staged and to be believable, is quite a complicated aspect to realize," he said.
La Scala is wrapping up a year of artistic and managerial transition. Pereira, an Austrian who took over management last year, got off to a rocky start after being accused of conflict of interest over production contracts made with his previous employer, the Salzburg Festival, with city officials reacting by cutting short his contract to one year. But the dispute was resolved and the board later confirmed him through 2020.
Pereira said he has secured "an important amount" of funding from abroad — he won't say how much — but that has included establishing a Friends of La Scala fundraising organization in the United States. He also has reached out to the theater's future audience, creating targeted shows especially that brought 35,000 children to La Scala last year. Sales this season increased to 38 million euros ($41 million) from 31 million euros in the previous season, he said.