Opera as you've never seen it: La Scala cancels controversial 'Candide'

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The Independent Culture

La Scala, Italy's most famous opera house, is in the news again after the cancellation of a production of Voltaire's Candide that is drawing rave reviews in Paris. The show was to open in June.

A spokesman for the Milanese theatre said the cancellation, which will cost La Scala more than €1.2m (£800,000), had nothing to do with the scene in which an actor wearing a Silvio Berlusconi mask dances drunkenly on a mattress dressed only in red, white and green striped underpants.

Three weeks ago the Franco-Italian tenor Roberto Alagna stormed out of Franco Zeffirelli's production of Aida here after being booed. Earlier this week the theatre's Christmas concert was torpedoed by a choir strike.

Candide is a new version of the Leonard Bernstein opera that brought Voltaire's 18th-century satire into the US of the Fifties; the new version, a co-production with the English National Opera, transposes it to the present day.

The ills through which Candide processes in his "best of all possible worlds" include burning forests, refugees and pollution. George Bush throws a beach party for Blair, Chirac, Putin and Berlusconi, and all dance drunkenly on a mattress floating on a polluted sea. Putin throws up and dies, a victim of poisoned champagne.

The production, which opened at the Théâtre du Chatelet, in Paris this week, was hailed by France's L'Express as "a well-deserved triumph".

La Scala's superintendent, Stephane Lissner,told La Stampa he didn't plan to make any changes. But the next day La Stampa published an article on the show's depiction of "Silvio, semi-nude and drunk" with a photograph, and there was trouble in the air. La Scala's press spokesman, Carlo Maria Cella, said: "The inclination of the theatre is to request Robert Carsen to cut the satirical part. We are already in discussions with the director."

Former prime minister Berlusconi's hostility to satirical depictions of himself is well known. Berlusconi satiristSabina Guzzanti found her new comedy series for RAI axed after one programme and friends of the media tycoon tried to stop a show by Dario Fo satirising him from opening in Milan.

The mayor of Milan, Letizia Moratti, was the minister of education in his government and is also president of the La Scala Foundation.

On Thursday evening Mr Lissner declared the opera was "not in line with the artistic programmation of La Scala" and had decided to withdraw it. Carsen, a Canadian trained at Bristol Old Vic, said: "I don't believe the Milanese public could be offended or shocked by the scene ... Candide is political, social and intellectual satire or it's nothing."