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Another fight at the opera as La Scala puts Verdi behind Wagner

Controversy is never far away from The Scala and its season opener

The obligatory row ahead of opening night at La Scala, the most glittering event on the Italian social calendar, has this year assumed international dimensions.

As the first flakes of snow fell on the legendary opera house, fans of Giuseppe Verdi were demanding to know why it had the snubbed Italian maestro's 200th birthday and instead opted for German rival Richard Wagner's Lohengrin as the prestigious season-opener.

Such has been the kerfuffle that Italy's head of state, President Giorgio Napolitano, felt the need to write to assure La Scala's musical supremo, Daniel Barenboim, that his unusual absence last night was due to pressing business of state and not a protest.

In recent months, the euro debt crisis and the resulting austerity measures have seen rising anti-EU and anti-German sentiment in Italy, inflamed by populist politicians, including ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi.

"I consider any controversy about the order of priority between the Wagnerian and Verdian anniversary celebrations totally futile, and it's somewhat ridiculous to dig up the conflicts that inflamed the lovers and patrons of Wagner and Verdi's art in the second half of the 19th century," Mr Napolitano said.

The president could be forgiven for not making the trip to Milan. He has vital legislative reforms to sign off and must prepare for the possibility that Berlusconi is about to pull the rug from under Mario Monti's government.

Not everyone has been so even-handed regarding Mr Barenboim's decision to kick off the season with Wagner instead of Verdi, however, with several newspapers describing the choice as a blow to national pride. The bicentennial of the birth of both great composers, who were bitter rivals in their time, is next year.

Mr Barenboim said the row amounted to "a pointless discussion". He added that as Verdi was born later on in 2013 – in October – it made more sense to start next year's season with one of his works.

Controversy is never far away from The Scala and its season opener. Eyebrows were raised in 2009 when Mr Berlusconi snubbed that year's curtain-raiser Carmen for a night out at his local cinema multiplex to see the FX-laden blockbuster 2012.

In 2010, when Milan's upper-class, VIPs and ministers made it past rioters outside to take their seats for opening night, they were treated to a scathing lecture about government cuts to arts funding by the same Daniel Barenboim as he took to the podium to conduct Wagner's Die Walküre.

The incumbent premier, Mr Monti, showed up last night however, as did Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, to add a veneer of European unity.

And Stéphane Lissner, La Scala's general manager, noted that in the 2012/2013 season La Scala will present only five Wagner operas, compared to eight by Verdi.

Lohengrin is a four-hour romantic epic, which tells the story of the eponymous knight of the Holy Grail. The hero, whose secret identity is central, was described by Mr Barenboim as opera's James Bond. Perhaps Mr Berlusconi might have come, had he known.