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It's curtains for Rome's 'soap' Opera

WHETHER it was the cost of incontinent camels, ballerinas protesting on stage, tenor Jose Carreras's eyebrow-raising fee, or the bailiffs' seizure of the 487 seats, rarely has there been a dull moment on stage at the Opera House in Rome - and behind the scenes it was often a farce. Conductor Riccardo Muti called it Barnum's Circus, others 'the soap opera'.

But times have changed and the new mayor of Rome has blown the whistle: such shows must stop. The last straw was a Rome magistrate's application for leave to prosecute the Superintendent, Gian Paolo Cresci, Jose Carreras and 21 others for alleged fiddles with the funds.

What with carpeting the foyer in Persian rugs, doubling the staff, hiring liveried lackeys, parading through the city with elephants and slave-girls, and other extravagances, Mr Cresci has, within two years, turned the Opera's 900m lire ( pounds 36,000) surplus into a L60bn deficit. By the summer, it will have no money to pay staff, and next year it may have to close down.

Backed by a unanimous city council vote, Mayor Francesco Rutelli demanded that Mr Cresci resign. The situation is intolerable, he declared.

The superintendent's departure - if he does go, which is another matter - will mark the end of an era: a political era. The Rome Opera has been a playground for the old political parties, a rich mine of patronage, influence and nepotism. The people who got top jobs reflected the political make-up of the city council.

It has long been rumoured that to be hired or win a plum part, singers had to be backed by one party or another.

Mr Cresci embodied this system. He was one of many who made spectacular careers on the coat-tails of politicians (in his case, former prime ministers Amintore Fanfani and Giulio Andreotti, and Rome's former Christian Democrat boss Vittorio 'the Shark' Sbardella). He was also a member of the P2 Masonic conspiracy (which he dismisses as 'an accident').

In a carve-up of jobs, the superintendency fell to him, though he admitted he did not know the first thing about opera. Mr Fanfani could not see any drawback. 'Cresci is an opera in himself,' he said.

And, in a way, he is. Determined to popularise a lacklustre theatre, he went for mass- appeal productions, showmanship, gimmicks. 'All froth and no substance,' his critics objected - but Mr Cresci was not deterred. To defuse a hostile press, he hired journalists and their relatives on contracts. And he paid well-connected women to cultivate the diplomatic corps and throw after- theatre parties. When the Italian president wanted a special welcome for Argentina's President Carlos Menem, Mr Cresci engaged Carreras for the night for L130m (some reports say L170m) though the maximum fee allowed is L30m.

The State Audit Office was appalled. Why was an orchestra paid for a Pavarotti concert that never took place? Why are nearly one quarter of tickets given away? Why was a plane hired to bring a tenor from London, carpets rented at L300m a year without tenders, and the new, 25-strong in-house fire brigade given English lessons at L80,000 each an hour? And what about the L14m for hiring six horses and a chariot, and the L35m for a monkey and two camels which, at the sound of fanfares, were unable to contain themselves?

'It resembles a Byzantine court in the worst period of decadence,' the Corriere della Sera newspaper said. Mr Cresci retorted that the debt was 'a mere trifle . . . no more than the cost of a few tanks'. And with devastating frankness, he added: 'Only an infinitesimal part of it went into bribes.'

Not that the problems started with Mr Cresci. 'It is easier to translate an Egyptian papyrus than run the Opera,' conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli said. Twice someone tried to set it on fire; poison-pen letters circulated; a prima donna publicly boxed the artistic director's ears; and, Mr Cresci says, the security-conscious secretary- general works in a strong-room.

Its union problems were notorious: in Giselle once, half the corps de ballet occupied the stage in protest at the producer; and in performances of Carmen and Iphigenia in Tauris, the chorus refused to open their mouths. These issues subsided when Mr Cresci introduced mass promotions and liberal payment of overtime.

Mr Cresci, whose contract still has some time to run, has been promising to resign for a year. If the new, clean city council, which has already chosen his successor, manages to sort out the Opera, it will be another sign that the new era in Italy really has begun.