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Russian minister feted at La Scala as outrage grows

AS RUSSIA'S military campaign in Chechnya continued in the face of international condemnation, the Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov put on his tuxedo last night to mingle with the cream of Italian society for a gala opera performance at La Scala.

Director Riccardo Muti chose Fidelio, Beethoven's only operatic work, as a tribute to the progress of the 20th century and a glimmer of hope for the future in the midst of millennium angst. Set in the French revolution, Fidelio is a hymn to liberty and brotherhood against oppression and injustice.

The performance came a day after Russia told the 100,000 starving inhabitants of Grozny, the Chechen capital, to leave the city by Saturday, or die.

Mr Ivanov had no hesitation in joining the dazzling crowd attending the premiere in Milan for the highlight of Italy's cultural and social calendar.

The opening of the opera season, the last of the millennium, was more hyped than ever. Twelve thousand roses decorated the temple of classical song and security guards were deployed to ensure that no graffiti artists defaced the magnificently restored facade.

The movers and shakers were there; the Italian President, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, the who's who of big business, cultural icons, and fashion designers. The upwardly mobile were prepared to shell out up to pounds 500 for a seat while opera fans queued for days for the 200 spaces in the standing gallery.

The decision to invite Mr Ivanov, and his German counterpart Joschka Fischer, was made by Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini, who said this was the political significance of the opera. "They represent the two nations for whom the collapse of the Wall signified a turning point and the start of a process of reconciliation," he said. "The Fidelio is not just a work about love between husband and wife but about freedom denied, human rights trampled."

lt was not known last night whether he regretted the invitation, given the criticism of Russia's ultimatum as "horrible and unacceptable" made by Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema a few hours before Mr Ivanov touched down.

The opera's message may even have been lost on the Russian visitor. La Scala played Fidelio in the opera's native German without subtitles.