MILAN (AP) — Italian Premier Matteo Renzi attended La Scala's gala season premiere of Verdi's "Giovanna d'Arco" ("Joan of Arc") on Monday amid tighter security following the Paris attacks, saying "we must not underestimate anything, but we can't close ourselves at home."
VIP guests, who included leaders of politics, business and culture, had their bags checked and were screened with metal-detecting wands under enhanced security measures put in place for the first time after the Milanese opera house was identified as a potential target in the wake of the Paris attacks.
Renzi has emphasized the importance of culture in fighting extremism, matching a 1 billion euro pledge in new security spending with an addition 1 billion euros in cultural investments.
"I think that culture is a universal message of beauty about which Italy has much to say in the world," Renzi said during the intermission.
Hundreds of police created a large cordon around the theater that has become routine for the event, one of the most important dates on the European cultural calendar. Sharpshooters were positioned on rooftops and more than the usual number of police vehicles were posted on nearby streets.
Guests included Patti Smith, dancer Roberto Bolle, the French ambassador to Italy and Italy's culture minister.
"Things are happening all over the world you know, in California, I was just in Paris. But we have to live," Smith said as she arrived Monday evening, fresh from attending the U2 concert in Paris a day earlier to honor of the victims of the Nov. 13 attacks. "I am not thinking of that tonight, I am thinking of Joan of Arc and her courage, that girl faced one of the most terrible things anyone could imagine."
Milan Mayor Giuliano Pisapia said earlier that every necessary security measure had been taken. Police cleared the piazza in front of the theater, where in previous years crowds could watch the glitterati arrive. A small union protest was cleared before doors opened.
La Scala's principal conductor Riccardo Chailly conducted the rarely performed "Giovanna d'Arco," which hasn't been staged at La Scala, where it premiered in 1845, in 150 years.
At the time of its premiere, Verdi called it his best work ever, but he was angry with La Scala for the quality of the staging and musicians and didn't debut another opera there for decades. Chailly said it is an extremely difficult opera for the singers, and the staging must convey action taking place largely in Joan of Arc's imagination.
The staging by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier included vivid video images of war cast in the background. Bolle said it was important to rediscover "Giovanna d'Arco," recounting the story of the French patron saint who was inspired by God to go to war, "especially in this historic moment." He praised the references to France and the thought-provoking images of war as an homage to the Bataclan, the Paris theater that was one of the targets of the Nov. 13 attacks.
Russian soprano Anna Netrebko sang the title role alongside tenor Franceso Meli as Charles VII, reprising roles they sang together in Salzburg two years ago. Baritone Devid Cecconi made his La Scala premiere debut in the role of Giovanna's father after Carlos Alvarez had to bow out with bronchitis.
The production was celebrated with eight minutes of applause.
Netrebko, who was showered with flowers and golden petals, said all of the performers were mindful of the Paris attacks and their impact.
"All we want is peace on Earth," she said.