By Sara Rossi
MILAN (Reuters) - Milan's La Scala theatre opened its 2022-2023 opera season on Wednesday with a gala performance of the Russian work "Boris Godunov" as protesters against the Ukrainian war demonstrated outside the venue.
The opera won a 13-minute ovation from an audience that included Italy's new Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, President Sergio Mattarella and the European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen.
Meloni said politics and culture should be kept separate when asked about protests over the choice of the Russian work, a view also expressed by Mattarella and von der Leyen.
"We have nothing against the Russian people, against Russian history, against Russian culture," Meloni told reporters before the performance.
"We are against the political choice of those who have invaded a sovereign nation," she added.
Around 20 people outside the theatre waved the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag and held up placards denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin for the invasion of Ukraine in February.
"Russia must be isolated. We want to be free," said Tatiana Slyusarenko, who is originally from the Ukrainian town of Irpin and has been living in Italy since 2005.
She questioned why La Scala had not changed its programme over the nine months since the war began.
"Russian culture only when the war is over," read one of the placards.
La Scala artistic director Dominique Meyer last month defended its decision to stage the work, written by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky in the 19th century.
Meyer said the opera had been chosen three years ago and did not constitute pro-Putin propaganda.
"If the theatre had cancelled the opera it would have been a very bad moment for culture," said former La Scala principal dancer Roberto Bolle, who was among the audience.
"Culture must prevail over everything," he added.
Climate-change activists had earlier thrown paint at the entrance to the famed opera house ahead of the opening night.
The three-hour opera, based on a play by Russian writer Alexander Pushkin, recounts the story of Tsar Boris Godunov who went mad and died overwhelmed by guilt over the killing of a young rival for the throne in the late 16th century.
Danish director Kasper Holten staged the story in a gloomy but opulent space with the singers wearing both contemporary and period costumes.
Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov took the lead role as Godunov while Russian soprano Anna Denisova was Kseniya, his daughter.
(Additional reporting by Alvise Armellini in Rome; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Keith Weir)