Daniel Barenboim made a triumphant debut Friday night as principal guest conductor at La Scala's gala premiere of "Tristan und Isolde," receiving 20 minutes of applause, a shower of roses and shouts of "bravi."
The performance dispelled labor tensions that have hung over the famed Milanese opera house, as musicians and management alike sought to keep the melodrama strictly on the stage.
The spare production was directed by Patrice Chereau, whose sparse choreography amid industrial sets of slate walls, gave the tragic love story a realistic background void of overt symbolism.
German mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier, a Wagner veteran who carried the evening, starred as "Isolde" to British tenor Ian Storey's "Tristan."
The production was the realization of Barenboim's long-held and twice-failed desire to stage the opera with Chereau. It was the first time in nearly two decades that Wagner opened the season at the theater better associated with Verdi and the first time in 29 years the orchestra played Tristan.
"I think they played marvelously," Barenboim told reporters after the premiere. "It is not an easy opera and they played like they have been playing it their whole lives. I was confident, I knew they knew everything there was to know."
While Barenboim reckoned he has conducted "Tristan" more than any other opera, he said the collaboration with Chereau "breathed new life" into the production admired even by those who find the German conductor too heavy.
"In Chereau, I found my ideal partner," he said.
After recent walkouts by workers blocked Barenboim twice from conducting Verdi's "Requiem," everyone from the audience to musicians to management sought to focus on the premier and not on the still unresolved labor dispute.
The contract for La Scala's 800 employees expired four years ago and there is still no agreement on a new one. But musicians said they were putting labor issues aside in order to give the performance their fullest.
General manager Stephane Lissner thanked the workers for putting the season-opener, a key cultural event in Milan, ahead of the labor tensions.
"It's an emotional night for me, because we achieved this success after all of the difficulties of the last weeks," Lissner said after the show.
La Scala's traditional Dec. 7 season opening, held on the day honoring Milan's patron saint Ambrose, puts Italy's financial and fashion capital in the international spotlight. Foreign heads of state regularly attend and this year Italian President Giorgio Napolitano was joined by the presidents of Austria, Germany and Greece as well as the emir of Qatar.
Admission runs up to $2,900, while the infamous opera buffs who frequent the upper tiers of La Scala's balconies, the "loggionisti," wait in line to pay $73 for standing-room tickets.
With "Tristan," Barenboim assumes his new role as "Maestro of La Scala," an honorific title created for the Argentine-born conductor after the acrimonious 2005 departure of music director Riccardo Muti.
While no music director has been named per se, Barenboim, who is also music director of the Staatsoper in Berlin, will be chief among guest conductors who also include also Daniele Gatti and Riccardo Chailly.