When I attended my first prima, I didn’t know what to make of it. It was unlike anything I had experienced or expected to experience anywhere in the world.

I was reminded of this on Thursday when, 20 years after my first prima – the name given to opening night at La Scala, the great Milan-ese opera house – I attended the start of the 2006-7 season. By coincidence, the opera was the same – Aida, a work surprisingly not given there in the intervening period. Since the mid-1980s, the personnel at La Scala has changed and the theatre has had a backstage rebuild. But some things stay the same: one of them is the hullabaloo surrounding the prima.

An hour before curtain-up, you can’t get near Milan’s Piazza della Scala for police. Having produced your ticket, you bundle yourself past gawpers galore, penned in behind riot barriers. On reaching the historic façade of the theatre, with its traditional pink-and-brown posters advertising the evening’s performance, you become aware of the noise. A prima wouldn’t be a prima without demonstrators, held in check 300 metres away and shrieking slogans such as “La vergogna!” (shame!) and “Basta Guerra!” (enough of war!). These are aimed less at the well-known faces from government, business, society and television streaming into the theatre than at the media circus clogging up the foyer.

A prima is not just about opera. It is a statement of Italian national identity, a reminder that though popular culture has swept the board in most countries, Italian culture is still rooted in Verdi and Aida. Opera and the state come together in reasonable harmony – despite the noise.

This year’s prima was attended by Romani Prodi, the Italian prime minister, and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, who is an equally renowned first-nighter at Bayreuth. In which other countries could you find such figures lending their weight to an opera performance? Tickets were changing hands for €2,000.

With good reason: this was the most auspicious first night since the theatre closed for renovation at the end of 2001. For two years, La Scala was out-of-house; it reopened with the little-known work by Salieri that had inaugurated the building in 1773. Last year’s prima was a last-minute job: Stéphane Lissner, the artistic director who was installed after Riccardo Muti’s overthrow, had little time to do it justice.

If you are planning a visit to La Scala you should try to hear Verdi, the composer most associated with it. To witness the massed chorus in the Triumphal March of Aida, the sounds resonating up to the chandelier that dominates the auditorium, is something you can’t repeat elsewhere. And the orchestral responses in the agitated climax to the Nile Scene shows that these musicians have Verdi in their blood.

The conductor was Riccardo Chailly, one of two leading contenders for the post of music director. The other is Daniele Gatti, who will conduct Lohengrin next month and open the 2008-9 season with Verdi’s Don Carlo. Lissner is in no hurry to make an appointment, but Chailly won’t have done his cause any harm with Aida.

He always was more impressive as a theatre conductor than in the concert hall, and despite a sagging pulse for “Celeste Aida”, evidently dictated by Roberto Alagna’s nervous Radamès, he created a wonderful aura of grandezza and vitalità, the attacks in the Act 3 Amanasro/Aida duet delivered with panache. He may not have generated the same temperature as Muti used to do in Verdi, but Chailly will have been heartened by the cries of “Bravo!” from the ultra-critical loggionisti (the fans in the top circle) when he returned for Act 3.

Aida marked the long-awaited return to La Scala of Franco Zeffirelli, whose early productions there are the stuff of legend, but who had fallen out with Muti. He has since become known for excess, and while Aida was a riot of spectacle, I rather enjoyed it.

Apart from four human eagles that swept down from the flies at the end of the second and final acts, Zeffirelli never lapsed into bad taste. His bronze-and-blue sets, groaning with Egyptian statuary and iconography, had the feel of 1960s Hollywood – you half-expected Charlton Heston to walk on – and Maurizio Milanotti’s costumes could have come from Carry On Up The Nile. But the grand tableaux were immaculately organised, the intimate confrontations executed in broad-brush Italian style. We couldn’t have been further from the “niente” (nothingness) planned by the late Giorgio Strehler for an Aida with Muti, but if you are going to go over the top, you might as well do it in style. Zeffirelli’s show is
no more than a reflection
on stage of the money seated in the stalls, an operatic
tradition with a 300-year

After his opening aria, Alagna settled down, without banishing the impression that his metallic voice has lost its charm. Carlo Guelfi’s Amonasro was big-hearted but vocally threadbare. Vocal honours were divided between Ildiko Komlosi’s Amneris, who properly dominated the stage, and Violeta Urmana’s Aida, her rich lirico spinto soprano riding the ensembles with ease.

If opera is the meeting-point of glamour and passion, La Scala’s prima is
its pinnacle. Long may the tradition flourish.

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