Matsuev Test: Will Italian activists disarm another of Putin’s cultural general?

After the beginning of the aggression war in Ukraine, Italian theatres were a sort of “safe harbor” for Russian artists, even for those with close ties with Putin, and for those who never condemned his regime. 

Gergiev was the only Russian artist whose concert was cancelled by La Scala, while other artists – close to Putin and recently sanctioned by Ukraine, such as Anna Netrebko and Svetlana Zakharova – are still welcome in Milan, Verona, Turin and several other Italian theatres since April 2022.

The common statement of theatre directors in Italy was: “arts and politics should be separate”. 

Then, few weeks ago, something changed. A tweet from NextaTV about Sergej Polunin, whose show “Rasputin” was planned in Milan, at the Arcimboldi theatre in January 2023, raised anger on social media: not among the art and ballet community, which was waiting for the event, but among all the Italian people supporting Ukraine. Why Milan was going to host a Putin’s supporter, with Putin’s face tattooed on his chest? Not accepted anywhere else in Europe? And after that Polunin collected money for the Russian army, the same army responsible for rapes and slaughters in Ukraine?

Initially, the reaction of the director of the theatre, Gianmarco Longoni, was to dismiss criticisms; in an interview with Irene Soave he said: “The show was scheduled from 2019, then moved several times. Polunin should have come last spring, when the war had already broken out; he was injured, and the show was canceled yet again. But now we have a hall of tickets sold, and out of respect for those who bought them we would confirm. Even Polunin’s cachet has already been paid, it would be a disaster to cancel.”

But the rage increased, and not only on social media: Italian #NAFO activists groups flooded social media, they organized a mail-bombing campaign toward the theatre and the Major of Milan, and an on-line petition collecting more than 2500 signatures. The social media campaign was also sponsored by Italian and Ukrainian journalists, such as Zelensky’s former Press Secretary Iuliia Mendel, and finally, at the end of December, Arcimboldi theater decided to cancel the show.

However, the reaction of the theatre (also reported by Irene Soave) was … against the protesters: “We receive threats. Our personnel receive threats. What if he comes, and then something happens in the hall? And this is for peace? They want peace, but also to silence those who think differently”. Even the official statement on the theatre web page was rough: the cancelation was due to the “pressing social and web mobilization of the past few weeks against the artist’s performance”, and to the “climate of tension and threats”.

This reaction was seen, by many, as a sign of the lack of sensibility of the Italian artistic community on the war in Ukraine. Another journalist, Massimiliano Melley, pointed out that such reaction is very strange since Polunin is banned everywhere in Europe: “It is not about the relationship between art and politics: we note that there is the rest of Europe, which is intolerant versus the intolerants [the russian regime], and then there is Arcimboldi theatre which, flaunting an alleged “violence”, ends up transforming a dancer – who raises funds for the army that has unleashed a genocidal war – into a victim, turning aggressors in “victims”, direct or indirect, of that war. Bad, very bad indeed.” 

Another similar case was the concert of Valentina Lisitsa at “La Fenice” theatre in Venice, planned in April 2023: even in this case the association Musikamera had scheduled her concert as part of the 2022-2023 season, just an ordinary event. The “alarm” was given by Mariia Kramarenko on Twitter:  Lisitsa is famous for a concert in occupied Mariupol, she played piano close the theatre destroyed by the invaders, where many innocents died, how is it possible that she can play in Venice?

Again, social media were flooded by #NAFO activists, but also by concerned Italian citizens, and once again the Italian civil society had a clearer and more serious stance against the Russian aggression.

“La Fenice” theatre communicated that Lisitsa’s concert was cancelled only after a direct question from Jacopo Iacoboni, a famous Italian journalist (threatened by Russian government in 2020 for his investigation on Putin’s influence in Italy).

And again, the Italian music society was “surprised”: Musikamera’s president Sonia Guetta Finzi said “Music and culture must unite peoples and not divide them”, and “We were not aware of [Lisitsa]’s political activism and the controversies involving her – I am very sorry and embarrassed.”

And some Italian music journalists did not seem very happy, too. Piera Anna Franini wrote on “Il Giornale”: “The cancellation in Venice has to be seen in the frame of the “russophobia” and “cancel culture”, a decision taken without investigating what goes on behind the scenes. This is a case in which “Right and wrong are never divided so cleanly ….”. It is worth noting that “Il Giornale” is a newspaper owned by the family of Silvio Berlusconi, former PM and long-time friend of Vladimir Putin, who recently declared that he is “number one among his five best friends“.

And the different view between Italian theatres and Italian civil society is still there.

In these days, the Italian #NAFO activists have launched a new petition, to stop a concert of Denis Matsuev planned in Genova in May 2023.

Again, this would be the first concert of a Putin’s longtime friend and supporter in Europe, sponsored by Gazprom, after cancellations in SpainJapan and Switzerland …. and once again, his first European concert after the invasion would be in Italy.

And despite Matsuev’s support to Putin, and the continuous atrocities in Ukraine, not only Genova, but also other Italian theatres are happy to host him:“Festival Pianistico” just announced two concerts with Matsuev in Brescia (May 24th) and Bergamo (May 27th)

The petition against Matsuev in Genova collected more than 700 signatures in a couple of days: will Italian activists gain a third win? And will this be enough to stop further invites from other Italian theatres?


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