By  on January 25, 2002

MILAN -- Imagine moving the Colosseum into a skyscraper.

The thought of Italy's most famous opera house, La Scala, being replaced -- even temporarily -- by a brand new building on the outskirts of Milan is just as disconcerting for Italians, who consider the 18th-century theater a hallmark and an almost sacred institution.

But to compare the two is like looking at apples and oranges -- as neoclassic and stately as La Scala is, its replacement, the new Arcimboldi Theater, is exponentially postmodern and massive.

For the next three years, La Scala will undergo extensive renovations, and the lyrical seasons will find a new home at the Teatro degli Arcimboldi, located in the Bicocca area, a half-hour's commute from the center of Milan. It is named after a medieval noble family at the court of the Sforza dukes, who built a country villa on the site in 1450, named it the Bicocca and decorated it with magnificent frescoes. The most famous Arcimboldi, the painter Giuseppe, is known for his bizarre portraits that show human shapes made of fruits, flowers and plant combinations.

The Arcimboldi Theater was built at a cost of $39 million in 27 months -- a record by Italian standards -- and was inaugurated this past weekend with Giuseppe Verdi's "Traviata," conducted by Riccardo Muti. Designed by architect Vittorio Gregotti, it is the largest new theater in Italy and accommodates 2,400 people, with two levels of stalls and two rows of galleries.

"I wanted to create a sensible, simple theater," said Gregotti. "Its main quality is that it is 'normal' -- what you would expect from a theater," said the architect, whose recent projects include the city's Malpensa airport and Lisbon's Belem theater.

Accordingly, Gregotti said, he didn't try any "adventurous experiments." Its foyer and a fan-shaped hall are covered with lacquered red maple wood in the same technique used to dye violins, while the architect also recovered several 19th-century decorations from La Scala's scenographic archives for display. La Scala's original burgundy velvet curtain also was moved to the Arcimboldi.

Several elements of the new theater were created in deference to the famed La Scala, an effort that seems to have placated many concerns among the Milanese. Some critics here are embracing the building.

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