La Scala, the most famous of opera companies, inaugurated its third century of music and drama on Wednesday night.

No speeches were made, no medals conferred, no national anthems played. There was no array of international society, movie, television or political personalities to add media hype. Even the Italian president, the prime minister and the members of the cabinet stayed in Rome.

La Scala has no need for back-patting testimonials. Instead, the company celebrated its bicentenary - an extraordinary milestone for any performing art institution - by boldly asserting its traditionally lofty professional standards in a new production of Verdi's "Don Carlo."

Conductor Claudio Abbado began the long, penetrating and deeply felt work promptly at 7:30 - a performance that was not just an homage to La Scala, but also to the composer most closely identified with its grand history.

The lack of ceremony put the focus exactly where it belonged, on the opera itself. As a performance of "Don Carlo," it was as fine as anyone is likely to hear today.

And, during this period of Italian economics chaos and charges of corruption at the highest levels, La Scala seems right in relying for a public display of its bicentenial upon its own strength, rather than on an assemblage of the driftwood of officialdom that might have lent a false note to a memorable occasion.

The decision to stage "Don Carlo" was not an idle one, for it is a work replete with secondary implications involving Italian nationalists. It was written in 1867, soon after the foundation of the Italian state, as a sort of celebratory gesture by Verdi, one of the leaders of the movement for a united Italy.

And it was an amibitious decision, for "Don Carlo" is a complex, subtle, and strenuous work that, without the best performers, loses much of its wrenching impact. Until recent years many major opera companies dodged it altogether. "Traviata" was always safer.

The central theme of "Don Carlo" is the disproportionate human price that is paid for social, political and religious repression. The opera is set, except for one act, in the court of the Spanish Hapsburgs under King Phillip II, who reigned from 1556 to 1598.

At the beginning, the effects of repression seem remote indeed from the royal court - but the impact comes closer to home when Rodrigo, a partisan of persecuted Flanders, intercedes with Don Carlo, heir apparent to the Spanish throne, to help his suffering people.

Subsequently, the human cost of such a system begins to affect the king himself as he discovers that Don Carlo is dealing with the dissidents of Flanders and is in love with his French wife, Elizabeth de Valois, Carlo must be punished.

The work's dramatic peak is emotionally supercharged. The king calls in the dreaded Grand Inquisitor, who is appropriately blind and 90, to ask if Carlo must die. The extent of human suffering under his own system finally hits the king himseIf when the Grand Inquisitor replies that not only must Calo die, but that the king as well would have been arraigned by the inquisition had Phillip not taken action.

"Don Carlo" is a sprawling, five-act opera that can seem to go on forever when placed in the wrong hands. Wednesday night the elements necessary to prevent this were present - discipline, imagination and momentum.

Abbado was the key. As Washingtonians learned last year with his performances at the Kennedy Center of Verdi's "Macbeth" and "Simon Boccanegra," Abbado has fashioned a way of performing Verdi that is so cohesive that the whole adds up more than the sum of its parts. Nothing lags, nothing is rushed.

Next to the conductor, the musical element most crucial is a strong King Phillip, and bass Nicolai Ghiarov brought remarkable breadth and lyricism to this ruthless, but ultimately poignant figure.

The immense physical presence and vocal darkness of Eugheni Nesterenko's Grand Inquisitor made that bass role as sinister and exciting as one could ever hope. Mezzo Elena Obrastzova was distinguished as the lady-in-waiting to the queen, and drew the greatest ovations of the evening. Baritone Piero Cappuccilli, Mirelli Freni and Jose Carreras complete the six leads of this remarkable cast.

This new production was by Luca Ronconi, a controversial figure with Milan audiences. Several times production details that displeased certain persons were greeted with shouts of "stupido," and during the curtain calls Ronconi came in for his share of boos and heckling, some of which continued after the applause was long over.

But if Milan's opera goers sometimes footnote the performance with irritating shouts, they never applaud an aria or a duet until its orchestral conclusion has ended.

And do they ever love opera. Wednesday night there were 15 curtain calls, and when Abbado came on, stage bouquets of flowers started flying in all directions from La Scala's six steep tiers.