It had all the hallmarks of a normal Christmas season here in this sprawling, smog-ridden capital of Italian business and culture in the northern province of Lombardy.
For weeks, students had been protesting in the streets about the nation's overcrowded classrooms and antiquated education system. Last week, on one of the busiest shopping days of the season, Communists gathered before Milan's splendid 14th-century Gothic cathedral to call for what their banners described as "a new economic policy for development and employment."
Just as Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the archbishop of Milan, was delivering a homily in the high-arched cathedral on the conclusions of the church's recent special synod of bishops, Alessandro Natta, secretary general of the Italian Communist Party, was standing on a hastily erected wooden platform in the cathedral square lecturing about the socioeconomic crisis confronting the government, while red-suited Santa Clauses moved through the mob ringing bells and asking for contributions to national charities.
"This is typical Italy," said a Milan native, corporate executive Marco Malagoli. "Everyone -- the church, the Communists, the government -- promise everything in our country without ever saying how this everything will in fact be provided."
THE NORMAL political and economic turbulence in the streets of Milan, however, was hardly the main issue concerning the Milanese as the Christmas season built to a climax of buying in the fashionable shops along the Via Morone, where the main emporia of Italian design and fashion are located.
In the lavish homes of the city's gentry, the restaurants that are recognized as among the best in Italy and the fancy hotels where visitors gather for business and pleasure, the topics of discussion were not so much politics as the latest bel canto revival in the city's famed La Scala opera, the long-overdue French recognition of the quality of Milanese cuisine and the prospects that the flagging Milan soccer team was about to be given a new transfusion of money and management through purchase by city's most flamboyant entrepreneur, TV magnate Silvio Berlusconi.
Nothing, it seemed, dominated talk in Milan as much as this month's successful opening of the opera season with a new production of Giuseppe Verdi's "Aida." Directed by Lorin Maazel, it starred Luciano Pavarotti, a baker's son from nearby Modena, and the lyrical soprano Maria Chiara, who sang the title role.
La Scala, by far the most famous opera house in the world, had suffered through a decade of deficits that forced cutbacks in its traditionally ambitious productions, political attacks from leftists who charged that bel canto had become an elitist affectation and the usual internal squabbling of egocentric artists and their managers.
This year's opulent "Aida" seemed to herald a major revival of the opera company, which remains the flagship of Milan's cultural tradition and the pride of this ancient city founded by the Romans.
Though in recent times La Scala openings have been the target of violent street confrontations or, as in 1968, of leftist bombardments with eggs and insults of the stage, this year's opening went off with scarcely a flaw.
A threatened leftist "counterculture" demonstration did not dissuade the cream of Italian society, including former president Sandro Pertini, from turning out -- behind a cordon of riot police deployed around the opera house square -- with enough jewels, furs and gold to support a medium-sized Third World nation for a year.
The extravagant "Aida" production, which critics rated as one of the greatest ever staged, was possible, according to La Scala artistic director Cesare Mazzonis, because for the first time in years the company began its season with its full budget assured -- in fact, expanded -- by a new three-year commitment from Italy's parliament. Last year La Scala was able to meet its payroll and performance schedule only because a consortium of 10 western banks advanced it $8.7 million to meet a shortfall caused by the legislature's delays in paying annual state subsidies.
This year, although the company's $7.6 million deficit since 1976 remains mostly unpaid, the government's new three-year subsidy commitment has allowed La Scala more money and freedom, Mazzonis said. The results already are evident in the new "Aida" and a new "Madame Butterfly" staged by Japanese director Keita Asari with a Japanese set designer.
"This year is heavy on new productions," Mazzonis said in an interview in his office in the 18th-century opera house built by architect Giuseppe Pieramarini. "Where for the past two seasons we were pretty much limited to two new productions, this year we have four major new productions of operas."
THE SUCCESS of "Aida" and the new "Butterfly" have only slightly overshadowed the recent announcement that France's Guide Michelin, the grand arbiter of culinary excellence in Europe, has decided for the first time to award its top three-star rating to an Italian restaurant. Until this month, only restaurants in France, Switzerland and West Germany had been given this accolade.
The first Italian recipient of the ultimate French gastronomic seal of approval was Milan's Gualtiero Marchesi restaurant, named after its 55-year-old chef who opened it only seven years ago after a long apprenticeship in Switzerland and France.
Marchesi, whose restaurant has shunned traditional Italian pasta dishes in favor of a French-influenced "Cucina Novella," said that Michelin's three-star award "gives the prize not only to me but also to the rennaissance of Italian cooking that has been in progress for the last 10 years." He called it a "long overdue" recognition of the professionalism that has entered Italian cuisine after years of simple, trattoria-style cooking.
WHILE MANY focused on song and food, however, one of the biggest topics last weekend turned out to be soccer. There are no bigger rivals in the game in Italy than Milan and Turin, capital of the neighboring province of Piedmont to the west.
This season Turin's Juventus team, owned by the Agnelli family that makes Italy's Fiat cars, has all but run away with the national soccer title, to the great chagrin of the Milanese.
But their depression was somewhat assuaged by news last week that one of their most adventurous entrepreneurs, Silvio Berlusconi of Independent Television, was preparing to buy the Milan franchise, currently a lowly seventh in the national rankings.
"Berlusconi buying Milan and infusing it with new money is probably every bit as important as western banks or the government giving La Scala new money for its cultural ventures," said a leading local government official who asked not to be identified.
"When you get down to it, what interests this city more than politics or opera or food or shopping is football soccer .
That is the major event of our culture, despite the fact we are the home of La Scala."