MILAN -- Italian Premier Mario Monti took a short culture break from promoting his package of austerity and growth measures to attend La Scala's gala season premiere of "Don Giovanni" on Wednesday – a presence that La Scala's general manger hopes bodes well for the future of culture in the country that invented opera.
Conducted by Daniel Barenboim and directed by Robert Carsen, the modernist and sexually charged production of Mozart's classic was enthusiastically received by an audience filled with cultural, political, fashion and business figures. Carnations showered on the performers while the audience applauded for 10 solid minutes.
But this year, as Italy moves to confront a deepening financial crisis, just as important to Milan's famed opera house as the success on the stage was the presence in the audience of the head of government, head of state and four Cabinet ministers – which was taken as a signal that culture is taking center stage.
"This was a moment of great happiness for me because finally in this theater all of the leaders of this country ... were present," general manager Stephane Lissner said back stage. "Maybe this has a symbolic value to say, in this place, that has always had a unique history, that maybe tonight you felt a new unity, a new departure."
Monti and Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, who last month tapped the former European commissioner to try to rescue Italy from its debt crisis, received a standing ovation when they took their seats in the royal box alongside their wives.
"Long live the president," a male voice shouted from the audience after the orchestra played the national anthem – praise that could equally be shared by Napolitano or Monti, whose official title is the president of Italy's Council of Ministers.
Monti, long a La Scala aficionado whose wife holds season tickets, has been spending most of the last three weeks meeting European partners and Italian policymakers to draft measures to revive Italy's stagnant economy – taking a rare public break to attend one of the most glittering events on the European culture calendar held every year on the day that honors Milan's patron St. Ambrose.
Though Italy's president and premier are invited each year to the gala opening, this is the first time in nearly 15 years that both have accepted at the same time. Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who stepped down to make room for a technical government, attended just once in three terms, on the occasion of La Scala's reopening after renovations in 2004.
Symbolically at least, general manager Lissner said the shift of Italy's political center from Rome to Milan, the center of finance and fashion, for an evening centered around music sends an important message about the role of culture in society.
"It is a fundamental good, even more now given what we have to overcome in the next years," he said.
Lissner said La Scala will finish 2011 with a balanced budget for the seventh straight year, thanks to cost containment measures, additional private donations and new funds released by the previous government last spring. But he said the next two years promise to be even more difficult.
La Scala is about two-thirds self-sustaining, a rare level of autonomy by Italian opera house standards, but Lissner in a recent interview with Radio 24 asked the government to release more funds.
Italy, though, is struggling to contain its huge debt, prompting measures that are long on new taxes and spending cuts and short on new expenditures.
Carsen's "Don Giovanni" is spare, sensual and full of humor. The sets mimic the famed theater itself, with the trademark red velvet curtain and golden tassels forming moveable backgrounds, while the performers move from stage to theater, singing from the front row and even the royal box, blurring the line between reality and theater.
Costumes, mostly modern, were critical to setting the mood and became props in themselves. The production oozed eros, with Don Giovanni unremittingly tracked his female prey, at one point subtly undressing a chorus member dressed as a hotel maid as the two pretend to watch the rest of the cast on a stage within the stage.
At the end of the scene, the maid exits completely naked, turning back for something she had forgotten, not the dress, but a mock La Scala program for Don Giovanni – part of Carsen's revolving-door humor.
Carsen said his staging – which received just a smattering of boos – was not meant as a provocation. "This is who Don Giovanni is. We know this," Carsen said. And the reception was overwhelmingly positive.
"It was a beautiful cast. I liked it. A beautiful opening," said Dominique Mayer, conductor of the Vienna Staatsoper. "Who can be offended?"
Anna Netrebko, in the role of Donna Anna, was the star of the evening, along side Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, who did his first Don Giovanni for Lissner more than a decade ago. Mattei's Don Giovanni gamely sought the affections of Donna Elvira, performed by Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli and Zerlina played by Anna Prohaska, as his faithful servant, Leporello, sung with tremendous comic presence by Bryn Terfel, tried to keep him out of trouble.
Tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, who lashed out at La Scala after he was removed from the gala opening night of "Don Carlo" in 2008 due to mistakes in dress rehearsal, sang the role of Don Ottavio.
Barenboim, who has had a regular presence at La Scala for the last five years, made his debut as the theater's musical director. The position has been vacant since Riccardo Muti's acrimonious departure from La Scala in 2005 amid bitter controversy over artistic and programming differences.
"I am very happy, because I feel loved, admired," Barenboim said backstage.