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At La Scala, a Buoyant Opening Amid Austerity

New York Times by GEORGE LOOMIS Published: December 9th, 2011

MILAN — Like no other musical event, an opening night at Teatro alla Scala commands the attention of a nation. For a few hours, what transpires in the fabled opera house takes precedence over everything else in Italy, political or otherwise. This is one reason why President Giorgio Napolitano, Prime Minister Mario Monti and four governmental ministers were present in the central box on Wednesday, the feast day of Saint Ambrose, patron saint of Milan, and the date, Dec. 7, on which La Scala’s artistic season commences every year.

Because of the European financial crisis, this was supposed to be a Scala opening of austerity — as if that were possible, when orchestra seats cost €2,400, or $3,200, and patrons show an irrepressible fashion consciousness. Moreover, gloom over the crisis appeared to be countered by optimism stemming from admiration for President Napolitano and from Mr. Monti’s promising start as prime minister. They received a standing ovation on entering their box, and after the orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, played the national anthem, a voice called out “Viva il presidente!” prompting another ovation.

A dreamer might think this was a situation when politics and art might actually nurture each other, stimulating both to new heights, although realists continue to lament the impact of budget cuts imposed on the arts by Mr. Monti’s predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi. But Robert Carsen’s new production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” refrains from overt political commentary.

The Canadian director does, however, have the Commendatore (Kwangchul Youn), join the governmental dignitaries in the central box when his statue accepts Don Giovanni’s dinner invitation. The weight of societal authority thus stands behind the slain official’s recriminations against the libertine.

Yet Mr. Carsen, in a refreshing departure from grim productions depicting Don Giovanni as a serial rapist, takes a generally positive view of the mythical character. In Peter Mattei’s invigorating portrayal, Don Giovanni’s defiance of convention and boldness in the face of death are outward signs of an inextinguishable energy that animates him and those around him. The point might have been made forthrightly, but Mr. Carsen devises an elaborate construct in which La Scala itself plays an essential part.

During the overture, Don Giovanni rushes from the audience onto the stage and yanks the stage’s deep red curtain to the floor — an iconoclastic gesture if there ever was one. A huge mirror is revealed, reflecting the auditorium and the audience, but more importantly, Don Giovanni has taken control of the stage. Michael Levine’s sets thereafter consist largely of variations on images of the curtain and the auditorium, as the action sometimes unfolds as a play within a play.

In Act II, when exchanging clothes with his servant, Leporello, to further a lovemaking adventure, Don Giovanni briefly instructs his doubting underling, then sits down to follow the action like a director. At the end of Act I, when Don Giovanni looks cornered, the curtain suddenly falls, knocking his pursuers’ swords from their hands as he escapes through a stage box. When not dressed in modern formal attire, the characters often wear heavy outer garments (costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel) that are the same deep red as the curtain.

Another dramatic curtain descent seals Don Giovanni’s descent into hell, or so it at first seems. As the others launch into the moralizing epilogue, Don Giovanni reappears behind them. Soon they are the ones who sink into the abyss as he watches, amused.

It makes for a breathtakingly cynical close, but this “Don Giovanni” fails to cohere. It is brilliant in its individual pieces, which include scenes set in imaginative locales, like a church through with the Commendatore’s coffin passes in procession. But especially in Act II, when tension is difficult to maintain, the play-within-a-play format saps the action of energy.

Still, there is plenty of vocal energy to keep the musical side alive. Mr. Mattei’s potent Don Giovanni not only dominates those around him but also towers over them physically. His seductively sung serenade brings a quick reward when Donna Elvira’s maid appears out of nowhere to embrace him. After cuddling in the dark, they eventually depart, she in a state of thorough undress.

Anna Netrebko’s richly resonant voice is heard to seething effect in the accompanied recitative when Donna Anna recognizes Don Giovanni as her father’s killer, a powerful moment in a compelling portrayal. Later, Ms. Netrebko delivers a finely etched “Non mi dir” while holding a Scala program, as if Donna Anna had just returned from the opera. Barbara Frittoli, an appealing voice as Donna Elvira, also rises to moments of intensity, both in expressing her lust for Don Giovanni and in warning others of his duplicity.

Bryn Terfel’s outstanding Leporello delivers the “catalog” aria with emphatic sternness, as if determined to teach Donna Elvira a lesson. As Donna Anna’s patient lover Don Ottavio, Giuseppe Filianoti tends toward a style more suitable to Verdi than Mozart, but the voice has Italianate ring, and something can be said for Don Ottavio imbued with Mr. Filianoti’s brand of ardor. As Zerlina and Masetto, Anna Prohaska and Stefan Kocan make an attractive pair of newlyweds, Mr. Kocan’s deep tones reminding one that Mozart wrote Masetto and the Commendatore for the same singer.

Before Act II, after Mr. Barenboim had acknowledged applause, someone called out “Troppo lento!” and was promptly shushed. The performance was a bit on the slow side, but it also had an imposing grandeur. In a concession to period practice, a harpsichord played during musical numbers.

This was the distinguished conductor’s first performance as music director of La Scala, a post he assumed this month after fruitful years as “maestro scaligero,” or principal conductor. Under his contract, he can be expected to be part of the cherished ritual of opening night through 2016.

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