Don Giovanni, La Scala, Milan

No coup de théâtre ever matched Mozart’s opening chords as stunningly as this. A modern-suited Giovanni races through the stalls, leaps on to the stage and tears down the mighty red-and-gold curtain that spans La Scala’s proscenium arch. What is revealed is a picture of ourselves – a wall-to-wall mirror reflecting the still-lit auditorium, populated on opening night by the Italian president, the country’s new prime minister and representatives of its business and social elite. While the overture unfolds, Giovanni summons a duplicate curtain further back and disappears behind it.

La Scala’s Don Giovanni is a case-study in social hypocrisy. We are the society that produced him and sent him to hell. We are also a society that needs him – a symbol on to which we can conveniently throw our moral outrage.

Televised live across Europe, this first-night performance made for a suitably opulent start to the Milan opera season, communicating the message that, while Italy’s moral and financial wellbeing may be in the dock, its culture still deserves respect. It was a lavish show, with as good a Mozart cast as you’ll hear today and a conductor, Daniel Barenboim, who has lived with the score for most of his life.

Like the opera itself, Robert Carsen’s staging is sufficiently ambiguous to invite multiple interpretations. When, towards the end, the Stone Guest reappears, this time in the president’s box, it looks as if Carsen may be indulging in some finger-pointing uncomfortably close to home. After all, the opera’s subtitle is “Il dissoluto punito”: could the “rake” who is being “punished” be none other than the state of Italy, held to account for financial wantonness – or even its recently deposed prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who is on trial in Milan for paying underage girls for sex?

There was no Berlusconi-figure on stage, nor was there any sign of the Italian flag. But the audience’s mirror-image did return in the finale and, contrary to convention, a cigar-smoking Giovanni slinked back for the closing sextet, quietly consigning his accusers to hell in a cloud of smoke before bringing the curtain down on the show.

By leaving us with this gobsmacking image, alongside plenty of unresolved questions, Carsen’s concept could not be dismissed as overtly traditional. Nor was it sufficiently wayward to alienate an audience that wanted to be entertained. His Don Giovanni may have been short on laughs, but it was exquisitely lit and organised – a thoroughly professional show that always looked good, even when the pace sagged.

Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes alternated between classical and contemporary, sometimes within the same scene, while Michael Levine’s sets consisted of multiple versions of the Scala stage, one moment disappearing into infinity in trompe l’oeil fashion, at others dispensing with decor altogether. The message behind such theatrical tricks and never-ending perspectives seemed to be that Giovanni is more figment of our imagination – a reverse-symbol of social repression – than flesh-and-blood reality.

Peter Mattei’s seducer was undeniably likeable, and in Carsen’s staging he regularly scores – engaging in consensual sex with Donna Anna in the opening scene and later cavorting with Elvira’s bare-bottomed maid. The Swedish baritone knows how to command the stage and charm his audience, not least in a honeyed Serenade: it’s a scandal that he has appeared only once at Covent Garden. Bryn Terfel’s Leporello seemed a bit long-in-the-tooth – all those Wotans are beginning to tell – but it’s still a joy to hear him in Italian. Anna Netrebko’s Donna Anna was a sumptuous, house-filling performance that points her in the direction of Butterfly and Tosca.

Barbara Frittoli’s Donna Elvira, a thoroughly mixed-up modern Ms, sounded under-projected. Giuseppe Filianoti was the unstylish Don Ottavio, and it’s shocking that La Scala could not find any up-and-coming Italians to sing Masetto and Zerlina, as neither Stefan Kocán nor Anna Prohaska made an impact.

Barenboim conducted an old-school, big-house performance that sapped the life out of “Là ci darem” while giving the singers room to breathe. His recent appointment as music director gives La Scala the internationally respected figurehead it needs. In current market conditions, that may be more important than an up-to-date sense of Mozart style.

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