Italian leaders traditionally attend the opening night of La Scala, Milan's fabled opera house, where they sit in the grand royal box facing the stage. Silvio Berlusconi often ignored that convention, attending the event only once in his years as prime minister of the troubled country.
This year, Mr. Berlusconi is gone and Italy is in crisis. And on Wednesday (the house always opens on Dec. 7), the political class returned to La Scala en masse. Italy's new Prime Minister, Mario Monti, joined President Giorgio Napolitano in his box, marking the first time an Italian president and prime minister have attended the season debut together in nearly 15 years.
This year's first production is Mozart's Don Giovanni, staged by Toronto's Robert Carsen, one of the world's most-sought-after opera directors, and the composer's greatest opera spoke directly to the moment: The figure of Don Giovanni, a dissolute nobleman who denies himself nothing, was a perfect stand-in for the excesses of the Berlusconi years.
Most dramatic of all was another historic first: The character of the Commendatore, who is killed by Don Giovanni early in the first act while defending his daughter's honour, made his famous final-act reappearance standing right in the royal box, between the President and the Prime Minister.
Across the theatre, his fearsome warning rang out – "There will be no laughter by the time dawn comes" – while the Don mocked him from down on the stage. It was as if the ghostly figure was admonishing Mr. Berlusconi, standing side by side with the men who displaced him after fate and Europe ruled that he was finished.
In the audience, meanwhile, austerity was in the air. Commentary in the local press noted that there was "less Botox and more loden [cloth]coats." Tony opera patrons, some of whom paid 2,500 euros a ticket – a "benefit" for the opera house, which was overhauled several years ago – made a point of saying they were wearing "a vintage cape, 30 years old" (Gae Aulenti, the celebrated architect) or "my mother's jewels" (Barbara Berlusconi, Silvio's daughter and the only member of the family present).
No one noted that the garlands of white roses around the royal box matched the garland on the Commendatore's coffin onstage. Yet the fact that the libertine don's death sentence was announced from the box full of Italy's most powerful men was an irony that none could have missed.
The genius of Mr. Carsen (he has directed Orpheus and Eurydice and Iphigénie en Tauride at the Canadian Opera Company in the past eight months) lies not least in his aesthetic ability to capture the spirit of the times. The production's own stringent austerity was punctuated by sudden bursts of extravagance; cool minimalism contrasted with passionate characterization.
The influential Turin newspaper La Stampa called Mr. Carsen "the most famous maestro of musical theatre in the world" and said his 12-minute curtain call (shared with Daniel Barenboim, La Scala's conductor) and showers of flowers were justly deserved.
To a foreign ear, the applause also seemed like a nation's reflection on the birth of a new government and the purging of the old.
"This Don Giovanni ... is beautiful but, above all, new, and that is everything," Corriere della Sera said.
As Mr. Napolitano said on his way out, "The opera was beautiful, the production splendid. ... [And]culture always comes to the aid of Italy."
Negotiations continue in Europe's backrooms to address the currency and debt crises and restore stability to the continent. But meanwhile, in its dark hours, Italy can be buoyed by this masterful staging of a work about liberty, its excesses and – just as Don Giovanni returns from hell, spiffy and smoking a cigarette lit by the fires below – its indomitability.