- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 7, 2011

MILAN (AP) - Italian Premier Mario Monti took a short culture break Wednesday from promoting his package of austerity and growth measures to attend La Scala’s gala season premiere of “Don Giovanni” at the famed Milanese opera house.

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 as they entered the theater and took their seats in the royal box.

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.

Wednesday night, Monti watched Daniel Barenboim conduct Mozart’s opera during the gala premiere, one of the most glittering events on the European culture calendar, attended by cultural, political, fashion, and business figures.

In addition to Napolitano, four Cabinet ministers also were expected, temporarily shifting Italy’s political center to its financial capital.

At one point before the curtain rose, someone shouted “Long live the president!” and was joined by others _ praise that could apply equally to Napolitano or Monti, whose official title is president of Italy’s Council of Ministers.

Despite the spectacle, austerity won’t be entirely out of the picture. La Scala workers in recent years have protested culture budget cuts and the house’s general director has urged the new government to restore funding.

“I would like to appeal to the government and ask for financing because we cannot go on like this,” Stephane Lissner told Radio 24 in a recent interview.

Lissner said he has tried to contain costs, but has had to seek more private money to balance this year’s budget. He invited the government to check out the books. La Scala receives over 40 percent of its funding from the government and the rest from private sources to achieve a rare level of autonomy by Italian opera house standards.

Lissner likely has a receptive audience in the new government. Corrado Passera, minister for economic development and infrastructure, has been on La Scala’s board. The minister for parliamentary relations, Piero Giarda, has been a member of the La Scala Foundation. Both are scheduled to attend the gala opening, along with Culture Minister Lorenzo Ornaghi and Interior Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri.

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.

“Don Giovanni” is being produced by Canadian director Robert Carsen. The production stars soprano Anna Netrebko in the role of Donna Anna and marks the return of once-spurned 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.

Swedish baritone Peter Mattei will sing the title role, seeking the affections of Donna Elvira, performed by Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli and Zerlina played by Anna Prohaska.

Barenboim, who has had a regular presence at La Scala for the last five years, is making his debut as 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.

Barenboim, who assumed the new role on Dec. 1, until now has had a less formal title under which he produced at least two operas a year.

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 while in office, on the occasion of La Scala’s reopening after renovations in 2004.

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