MILAN (Reuters) - Don Giovanni, opera's notorious libertine, opened the season at Milan's La Scala on Wednesday to an 11-minute ovation from an audience which also had a warm greeting for the president, under whom Italy faces its most austere era for decades.
Outside, hundreds of angry demonstrators packed the cordoned-off square, waving banners and jeering the wealthy, powerful and famous arriving to see Mozart's tale of arrogance, seduction and -- usually but not tonight -- retribution.
In the flower-decked hallways of the opera house, applause greeted President Giorgio Napolitano, mastermind of a political upheaval that has seen respected technocrat Mario Monti replace scandal-plagued Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister.
"This is my first 'first night' at a very unexpected moment of my life," said Corrado Passera, who quit as chief executive of the Italian bank Intesa SanPaolo to join Monti's cabinet of technocrats.
As Monti and his wife stood for the national anthem, protesters outside voiced their anger over the swingeing cuts to the arts and other areas of the economy in the 30 billion euro austerity package Monti's government announced this week.
Under a fluttering banner reading: "WE WILL NOT PAY FOR YOUR CRISIS," a woman who gave her name as Antonietta said people had been shocked by the sudden change in the country's fortunes.
"Only a month ago we could not imagine having a new government and being so close to losing our jobs," she said.
European leaders are meeting this week to find a way out of a debt crisis that has engulfed Greece and forced Berlusconi to resign after 17 years at the helm of the euro zone's biggest debtor, with 1.9 trillion euros in outstanding bonds.
Berlusconi, now facing trial on charges ranging from tax fraud to paying for sex with an under-aged prostitute, may have stepped down from high office.
But La Scala is betting on its "Don Giovanni" with a shock ending to seduce an audience estimated at more than a million with a performance broadcast live on television and in cinemas across Europe, the United States and Russia.
"Don Giovanni is the biggest opera ever created. He reminds us that we are responsible for our own desires," director Robert Carsen told reporters this week. "It's a mystery that nobody can explain, a game with no rules," he said.
The audience at La Scala applauded the performance with enthusiasm, apart from a few whistles for Argentinian-born music director Daniel Barenboim.
First performed in Prague in 1787 -- with Giacomo Casanova in the audience -- "Don Giovanni" is one of the world's most-performed operas. The Italian libretto centres on the charismatic libertine who meets his just deserts when he is dragged down to hell by the dead father of a girl he seduced.
In this production, it is Don Giovanni who prevails. Turning the opera on its head, the final scene ends with the serial seducer alone on the stage while his accusers and enemies descend to hell.
The cast featured Mozart specialist Peter Mattei as Don Giovanni, Bryn Terfel as Leporello, Barbara Frittoli as Donna Elvira and Anna Netrebko as Donna Anna.
"Don Giovanni is a whirlwind of energy," Canadian-born Carsen said of his first production of the opera for La Scala. "He goes on as if he were never going to die," he said.
Carsen plays with opposites, mixing tragedy and comedy, truth and falsehood, making use of effects such as giant mirrors that reflect the theatre to itself.
"This is a post-modern opera, where truth is disguised. You never know who Don Giovanni is," the director said.
Singers performed on and off stage, walking among the audience. Costumes were both modern and traditional.
The 233-year-old La Scala has increasingly tapped private investors to cope with its own economic crises, and public funds now cover only 40 percent of its budget.
But general manager Stephane Lissner appealed for more public funding this week after Monti's austerity package was unveiled. "We cannot go on like this," the Frenchman said.
La Scala has barely managed to break even this year and Lissner has warned that the opera house's future could be at risk if a global recession takes hold.
Last year, Barenboim delivered an impassioned speech in support of the arts just before the first night of the season, while artists and unions demonstrated outside against government cuts in arts spending.