First Mozart is a tough act for Beggars' opera; TIRANA NIGHTS

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The Independent Online
One thing about the Tirana Opera: as cultural experiences go, it is one of the world's great bargains. Tickets for three hours of live music and singing normally cost 50 lek, less than the price of this newspaper and a snip even by Albanian standards; for the same money you could buy just two cups of coffee in a pavement cafe.

Then again, it's not Covent Garden. You won't find too many mentions of the Teatri i Opere dhe Baletit Tirane in Kobbe's guide. Fifty years of isolationism and Stalinist dictatorship did not keep Albania within the fold of mainstream operatic tradition, and until a few years ago you would probably have found nothing but paeans to the Albanian proletariat, which only schoolchildren and students on compulsory trips would attend.

These days the opera has bags of enthusiasm and raw talent, but few resources. The state provides only $250,000 (pounds 160,000) a year, and artists have to scrape by on salaries no higher than $90 a month; many have second jobs in Tirana's bars and restaurants, and the most talented take up offers to work abroad.

Operatic scores have to be begged, stolen or borrowed from travelling friends, and then photocopied for each member of the cast. Costumes are home-made and sets cobbled together from bits of spare joinery picked up from Tirana's booming construction trade.

The opera house is inside the Palace of Congress, a fine monument to Socialist-Realist architecture on Tirana's main square. But in these consumer- istic times it has to share the space with a neon-lit poker saloon and a slot-machine parlour.

Despite the adversities, the opera company has worked hard to expand its repertoire, starting with the only two foreign works ever performed under the old system, La Traviata and La Boheme, and slowly adding further popular classics by Rossini, Verdi, Puccini and Bizet, always performed in the original language.

Then, a few nights ago, the opera house staged a remarkable, if largely unnoticed event: the first production of a Mozart opera on Albanian soil. Inevitably, this was not a regular Don Giovanni. The scene in the cemetery when the statue of the murdered commendatore accepts Don Giovannis's dinner invitation was played without the statue; instead, the audience was invited to use its imagination as the singers put on frightened expressions and stared into the middle distance.

At the end, the earth failed to swallow up the unrepentant Don Giovanni and consign him to hell. The Don merely lifted up a large white sheet which had previously served as his tablecloth at dinner (creating a large cloud of dust as he did so), twirled around with a ballerina and then keeled over and died.

Musically, this was the most ambitious thing the Tirana Opera had ever done, and it would not have been possible without the help of the Austrian government, which provided $80,000 in sponsorship, the director, conductor and a handful of singers. The opera closed its doors for a whole month to prepare, and charged four times the usual price.

The orchestra remained a bit thin, around 45 players compared to the 80 or 90 in a normal opera house, and there was no harpsichord for the continuos, just an out-of-tune grand piano. Neither Don Ottavio nor Donna Anna were quite up to their difficult virtuoso arias. The voice of Don Giovanni lacked the brooding quality which gives the opera its depth.

Still, it was a spirited performance, with the popular local bass Artan Lika as Leporello and a fine array of traditional Albanian costumes in the country dancing scenes.

In his list of Don Giovanni's female conquests, Leporello managed to dig up 231 Albanians that Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, somehow overlooked.