Absurdifying Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni—Mozart’s masterpiece opera about the intoxicating power of deceitful sensuality and its attendant temptation to reject redemption—has suffered some particularly ill-conceived productions as of late. That artistic directors have begun to remake the classic spiritual tragicomedy into their own secular morality tales bespeaks not only an anemic aesthetic vision, but a culture tearing down its own monuments as a price for human freedom.

Take the “boldly contemporary” version that sets the action in a corporate skyscraper, which was beloved by the New York Times in its 2006 debut and its 2012 revival. Featuring a climax in which after-hours workers murder Giovanni, the radical revision was conceived by Michael Haneke, the writer and director of the indie-darling film Amour, essentially a two-hour glorification of euthanasia.

As bad as it sounds, Haneke’s Giovanni is merely a might-makes-right revolution of the repressed office-space proletariat. At least it honors its Neo-Marxist dogma, insipid as it may be.

The 2015 Kansas City Lyric Opera Giovanni, on the other hand, is a more dangerous excursion. Set in 1950s America, the production features “snap-brim fedoras, trench coats, and dimly lit speakeasies.” If that sounds overwrought, the real red flag in the promotional materials (which, regretfully, I didn’t read before deciding to go) concerns the climax of the opera, in which Giovanni refuses to repent of his misspent life, and—traditionally, at least—goes to Hell in brilliant pyrotechnical infamy. The Lyric Opera boasts that Giovanni “finally meets his end at the cold hand of destiny in this beautifully re-imagined masterpiece,” a harbinger of depersonalized, inevitable karma rather than dramatic choices with just consequences.

The second red flag? The word “god” in the translated titles during the show—a conscious decision on someone’s part to decapitalize it every time a character spoke it. Not surprising, then, the third red flag: the all-important cemetery setting of Don Giovanni’s brash invitation to the statue of the Commendatore to dine with him. Giovanni had much earlier killed the actual Commendatore, who was defending his daughter from being raped by the same; the Commendatore’s statue features an inscription vowing vengeance. The Lyric Opera set featured a couple of oversized crosses oddly distorted by perspective—a twisted aesthetic choice unparalleled by the straightforward, realistic scenery in the rest of the show. Don’t expect to find a capital-G deity around here, the director implicitly informs the audience.

All this chicanery leads inexorably to the utterly bungled climax of the Lyric Opera Giovanni. Let us for a moment revisit the glory of what happens when this—one of the most pivotal and recognizable scenes in opera, and one of the great moments of spiritual struggle in the arts—is done well.

When unexpectedly, the statue shows up for dinner, Giovanni’s pusillanimous sidekick Leporello fears for their lives (“Siam tutti morti!” he complains). The statue, who claims he doesn’t need earthly food because he dines on heavenly nourishment, instead has come to invite Giovanni to dine with him. Leporello pleads with Giovanni not to accept—beseechingly at first (“Sorry, he’s busy right now…”), and then desperately (“Say no! Say no!”). Citing his strong, valorous heart—and his proud assertion of never being found afraid—Giovanni agrees to go, and shakes the statue’s hand as a pledge.

Instantly in pain from the statue’s literally chilling grip, Giovanni recoils; the statue seems surprised (“What’s wrong?”) then exhorts him to repent quickly, for time is short. The struggle continues—with Leporello now urging his master to repent—until Giovanni wails a final “No!” The statue pronounces Giovanni’s time as up, and the conflagration immediately begins. “Who scourges my soul? Who disembowels me?” Giovanni howls. A chorus of devils taunts him, “Come, there is far worse!” Leporello stares in horror at the damned (“dannato”), and can only cry out as he watches his master swallowed by the inferno. A final wrapping-up scene brings the remaining characters together; Leporello recounts Giovanni’s end, and the cast sings the moral: the death of the wicked is tantamount to how they choose to live.

Even with such clarity in the libretto, any director must make some choices that affect the interpretation. If staged to emphasize vengeance, the scene allows us to conclude that the statue, confident that Giovanni’s pride and obstinacy will undo him, tricks Giovanni into shaking his hand so as to see him damned.

When in 1990 the accomplished bass-baritone Samuel Ramey played Giovanni opposite the venerable bass Kurt Moll as the Commendatore/statue, the latter never let go of Giovanni’s hand—even after his final denial. Moll—in resplendent plate armor with metallic silver body paint underneath—belted out a low D when declaring Giovanni’s time up, something very few basses can do beautifully in this role, especially with the volume necessary to cut through the swelling orchestra. It grippingly emphasized the new low to which Giovanni was about to sink.

Moll’s statue held Giovanni firm until the powers of Hell engulfed him—a rather menacing interpretation of the statue as making good on his epitaph’s promise to gain revenge. Armchair critics flock to an even starker 1994 festival performance in which the statue literally carries Giovanni off into the wings.

Other prominent productions tend to see the statue as offering Giovanni a fair chance, and then allowing him to suffer the consequences. Hailed as one of the top Giovannis of his generation, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień faced off against Slovakian bass Stefan Kocan as the statue in a 2011 Met production. At Giovanni’s final denial, Kwiecień sang a gloriously sustained high A—a note many baritones in this role don’t attempt, and one heroically difficult to maintain after singing the role of Giovanni all night. Kwiecień had Giovanni pull his arm free and fall face-to-the-floor at this point: the high A of his fatuous hard-heartedness plummeting with a whimper to the depths.

Kocan, clad in a hooded military cape and silver-blue body paint, kept the statue’s arm extended—a little confused and almost sorry—before exiting the stage as the fires began to rage. This interpretation allows the audience to think that the statue had a change of heart—that mercy was a genuine option, but that Giovanni would have the responsibility of making that choice himself, even while painfully recognizing how difficult it would be.

The first option—the statue drags Giovanni down, with no real chance of redemption—invokes a Jansenist deity sending an avenging spirit to enact rigorous justice. Americans still besotted with their Puritan roots no doubt feel some odd thrill in that interpretation. The second option is actually convincing: it allows the deathbed conversion, as it were, yet, to echo St. John Paul II, it also allows the awesome responsibility of human freedom, for “it is the creature who closes himself to [God’s] love.” As Flannery O’Connor was fond of reminding her readers, God’s mercy can be just as surprising—and just as unsettling—as his justice.

No such considerations are present in the Lyric Opera Giovanni. No high A from Giovanni, and no low D from the statue, clad only in a white nightie and no body paint—an embarrassingly low-rent lookalike of the ghost of Christmas past, especially with Lyric Opera tickets averaging $135 apiece in the Orchestra and Mezzanine. (A relatively bargain production I saw at Florida Southern College featured a statue in full military dress and silver body paint who remained visible and immobile until the proper time—at the cemetery.)

Giovanni had been waving around a revolver in earlier scenes, allowing Donna Elvira to shoot him because it was loaded with blanks. As the statue pronounces Giovanni’s time up, Giovanni begins playing with the revolver again, clutching his head as if mentally marauded. The Lyric Opera translated none of the lines about the damned and hellfire as Leporello tried to prevent his boss from firing the gun. Hackneyed struggle ensues, and, wouldn’t you know it, the gun goes off in their hands: and somehow it’s a real bullet, somehow Giovanni is killed.

Forget that the statue’s final line now makes no sense, and conveniently sideline any actual evidence of how a real bullet made it into the gun. Ask a credulous audience to adopt the tired heresy that evil is reducible to psychology or deterministic sociology; cajole them into cheering at accidental “justice” delivered unintentionally by a Deistic “force of nature.” Expunge the final wrap-up scene, for the moral of the story for the Lyric Opera Giovanni is that there is no morality.

This is secular fideism: asking the audience to suspend reason in the name of removing faith. In the Lyric Opera Giovanni, we see the failure of its dogma: in assuming a neutral ground over which it has no warrant, it removes the very fabric of reason, and implodes on itself with a Leporellian whimper. If only it would go out with a bang.

Editor’s note: In the scene above from the Lyric Opera’s production of Don Giovanni is Joshua Bloom (left) as Leporello, Daniel Okulitch as Don Giovanni, and Richard Wiegold as the Commendatore wearing white in the background. (Photo credit: Cory Weaver.)

Stephen Mirarchi

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Stephen Mirarchi is Assistant Professor of English at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, and has been a professional guitarist, an internationally syndicated music photographer, and a baritone for the St. Louis Cathedral Choir and Schola. He earned his doctorate from Brandeis University and is the author of the annotated Mr. Blue by Myles Connolly.

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