Don Giovianni, Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s 1787 “ drama giosco,” became a favorite of the Romantics and it has been in the repertoire ever since. The Don Juan narrative serves as as Mozartian self-portrait, for the composer knew of what he wrote.
Servant Leporello is waiting outside of Donna Annna’s house. Anna is the daughter of the Commendatore. Leporello’s masked master, Don Giovanni, has broken into the house to seduce Donna Anna. However, Giovanni’s attempt is cut short when he’s confronted by the Commendatore. A duel between the two men ends in the elder’s death. Anna does not know who the masked intruder was, but she makes Don Ottavio, her fiancee, swear revenge for the murder of the Commendatore. Leporello and Giovanni move on to other conquests, namely Donna Elvira, who turns out to be one of Giovanni’s forgotten previous mistresses.
Barely evading the woman scorned (Elvira), Leporello and Giovanni move on to Zerlina. Zerlina is engaged to Masetto, and Leporello is instructed to lure Masetto away. Elvira, however, returns to level numerous accusations against Giovanni. All of this is witnessed by Donna Anna, who now recognizes Giovanni as the voice of her father’s murderer. Again, Anna passionately pleads with Ottavio to avenge her father. At a masked ball, Giovanni attempts to rape Zerlina, but he is interrupted by the masked trio of Donna Elvira, Donna Anna, and Don Ottavio. After a bit of cloak-and-dagger disguise (during which Giovanni attempts to seduce Elvira’s maid), Giovanni and Leporello are reunited in a cemetery. There, they discover a statue of the slain Commendatore. Giovanni, tongue-in-cheek, invites the statue to dinner. The statue speaks and accepts Giovanni’s generous offer. Leporello is, naturally, horrified. The statue arrives for dinner and Giovanni, defiantly refusing to cower before the ominous specter, welcomes the guest. The statue demands that Giovanni repent, but Giovanni repeatedly refuses. Finally, the statue of the Commendatore literally drags the unrepentant Giovanni to the gates of hell. The various couples are left to start life anew.
Classic stagings of this dramatic favorite place it within the period and cast a Casanova-like spell over the narrative. Martin Kusej’s Don Giovanni from the 2006 Salzburg festival is far removed from that era. Indeed, at first glance, the feeling is one of having stumbled upon a setting out of a Kubrick movie. Mobile white walls evoke a glacial, apocalyptic vacuum.
Kusej is not in sympathy with Giovanni, and he hammers that point with all the subtlety of a finale in hell. The duel between the Commendatore and Giovanni is an assassination of an unarmed man. The Commendatore’s blood on the diaphanous white wall returns again and again and again. Giovanni is a product of crass, contemporary superficiality. Don Giovanni has been a staple role for baritone Thomas Hampson for nearly thirty years. Hampson’s voice is certainly a tad more tattered now than it was in his youth, but this serves the still handsome actor quite well here, giving his Don an appropriate weariness. Hampson is known for his acting skills and his total conviction in this conception of Giovanni is a captivating high point amidst mixed results. Giovanni, as interpreted by Kusej and Hampson, is an existential figure, self-serving, and devouring others to enhance his own masturbatory pleasures. The sterility of that point might be seen in Giovanni’s “Deh vieni.” In the libretto, Giovanni serenades Elvira’s maid at the window with a mandolin, but here, it is a solitary experience with Giovanni singing it alone, to no one, as the stage gradually blackens. It’s a hauntingly subdued and memorable moment.
Commercial 21st century preoccupation with self-gratification and hollow sexuality is a not-so-subtle symbolic point, manifested by multiple appearances of nebulous, underwear clad glamor models (Kusej refers to them as Greek fertility goddesses). They strike ludicrous poses, arduously scrub floors and mechanically apply their lipstick with disturbing results. They reappear as flabby, old Wagnerian vamps (one step removed from joining George Romero’s dead), and finally, revived and young again as monotonous dominatrices. Surprisingly, some critics felt it necessary to point out that the parading of the models was not erotic in the least. ( Other critics compared it to the famous Robert Palmer video). The lack of eroticism seems to be an excruciatingly obvious intent.
At other points, characters periodically blindfold themselves, and each other, applying symbolic layer after symbolic layer after symbolic layer.
The interaction between Leporello and Giovanni at the imagined fantasy dinner is genuinely surprising and charming (earlier, their characters exchange recitatives). The Commendatore appears on an Orwellian screen in Hell as an arctic wasteland. Giovanni’s descent is a gradual, stone-cold hardening of the arteries. Giovanni’s life has been a masturbatory one (rape and murder being characteristics of that self-gratification) and this is equated with a finale of spiritual bankruptcy. On his path to damnation, Giovanni is finally dispatched by his servant, Leporello. These are all substantial, interpretive points that heighten the composer’s contradictory, conflicting personality traits (the composer of Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte is also the composer of the “Great Mass in C minor”).
Christine Schafer is quite good as Donna Anna, capturing the impetuous charisma of the heroine. Ildebrando D’ Arcangelo is not as vocally suited to Leporello as he was to his unique, Mediterranean Figaro. Isabel Bayrakdarian’s buxom Zerlina , adorned in a tight, golden slip, is not only a scratched up, bruised victim to the Don, but, at one point she is even carried away by his army of listless mannequins. Later, as she comforts her wounded lover Masetto (Luca Pisaroni) she very clearly discovers that the way to comfort him lies between his legs. Malanie Diener as Donna Elvira is a considerable disappointment, both in her acting and singing. Unfortunately, this production is even more seriously marred by Daniel Harding’s flaccid conducting of the Vienna Philharmonic. Harding’s direction falls far short of the insight needed for such a conceptual-minded production. Harding is clearly no Carlo Maria Giulini when it comes to his handling of Mozart’s sensationally expressive language. Ultimately, this Giovanni belongs to Hampson and Kusej.
Claus Guth’s 2010 production starring Christopher Maltman as the Don and Erwin Schrott as Leporello is an even darker and superior production (Guth omits the traditional finale. Instead, the opera dramatically ends with Giovanni being cast into the netherworld, which is not as radical as it sounds since that was once a performance trend with this opera). Unfortunately, Guth’s version also is deeply flawed by uninspired direction in the pit. The first choice in aGiovanni DVD might still be Peter Sellars’ infamous nineties version, set in Harlem and cleverly featuring the Perry twins as Giovanni and Leporello. Flaws aside, all of these titles are considerable, thoughtful, alternative productions.