Greetings Opera Fans!
Here is my latest review in the Metropolitan Live in HD Saturday matinee series. Yesterday I saw a bang-up production of this season’s Don Giovanni, starring Simon Keenlyside as the rebellious rake in Mozart’s famous Italian opera. I would have called this review “Don Giovanni Sets The Met On Fire“, had I not already used up that headline in my last review of “Tristan und Isolde“. Because in the “Giovanni” production, there is literally a big fire on stage at the end, lots of smoke and flames as the miscreant is dragged off to hell! But more on that later…
Prior to seeing this production, I had read some pannatory reviews, calling it “mediocre”, “so-so”. I don’t know why. You can call me a philistine, but I thought it was good and I thoroughly enjoyed it! Maybe because this is what they call a “traditional production”, with period costumes and traditional staging. Maybe the art critics would have been happier if this “Don Giovanni” was set on a spaceship and Leporello turned out to be an android? I jest but, sadly, not all that egregiously.
But seriously, the Met put together a traditional “Don” with production numbers, lavish costumes, ballet dancers, traditional staging, special effects, great theater, and seven lead singers, each of whom totally nailed their virtuosic solos. Frankly, I didn’t see much to criticize here. Well, only one tiny thing, and I’ll get to that later…
The Ideology Behind Womanizing
As the opera begins, an acrobatic (“likes to scale tall balconies”) Don Giovanni is being chased out of the bedroom of the noblewoman Donna Anna, here sung by Hibla Gerzmava. Hibla was my favorite soloist in this production; among a very strong cast she stood out in particular, and I’m not just saying that because she’s Russian. (Well, part Russian, part Abkhazian, whatever…) In a couple of her solos Hibla just blew me away with her powerful coloratura pipes.
Apparently the Don was also taken with this beautiful, powerful and classy lady. Since he sneaked into her bedroom and tried to rape her in the middle of the night. In a later scene, Anna is re-telling the traumatic story to her fiance Don Ottavio (sung by the talented young tenor Paul Appleby): “When a man crept into my bedroom wearing a mask,” she recalls with a shudder, “I assumed it was you.”
Sitting in the audience, I erupted with laughter, almost choking on my popcorn. And I wasn’t the only one. I don’t know if Mozart or his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, intended this line to be funny; or were subversively implying some kind of “50 shades of cordovan” type relationship between Anna and the seemingly straight-arrow Ottavio. Knowing Mozart, it wouldn’t surprise me.
Anyhow, I know there is a whole subculture of Mozart geeks out there, and they spend decades debating such issues as: “Did Don Giovanni succeed in raping Donna Anna?” She says not. She says she was able to “twist” out from under him just in the nick of time and then, with the adrenaline of rage endowing her with super-human strength, was able to counter-attack him and drive him away. When it comes to this sort of debate, I personally prefer to take the libretto at face value and stipulate that, yes, it happened just the way that Anna said. It was attempted rape. She was able to fend him off. After which, in the course of his escape, Giovanni fairly casually murders Anna’s father, the Commendatore.
Rape or no rape, one cannot discuss Mozart’s operas without touching on the issue of the famous Amadeus misogyny. In “Don Giovanni” Mozart gives us this one strong female character (=Donna Anna) who is a straight arrow, full of constancy and resolve. But he gives us two other female leads who more illustrate his well-known opinion that women are fickle and inconstant.
Così fan tutte, or: How To Marry A Millionaire
We learned from another of Mozart’s best-known operas, Così fan tutte, that girls will promise to marry you and stay faithful forever, until death do us part, or Liebestod, or whichever comes first. But they all lie. Lesson #1: In reality, your girl is just settling for a poor schmuck like you until something better comes along. Then she’ll run off with the first rich fella who makes her an offer. In Così it only takes the girls a few hours to decide that these fake fly-by-night Albanian princes are a better prospect than the reliable fiances they had already lined up for themselves. Lesson #2: When it turns out that the princes are fakes and the girls were deceived, then they’ll return, chastened, to their original fiances. After accepting whatever punishment or reprimand is due them, they’ll learn to settle.
In “Don Giovanni”, the peasant girl Zerlina is even more fickle and even more mercenary than the Così girls. When the aristocrat Don Giovanni woos her (on her wedding day!) with the famous “seduction” duet “Là ci darem la mano“, it takes Zerlina no more than a couple of minutes to toss off her bridal veil, ditch her fiance Masetto, and run off with Giovanni to live happily forever after in his lavish mansion. “I could be happy there,” she schemes. “Andiam, andiam!” (“Let’s go! Let’s go!”) Once she is brought back to reality, to the fact that Giovanni has deceived her and just plots to take her virginity without a wedding ring in return; then Zerlina returns to her old boyfriend, Masetto. And Masetto takes her back, of course. But not before Zerlina has playfully begged him to “beat me, beat me, punish me”. Knowing full well that he will do no such thing. Because he knows, just like the audience can see, that Zerlina, for all her faults and her inconstancy, is absolutely adorable. And that she will make him a good wife in the end.
During the intermission, when Met HD host Joyce DiDonato was interviewing the cast, baritone Adam Plachetka (Masetto) made a very interesting point: By the end of the story, he noted, of all the characters, only Masetto ends up with exactly what he wanted. And what he wanted was Zerlina. “Let’s go home and have dinner,” is his final word, to his ever-cheerful and now-loving wife.
Mozart fans know, of course, that Mozart’s misogyny was partially driven by political ideology: Mozart was a Freemason. The Masons were a secretive, all-male society. It is known that the Mason leadership distrusted women. Because women are gossips. And even if not gossips, they are notoriously inconstant. You could confide something to your girlfriend, and when she leaves you for another man, she’ll tell him all your secrets. And even if she ends up marrying you, you can’t trust your wife. If she learns something about the goings-on or the secret rituals at the Lodge — she won’t be able to resist passing it along — to her sisters, her mother, her mother-in-law, her girlfriends, etc. So, no pillow talk, guys!
A couple of years ago, while doing some research on Mozart’s kitsch-Masonic masterpiece “The Magic Flute”, I found this piece online, I’m not sure but I believe it is somebody Master’s or PhD thesis for the Women’s Study Department at Brigham Young University (Mormons Beware!) It’s a treatise on racism and sexism in the “Flute”, and by the way there is even more racism there than sexism, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion! Opera fans and especially Mozart fans will like this treatise, it’s interesting and also pretty funny.
Be that as it may, despite his notorious distrust of women, it has to be said that Mozart gave his female singers the best arias and solo pieces, providing them with ample opportunities to show off their virtuosity. If he had truly hated women, he would have given them lame little ditties to sing.
The Ideology Of Free-dumb
And speaking of the music of the Divine Mozart! In the past critics have noted that the character of Don Giovanni has no “signature tune” or musical personality. Every other character in this story has a personality: A standard way of thinking, a standard way of singing, of articulating their words; an internal consistency. Giovanni, on the other hand, is simply a musical chameleon. He is an empty shell masquerading as a baritone. One moment, as in the scene above, Giovanni can sing a melodious “love duet” and then a bit later he is letting loose with the raucous patter song Fin ch’han dal vino as performed here in a very different production and by a very different baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky:
At the drinking party which ensues at Giovanni’s mansion, nobility and peasantry alike mingle, drink, dance, and toast to “Freedom”: “Viva La Libertà!”
During the intermission which ended this lively (and theatrically well-produced) scene, a visibly adrenalinated star Simon Keenlyside, grabbing the interview mic, explained to Joyce DiDonato his own reading of this scene and of the opera’s subtext: It’s all about the libertarian fervent which preceded the French Revolution. Class distinctions are starting to break down. The aristocrat Giovanni invites peasants into his mansion. It’s all about Liberty and Equality. The Don is a nascent Revolutionary.
Personally, I am dubious, When the Don toasts to “la Libertà” I think he means more, like the “liberty” to rape women, kill whoever gets in his way, and carry on as he pleases, without any social constraints. And the reason he wants the peasants there is so he can seduce Zerlina. This is not exactly the same thing as the “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” proclaimed by the Jacobin politicians of the French Revolution. I would see Giovanni as more of an anarchist than a social revolutionary. Nonetheless, it was refreshing that Keenlyside just plowed right in there with a political discussion. Because grand opera is very political. It’s just that it’s the politics of a bygone era, which most modern listeners don’t get. An astonished DiDonato looked like she didn’t know quite what to make of Keenlyside’s rant. “I have taken too much of your time,” Keenlyside quickly apologized, in his impeccable upper-class British accent, before literally dropping the mic and dashing off to get himself ready for Act II.
Humor and Terror
The opera “Don Giovanni” has some very funny moments. “Is this a comedy?” Joyce asked the cast, again during those great intermission interviews. Mezzo-soprano Serena Malfi (Zerlina) pointed out that the tragedy, the supernatural horror, and the comedy are all intermingled in this masterpiece. Right at the beginning, Giovanni murders Anna’s father, the Commendatore. This is a scene of death and horror. Moments later, Leporello is joking with his master: “Did you die? Or did he die?”
Italian opera of the Mozartian era, as everyone knows, was extensively influenced by the popular theatrical art form known as Commedia dell’arte. Smart people have said that this theatrical form lies at the basis of all Western European culture. Its stock characters persist in Hollywood movies and American sitcoms: The wise-cracking servant, the all-knowing wife, the randy old man, the scheming maid. The opera opens with Giovanni’s servant Leporello, complaining about his master, and about the treatment he receives. Some might call this “revolutionary class consciousness”, even proto-Marxism. But the moaning and groaning (“He doesn’t pay me enough. He beats me. He doesn’t feed me.”) is all part of the stock dialogue of these characters. And Zerlina is just another variation on the “Columbine” character, another stock figure in the Commedia repertoire. Columbine is always scheming to better herself; but bottom line, she is a good girl, and the audience likes her and identifies with her.
Another favorite comedy device is the “switching identities” trope. Master and servant switch clothes and pretend to be each other — in this case, so that Giovanni can woo Donna Elvira’s maid while Leporello woos Donna Elvira herself (in this production sung very competently by Swedish soprano Malin Byström.
Still another favorite comedy device is the “eating scene”. Eating scenes are almost always funny on stage, when done properly. And this is my only real criticism of this production, as I alluded above. In Act II there is a very funny eating scene where a harried Leporello serves several courses (all listed in the libretto) of food and wine to a gluttonous Don Giovanni. “What a voracious eater!” Leporello confides to the audience. “It makes me sick to watch him.” I have seen several good productions of this scene, where the two leads are actually eating onstage: a big bowl of pasta for Don Giovanni; and Leporello stealing and scarfing down that pheasant leg. To this day, 230 years later, it’s still funny when Giovanni, knowing that Leporello’s mouth is full of swiped meat, orders his servant to whistle to entertain him. And it’s still funny when Giovanni’s house orchestra accompanies his meal by playing Figaro’s famous aria Non più andrai from Mozart’s other opera, Le Nozze di Figaro. “That music sounds familiar,” Giovanni remarks, as the audience chuckles knowingly.
The Met production ruined this scene (a tad, at least) by having extraneous prostitutes on the stage. The Mozartian dinner scene is literally Don Giovanni’s “Last Supper”, and the presence of prostitutes just cheapened my experience of it. [That last bit partially a joke, FYI.]
This is just a personal preference, call me a traditionalist, but in a perfect staging I would like to see Giovanni alone at his banquet table; with a small army of servants bustling about, the private orchestra in the background; Leporello back and forth, sometimes helping to serve, sometimes scrounging scraps like a dog under the table. All the time Giovanni stuffing his face and Leporello complaining about it. Just like the libretto says! Instead, the producers decided to show Giovanni rolling around on the table with prostitutes and eating grapes off their tummies. Okay, a chordate foetus already got the point that Giovanni is a male nymphomaniac. And, as an aristocrat with his own mansion, he most likely has access to prostitutes, not to mention all the female domestics. I am pretty sure he already tapped each and everyone of them. But really, this is supposed to be an eating scene, not a sex scene! The sex also detracted from Giovanni’s humorous interactions with Leporello. Again, that’s just my opinion.
The Don Gets His Just Desserts
Fortunately, the botched eating scene did not spoil the rest of the show, which led up to a big bang-em-up Hellfire scene at the end. In the midst of the meal, there is that fatal knocking on the door. It is the Statue of the Commendatore arriving for dinner. Just as invited. Don Giovanni, as he was always fated to do, defies the Statue and ignores its warnings. The Statue seizes the wrongdoer in the grasp of a dead man’s hand. The stage erupts in flames and smoke. The trapdoor beneath the stage opens up, and Giovanni is dragged down into Hell, defiant to the very end.
As the opera comes to a close, our six intrepid virtuous heroes (Donna Anna, Don Ottavio, Donna Elvira, Masetto and Zerlina) rush into Don Giovanni’s banquet room. Their purpose being to make a citizen’s arrest, possibly even to punish the evil-doer. They are just a few seconds too late: Giovanni has already left the building, the trapdoor has closed up, the flames mysteriously went out. Everything is as it was before. There is no evidence left that anything happened. They have just Leporello’s word for it, as he spins for them the tall (but true) tale of the Statue and of the Don being dragged down into the flames of hell. Personally, if I were them, I would just assume that Leporello was lying. Covering up for his master, like he always does. It’s not like he didn’t try to divert them in the past. Giovanni most likely escaped out the back door, vaulted over some bushes, and is well on his way to downtown Seville to cruise for more lady-flesh.
But no, the heroes credulously believe Leporello’s story. Well, to be sure, there is one small corroborating piece of evidence: “I am pretty sure I saw a ghost out there, knocking on the door,” Donna Elvira confirms.
Close enough for government work! It is universally accepted by the Scooby Gang that God himself delivered the vengeance. It’s all over, and the gang can get back to their lives.
- “I will find myself a better master,” says Leporello.
- “I will join a convent,” says Donna Elvira.
- “Now we can put this behind us and get married,” Don Ottavio urges Donna Anna.
- “It’s still too soon,” she rebuffs him. [Ottavio, Dude: can’t you see that the lady just isn’t into you?]
- “Let’s go home and have dinner,” Masetto urges Zerlina.
The only truly sensible course of action!
And preferably a rustic but tasty dinner, no pheasants, just the two newlyweds, and no scary Statues knocking on the door.