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Antihero for the ages

A powerful man leaving a trail of misconduct and assault: sound familiar?
Frances Moore explores Don Giovanni’s continued relevance in 2019.

He might be over 200 years old, but Mozart’s Don Giovanni can still cause a stir.

In September 2018, Opera Queensland put out a casting call for 200 women to appear naked on stage in their production of Don Giovanni. Director Lindy Hume’s vision was for these women - representing the Don’s thousands of conquests - to pull him down to hell. (Hume herself offered to join the women and get naked too). It’s always a good idea to avoid reading the comments section on any article, but responses to the story ranged from accusations of grasping towards relevance, to unnecessary lewdness and complaints that such a decision had nothing to do with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte and Mozart’s work.

Sure. But it is hard to deny that Don Giovanni has always been a work that proves irresistible to directorial interpretation. A cornerstone of the canon since its first performance in 1787, productions have seemingly been staged in every conceivable way, from its original 18th-century setting to 1980s Spanish Harlem to Calixo Bieito’s brutally violent staging in contemporary Barcelona.

Similarly, the character of Don Giovanni has been variously interpreted as an audacious and irrepressible seducer, complete with feathered hat, to a brooding and alienated nobleman, craven and neurotic, or even a sexually repressed, misogynist homosexual whose desires emerge as a rage towards all women. With the Don, it seems, anything goes.

The impact of this opera and what it all means have also extended well beyond the opera community. Goethe, who considered the work to be the result of divine inspiration, dismissed any criticism of the work, writing emphatically “It is a spiritual creation, the detail, like the whole, made by one mind in one mould, and shot through with the breath of life”. E.T.A Hoffmann famously declared Don Giovanni to be “the opera of all operas”, while Kierkegaard’s treatise on human existence Either/Or holds up the work as a supreme example of the conflict between the ethical and the aesthetic. The rub in Don Giovanni, as Kierkegaard argues, lies in the title character’s confluence with music. Don Giovanni operates like music itself and it is this that makes him the ultimate seducer – manipulating our feelings, demanding our adoration or at least our attention and invading our bodies in ways that are often quite irresistible.

While we may find the actions within the opera reprehensible (murder, possible rape, the unapologetic and rampant womanising), these ethical dilemmas sit uncomfortably in opposition to the aesthetic experience. The gloriously dramatic D minor chords which open the opera are viscerally thrilling and from this very moment on the opera has an unstoppable momentum. The score is rich with chromaticisms, driving our ears subconsciously forward, craving harmonic resolutions that often never arrive.

The very nature of Don Giovanni’s own musical material leans into this interpretation of the aesthetic power of music. It continues to intrigue critics and academics alike that as a character, he has no self-reflective arias. Instead, the Don is the ultimate mimic, able to adjust his musical style and expression to his musical (and romantic) partners.

His duet with the comic yet canny Zerlina, ‘La ci darem la mano’, is rustic in its simplicity. When Zerlina echoes back the phrases of the Don, it creates music that is pretty yet entirely uncomplicated as her would-be seducer is clearly taking on Zerlina’s own low social standing. In the Act 2 trio between Don Giovanni, Leporello and Donna Elvira, he mirrors Elvira’s more refined melodic phrases to reassure her, and even when one might expect the Don to be most himself – in the scenes between himself and his servant Leporello – he again adopts Leporello’s patter style.

It is in this mimicry of musical styles that Don Giovanni succeeds in being a master seducer; he can adjust and change to any situation. It is this same blankness – this capacity for mutation – that perhaps also accounts for the varied approaches to productions of the opera and our continued fascination with it.

Don Giovanni is unknowable, mysterious and utterly fascinating, so why not have a Don Giovanni for the #metoo era, complete with two hundred naked women? Surely the particular genius of this opera lies in its continued relevance. This is no simple contest between good and evil but rather, something more complex and just as capable of reflecting the Harvey Weinsteins of our era as the violent excesses of late 18th-century Europe. While there won’t be 200 naked women at The Trusts Community Foundation Opera in Concert performance, this performance will once again allow us to confront the unknowable Don Giovanni while revelling in his stupendous, unearthly D minor chords. See you there.

The Trusts Community Foundation Opera in Concert
Mozart’s Don Giovanni
7.30pm, Fri 19 July
Auckland Town Hall

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Image: Opera Queensland's recent production of Don Giovanni presented a provocative interpretation in the #metoo era. Photographer: Stephanie Do Rozario

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