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NZ Opera: Don Giovanni – review

Sep 20, 2014 Theatre

Don Giovanni
NZ Opera

Aotea Centre
September 18, 2014

The iPhone Don Giovanni

The Ricies were the deal-breaker. “Ah, such a delicious meal”, sang Don Giovanni, pouring them one-handed, box high above the bowl. Were they Ricies? They might have been cornflakes. Breakfast cereal showered down, most of it going wide and ending on the floor. The hookers didn’t seem to mind.

I minded. Mark Stone has a warm, powerful baritone, and he knows how to use it: he can put amusement or lust or swagger into a vocal line without sacrificing its musical shape. This is a very specific skill, and any good Don Giovanni has to have it. One of the oddities of Mozart’s great opera – one of his greatest, one of the greatest – is that its title role does not feature a true showstopper aria. Each of the other major characters gets one moment, or two, or even three, where they stand centre stage and Mozart strips them naked for us: they confess their deepest thoughts, and the music lifts the rafters.

Living up to those moments is a challenge that can break good singers. Singing Don Giovanni himself is a different kind of challenge. The man is a bastard and a life-wrecker, and all the runaway emotion in the music starts with him and orbits around him. Somehow we have to be shown how he can be the focus of so much passion, and we have to be shown it indirectly, via ensemble singing and acting. In Stone, New Zealand Opera have a leading man with enough presence to anchor a great production. It’s a shame they’ve wasted him.

Perhaps that’s too strong. “Why do I have these conflicting emotions?” sings Donna Elvira, the abandoned former conquest who hunts the Don down and precipitates a good deal of the action. She sings it extremely well, because she’s played by Anna Leese, one of three magnificent female soloists who climb Mozart’s mountains with only a few detectable signs of strain. Three of the four principle male roles are equally well served. (The fourth, Jaewoo Kim, is a thin and wobbly presence in his one big aria, though he does sterling work in his ensemble scenes).

But by the time the aria containing the conflicting emotions line rolled round, I could only nod in agreement: yes, exactly. Conflicting emotions all the way. So many great individual performances; so many great ensemble singing moments. Close your eyes and ride the music, and it was exhilarating. Pay attention to the actual story, and – aaargh. Lots of aaargh. This is a wrong-headed and frankly incoherent production.

The story opens with the Don’s manservant, Leporello, standing watch for him outside a house, and singing about how much he hates being a servant. He wishes he could be a master instead. Leporello is a fine comic role, and Warwick Fyfe does him proud here, especially in the opera’s first big number, the funny, disturbing aria where Leporello attempts to convince Donna Elvira that Don Giovanni isn’t worth having, by listing all the women he’s seduced. (He’ll do anything to bed a virgin, we learn. What a guy.)

Notice the problem for modern productions, though: the story opens with a song about how someone in a social role that no longer exists wishes he could instead be in another social role that no longer exists. It isn’t a huge problem in itself, and director Sara Brodie has opted for a work-around that on the face of it seems fine. This Leporello sings his complaining song while working as a bouncer and doorman at Don Giovanni’s nightclub, somewhere in a run-down part of some modern European city. The song shifts meaning slightly: now it’s about economic inequality, and the demeaning reality of needing to work for someone better off than you are.

The set designs are very clean and effective, I should mention – attractive, simple, flexible, allowing for quick transitions between large spaces and smaller ones. The first of these happens when Leporello gets up from his leather sofa and goes outside to start setting up the rope line for the night’s crowd: a wall swings round and cuts off half the stage, so that instead of looking directly into the club, we can now see only its exterior. As soon as Leporello finishes his complaining song, a man runs out of the club, hotly pursued by a woman.

The man is Don Giovanni, lecher supreme, who never met a bed post without carving a dozen notches in it. Consider what it means that we first encounter him running away from a woman. It’s one of the many ways he’s presented to us as an ambiguous figure, hard to pin down and never quite what he seems. (Hence, again, the need for a strong performer in the role.) Now consider the way in which Brodie’s production tilts things. In the opera as written, the building he exits is the home of the woman chasing him, Donna Anna. He’s broken in, and exactly what’s happened is unclear, but she definitely isn’t happy.

A seducer or rapist fleeing a woman’s house at night. A nightclub owner fleeing his crowded place of business at night. These are two very different scenarios. The logic of the story Donna Anna will eventually tell – in which she’s alone, and a man enters in the darkness, and she assumes it must be her fiance, and then when he attacks her and she screams for help, no one hears – is much trickier to parse in the second situation. Where in a busy nightclub would she be alone? Why would she assume the shadowy figure was her fiance, who hadn’t gone there with her?

Brodie twists this simple bit of narrative logic so that part of the story no longer quite makes sense, and she does this all over the place, with the result that the opera ends up not having a story so much as a sequence of random events. But this isn’t my main objection to the opening scene. In the opera Mozart wrote, our first meeting with Don Giovanni tells us two things about him. He occupies a position of power in a rigid social order – he’s the master of a servant – and he’s someone who ignores social order whenever it suits him. He’ll come into your house at night if he feels like it. In the second act, these two things come into conflict: order asserts itself against disorder, and the consequences of attempting to benefit from both come crashing down on the Don’s head.

This production does not present us with any plausible kind of implicit social order. It’s modern (iPhones, pole dancers, graffiti artists) but also, inevitably, archaic. (Leporello is clearly beholden to his master in ways that don’t jibe with the idea of him being an employee in any modern sense, the gender politics simply don’t belong to our world, and then there’s the religious aspect of the story, which is such a large part of the second act, and here becomes not so much problematic as profoundly nonsensical.) So this Don Giovanni is a diminished figure, because the social order within which he’s powerful isn’t really cohesive enough to support him; and we meet him being chased out of his own club, which makes him seem smaller again.

It’s going to get smaller yet. Semiotic incoherence and the consistent minimisation of its antihero’s power: these are the two hallmarks of this production. The first is just wrong. You don’t deliberately take singers this good and stagecraft this effective and then hang them all out to dry with a story that doesn’t hold together.

The impulse to make the Don a less impressive figure is also wrong, although it does seem to make intuitive sense. I can see why you might decide to make him pathetic and evil, rather than impressive and evil, especially if you were relocating the story to a contemporary setting. (He really isn’t a character who belongs in our era.) The opera already walks a fine line between the comic and the unsettling; it doesn’t take much tweaking to give us a Don Giovanni whose moments of slapstick are his defining moments, windows onto the deep truths of his character. Which brings us back to the Ricies.

The Don is rich. The Don is a bon vivant. Living large is the only way he knows. In the penultimate scene, he’s feasting. He’s about to be given a stark choice: mend your ways, or be dragged to hell. He’s going to stare his own death down, and refuse to alter one jot of who he is, a moment of costly pride which has always reminded me of C.S. Lewis’s line, “It’s not out of bad mice or bad fleas you make demons, but out of bad archangels.” He dies a deserved death, but also an impressive one, and the music, here more than anywhere, insists on his stature.

So to reduce his last feast to the shabby decadence of a student flat – a bowl of mostly spilled Ricies, poured out by a sad fool who imagines himself a magnificent figure – is to work against the power of some of the grandest music in the canon. Unless your singers are not up to their marks, a problem blessedly absent here, the result is going to be a production which is trying to say two mutually exclusive things in the same breath. It won’t feel like a story, it will feel like music with arbitrary story fragments hanging off it.

I would rather have a poorly conceived Don Giovanni with good singing than an impeccable one where the singers miss all their notes, so I suppose we can say this glass is half full. And we can agree that keeping the classics vital and relevant is part of the necessary business of any opera company. But where is the gain in an adventurous reimagining of Mozart that doesn’t make sense?

Don Giovanni runs until September 28 in Auckland and transfers to Wellington October 11-18.


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