VIRGINIA OPERA’S DON GIOVANNI: FABULOUS FUN

After surveying the centuries of Don Juan incarnations, David Bentley Hart concludes that the character is simply now “beyond our ken”[i]

While that may be true in the world of philosophy, in the nuts and bolts world of theater “ken”, or understanding, is what is demanded by performers and audience alike. So rather than pick from centuries of fashionable interpretations of the great opera – every historical  “ism” seems to have had someone who believed Don Giovanni to be the perfect example of that “ism” in action – the Virginia Opera production team, headed by veteran director Lillian Groag, chose the wisest course – look at the text, its authors, and its time, and go from there. That would get at what Don Giovanni is at its core.

To get to the core of Mozart and Da Ponte’s[ii] Il Dissoluto Punito (The Rake Punished), or Don Giovanni (1787) , one need go no further than the eighteenth century bad boys’ next work, in which they tried to top their very popular Don Juan opera. Cosi fan tuti presents not one, but two “rakes” – irresistible male flirts, Guglielmo and Ferrando, who, through nothing more than their great charm and overwhelming desirability, cause two young women to lose their heads and give themselves up – body and soul – to men they have just met.

In Don Giovanni, one rake, the Don,  does the same thing. Along the way, he exposes the women’s secret – that they are not only tempted by some men, but that they often give in to that temptation, lock, stock, and barrel. As their title says, Cosi fan tuttiWomen Are like That, or as Cyndi Lauper would announce in 1983, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”

Because he exposes the women’s worst instincts, Don Giovanni is considered a social monster, not for what he physically does to the women, but because he breaks  social etiquette by revealing their secret dalliances. In fact, as Bernard Shaw noticed, “Don Juan did not love anybody: he was an Indifferentist.”

The Da Ponte/Mozart operatic character is always fascinating, not for who he is, but for what he does. As  Joseph Kerman observes in Opera as Drama,

The adventures assume more interest than the hero…Don Giovanni’s lack of involvement is precisely the strongest element in his personality.”[iii]

The priest Tirso de Molinia (1569-1648) produced the first literary version of the Don Juan character in his play, El Burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedta (1630). His “hero”  is a lusty, juvenile, loutish, opportunist. The character of the “rake”- a fashionable or stylish man of dissolute or promiscuous habits – was beginning to appear in European fiction. Tirso wanted to create a morality play – a stage work demonstrating the sinful  nature of a particular behavior – in this case, of sexual appetite outside the sacrament of marriage. When his conscienceless fun-seeker comes to his hellish end, the audience sees that divine justice once again prevails.

Not until 1693 with a poem by Richard Ames – “The Rake: or, the Libertine’s Religion” – did the word “rake” appear in England. The first English play with a character described as a “rake” was  The Innocent Mistress (1697)  by Mary Pix. The character of Lywell was identified as  “a rake”. It was typical of the age’s playwrights to name characters according to their primary objectives. In the visual  arts, “A Rake’s Progress, the title of a series of eight paintings (1733–4),and subsequently, also engravings (1735) by William Hogarth, narrated the decline of a spendthrift, debauched young man about town from riches to death in a mental asylum through self-indulgence. The work became the basis of Igor Stravinsky‘s 1951 opera of the same name.

Earlier in central Europe,  wanting to repeat their great success of The Marriage of Figaro, the priest  Da Ponte and  his good-time pal Mozart turned to a Venetian Carnival  Don Juan libretto by Giovanni Bertati. The work was based on the universally familiar puppet play called  The Stone Guest, “una bella e stupenda porcheria” [a marvelous bit of filth].  The Don Juan story was an excuse for a comic boys-night-out lark. The libretto also featured a play-within-a-play prologue showing an opera company having trouble staging the work.

Da Ponte worked his magic and his resultant  libretto was created for a tiny intimate theater, though not as tiny nor as intimate as a puppet theater. Il disoluto punito, o sia Il Don Giovanni (The Rake Punished, or Don Giovanni), is  twice the length of Bertati’s puppet opera. In keeping with the spirt of his source, Da Ponte labeled it a drama giocoso, a jocular drama. Da Ponte however, working toward a budget and a limited group of singing-actors, reduced the number of characters, but added many new elements to the story to compensate. Da Ponte’’s Don is more of the upper classes – gallant, elegant, and graceful.  Perhaps Da Ponte’s own personal friendship with the historic  Casanova provided a model.

Da Ponte was no doubt also familiar with Moliere’s play; he  must have been because he borrows some passages and the characters of Masetto and Zerlina. Da Ponte’s Don is one of the stage’s most  powerful characters. According to Conrad L. Osborne “among the men of the audience he arouses envy; among the women he arouses arousal… Of  course, he has no extended aria – lacking both conscience and self-doubt, he has nothing to work through, no one to impress or assuage.”[iv] After a long laugh-filled hearty comedy, Da Ponte, the Catholic priest, takes a severe moral stand, concluding the piece with the full ensemble singing:

This is the fate of all who do wrong!

Evildoers always come to an equally evil end.

What did Don Giovanni do wrong? Certainly not flirtation and the reciprocation of the women’s romantic interests.  If those were his sins, the women would be heading to hell along with him. No, Don Giovanni killed a man and for that he must be punished; justice must rule in society.

Much has been made of the fact that the Don doesn’t repent. Really? Would that be  consistent with the man we have just seen? Of course not. We have all seen guys who, when caught with their metaphorical pants down, can barely muster a weak, “whatever”.

Da Ponte and Mozart’s Don Giovanni is an example of the “bad boy” that girls like, and love, much to the puzzlement of the “good” boys, and to the girls’ inevitable dismay as they are unceremoniously dumped.

What do these bad boys have, what does Don Giovanni have, that enables him to fill Leporello’s notebook? The Virginia Opera Company production reveals all this brilliantly

Gregory Louis Carter of the University of Durham found that the Don Giovanni male is first, a narcissist, a man with “a willingness and ability to compete with one’s own sex, and to repel mates shortly after intercourse.” The narcissist, like the Virginia Opera Company’s Don Giovanni, puts a lot of effort into his appearance, is adept at beginning new relationships, and can quickly identifying multiple mating opportunities.

Second, the Don Giovanni male is psychopathological – callous, lacking empathy, and antisocial – but exhibiting great superficial charm. (The brilliance of Ms. Groag’s interpretation and Tobias Greenhalgh’s embodiment is that this Don is sexy but also a bit of a goofball. Think Will Farrell.) Third, Professor Carter finds Don Giovanni to be Machiavellian – manipulative, duplicitous, and insincere. In the Virginia Opera Company production these are adjectives used to describe the Don; he certainly doesn’t seem intelligent enough to plan any of his amour ahead of time. Intelligence is left to, in another bold and effective production choice,  the Don’s Sancho Panza, the servant Leporello. As played by Zachery Altman this Leporello could easily be mistaken for the Don, he is that handsome. (Most Leporellos are cast as a baggy pants Borscht belt comedian, like Papageno of The Magic Flute. This Leporello has both the brains and common sense that this Don Giovanni lacks, much to our amusement. As a result, Don Giovanni seem adventurous and unpredictable.[v] Leporello becomes the rational man, the educated man, reluctantly backed into his master’s harebrained schemes.

The Virginia Opera’s Don Giovanni is probably as close  to the spirit of Da Ponte and Mozart’s original as we are ever liable to see. The eighteenth century was blissfully free of any notion of the political correctness which can  freeze our artists today. Treat yourself with a vision of what free artists can create when left alone. Let this production be a test of just how open-minded you are. The Age of Enlightenment, which spawned not only our Thomas Jefferson, but also this work, had no greater goal.

All of the performers are magnificent. Each can not only sing strongly and effectively and as a distinct and imaginative character, they can also act. While this should be a given in 2018, it unfortunately isn’t. Ms. Groag demonstrated with last year’s wonderful Girl of the Golden West what a gift she provides to all who work in one of her productions. The interpretations she and her singing-actors have found here are stunning. One could never dream them up alone in one’s room. They are the product of rehearsal give and take. You must come to the opera house to see how thrilling and effective they are.

Tobias Greenhalgh has a voice most of us fantasize about having. It is wonderful to hear. It is even more impressive as he uses it in a revolutionary, in my experience, interpretation of the Don. His Don is a goof ball, very similar to the Mozart of Tom Hulce in Milos Forman’s Amadeus, but without the brain power. He is outrageously funny and devastatingly charming. The brains in this production are given to, of all characters, Leporello, played by Zachary Altman, a man who could, and probably should someday, play the Don. Handsome and charming , but not as goofy as his boss, and with the common sense and respect for the social proprieties his Don ignores, Mr. Altman easily fools the women when disguised as the Don, something lesser Leporellos struggle to do. If only his hat’s wide brim didn’t cast a shadow over his face for too much of the evening, we could enjoy his performance even more.

Rachelle Durkin’s Donna Anna sings like an angel and may look like one too if not for the challenging wig and negligee she is forced to wear in her first scene. She is perfect as the girl who went too far and now lies to save herself. However, her songs of anguish are sincere, as she reels with a heart broken by a father’s death and a lover’s scorn. She’s one of the production’s treasures. As is Sarah Larsen’s Donna Elvira, the woman from the Don’s past who has stalked him all over Europe looking for either his love or her revenge. The characterization is alternatively heartbreaking and hysterical.

Down the social scale we come to Evan Bravos’ Masetto, thankfully played as a real human being rather than, as too often, an uptight insecure stick. He is a fine-singing charmer in a land of charmers. His betrothed is the fabulous Melisa Bonetti, who should have stolen the show with her Zerlina, but she finds herself surrounded by a cast too top-notch to allow any pilfering. She is a strong singer and a spry and lovely actress. Stephen Carroll ‘s Don Ottavio is not the wimpy prude so often seen. Fortunately, he has found a characterization reminiscent of F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri in the aforementioned Amadeus. His steely demeanor gives enough reason why Donna Anna might be looking elsewhere. The Commendatore does his singing, fighting, dying, and haunting well, though his ghostly appearance smacks too much of Halloween and too little of Mozartian imagination.

The costumes provided by Malabar, Ltd. are well selected by whomever did the selecting. Kenneth L. Steadman’s lighting is effective, though it can’t seem to find a way to illuminate faces beneath wide-brimmed hats. The fabulous scene designer Erhard Rom (no program biography for the one responsible for such a mighty and effective design? He just happens to be a prolific and gifted designer and instructor at Montclair Stage University) deserves plaudits for creating a unit which allows Ms. Groag to move the multi-scened action along with the lickety split pace she favors and on which this comedy depends. Maestro Adam Turner and the Virginia Opera Orchestra seem to know that they are engaged in something very special. Their music-making has a special zip and pep to it which enfolds the audience and carries it along into the madcap world of Mozart and Da Ponte.

If you are afraid of opera, this is the production to see. If you love Don Giovanni but fear the #MeToo movement may stifle the work’s genius, have no fear. Buy your ticket. But many tickets. And celebrate.  Vienna’s bad boys rule.

[i] https//www.firstthings.com/article/2011/07/a-splendid-wickedness

[ii] For some reason the program omits the name of the great librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte!!!!

[iii] Joseph Kerman, Opera as Drama. New York; Alfred a Knopf, 1956.

[iv] Conrad L. Osborne Opera  as Opera. New York: Proposito Press, 2018, p. 214.

[v] Carter, G. L., et al. The Dark Triad personality: Attractiveness to women. Personality and Individual Differences (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2013.08.021

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