The only one of Mozart’s “essential” operas I hadn’t seen live, and the one I am probably most obsessed with, my relationship with it rose to a new level last night.
I couldn’t resist, (a little like the Don’s charms) , the opportunity to see the performance at Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre. Having recently seen a number of shows there and been a little disappointed by the very traditional high arched unconnecting stage, which can make it difficult to really communicate with the audience rather than just perform in front of it, I was a little apprehensive. But the staging and directing of this production was fantastic, and all my worries beforehand were completely melted away.
The director, Lloyd Wood, sets this production in turn of the century (that is 20th) Vienna, and divides the stage into two, horizontally, so low life are on the stage itself, and upper classes on a higher level, with what looks like a rickety outside staircase linking the two. The lower level represents the secret world built underground, in tunnels, sewers and so on, where the sewer scroungers live. Max Winter, an investigative journalist, born in what is now Hungary, who lived most of his working life in Vienna, (he died penniless, a refugee in California, in 1937) wrote about the Kanalstrotter first of all in an article published in 1904. These tunnel dwellers lived by collecting coins, soap and even bones. While life above ground became increasingly sophisticated, their lives were primitive and tough.
So Don Giovanni, attempting to “find” himself, hangs out with the low life, and of course by being there is only one step from hell below. He also uses the ladder attached to the wall, to move between the strata whereas, the other characters can only cross the social classes by moving up and down the stairs.
The set and costumes are an atmospheric work of art, the catacombs, the Klimt like paintings, the gloom and despair, and the lighting that accentuates the drama, the colours of character, of emotion in the costumes….Donna Anna’s pink and green outfit was particularly sweet and sugar almonded, and somehow repugnant at the same time, Donna Elvira’s black and white costume so dramatic, and still reminds us of the colours of mourning, of repentance and the convent.
Don Giovanni is challenging to perform in a 21st century culture which is well aware of the abuse of women, of migrants, of those in poverty. Don Giovanni exploits – he uses his wealth and power to manipulate and get what he wants- and yet he never finds what he wants- he is always on to the next conquest, the next possibility for happiness. Or perhaps he’s not looking for happiness at all. Until now, I’d loved the music, but a little like being infatuated with Wagner, I had a streak of guilt about loving the opera. (I had the same issues with Byron, and his Don Juan but have finally decided it’s ok to love art and even characters that are truly despicable. After all, I always had a thing about Satan in Paradise Lost… and as for Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park……)
In this production I actually felt sorry for the Don- not as in falling for him as the women all do in the story, but that here was someone who felt things really deeply (no pun intended), who really wanted to experience all there is in life, and had ended up wrecking himself and those around him. In many ways a Shakespearean fatally flawed tragic hero. And I realised that is what I had always seen in him. Whether it is the stunningly beautiful, exquisitely poignant music in the opera, or the barbed wit in Bryon’s take, under that evil facade there is something that wants to reach out to everything in the world. But he doesn’t have the means to do so.
The other aspect of the story that I hadn’t really considered before is that as well as the issues of feminism in this story, there is the question of what it is to be male. Another challenge for the 21st century- it’s not just women that wonder what happened to all those broken promises of the 1960s and 1970s. Men, perhaps more than before, are questioning their position in the world. For so long dominant in most cultures, the male superiority plinth has been partially demolished. But it leaves a question mark. What is it to be male? What is it to be heterosexual? How does one have relationships with other people- both sexual and platonic? At what point is it not worth trying to be the alpha fe/male? How is one meant to know, in this world where relationships can be as superficial as swipe right, how and where stand, whether to fight for the little space that is left on the broken slab, or to build something new. Or not bother. Don Ottavio’s statement that he will be both father and husband to Donna Anna was goosebump making for me. No, he can’t be both. Or if he is, it bodes disaster at some point. The question of whether she is actually raped is left unspoken, but somehow the uncomfortable relationship between herself and her fiancé only makes the situation worse, and it is left unresolved.
I haven’t said anything about the performers yet- the orchestra started a little tentatively but by the end had really got into its stride. I was a little concerned at the beginning but perhaps there hadn’t been an opportunity to really get used to the pit beforehand.
The singing and acting was of the highest level, although there were a few slightly off notes in some of the higher voices. For me the highlights in terms of voices were the brilliant pairing of George Con Bergen (Don Giovanni), who had the most remarkable stage presence, and Matthew Stiff as Leporello, a real comic actor as well as very fine singer. Lucy Hall’s Zerlina was delightful and she is a very witty actor although her voice was sometimes lost. Timothy Dawkins’ Commendatore was a fabulous bass that in the final scene dragged the audience down to hell with him and the Don.
English Touring Opera is touring most of England and stopping off at Perth as well until mid June, so well worth going to see either this or the other operas on tour. Details are at http://englishtouringopera.org.uk/tour-dates/spring-2016