Friday, May 26, 2023

Douglas Messerli | "State of Confusion" (on Mozart's Don Giovanni)

state of confusion

by Douglas Messerli


Lorenzo da Ponte (libretto, after a libretto by Giovanni Bertati), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (composer), Ivo van Hove (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) Don Giovanni / 2023 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]


Oh dear, those Belgium boys are at it again, Ivo van Hove and his partner Jan Versweyveld asking us to join the characters in moral judgment of the libertine hero who’s been acting up with what some have suggested, over the years, as simply the bad boy behavior of raping a few thousand women, cataloguing his conquests, and now killing off one of their dads who dares to interfere.   

     They certainly do take all of the fun out of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s dramma giocsco, as it was originally described, and which the Oxford Dictionary explains is “a comic opera containing tragic features.” These some thousands, along with the women of this story, Donna Elvira (Ana María Martínez), Donna Anna (Federica Lombardi), and Zerlina (Ying Fang) make for some mean “Me Too-ers” along with their fiancès Don Ottavio (Ben Bliss) and Masetto (Alfred Walker)—and, of course, the director and even more obviously his companion’s set design.

     The streets of Seville have never looked less inviting, with windowless mud-brown and pea-green lit walls, passages that seem to lead nowhere, and bridges that wind, circle, and cross in impossible-to- imagine spaces, evincing, as The New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe describes it, the influences “the paintings of de Chirico and Hopper” and the “lurking staircases…[and] the winding labyrinths of M.C. Escher.” In an inter-act interview with Erin Morley, van Hove reconfirmed that Escher had been a major influence of Versweyveld’s design. In short, the world they create is a kind of inky noir not unlike those of the last days of the Weimar Republic.

      This is most certainly not a comic landscape—but after all the very first action of the play concerns a foiled rape and a murder of the young woman’s father, the Commendatore (Alexander Tsymbalyuk), not as a result in this MET production of some fancy sword play but with the cold machine of a gun. Only a short while later, moreover, Don Giovanni (Peter Mattei) lures another woman away from her own wedding.

       Even I, in reaction to a far more traditional production by the LAOpera I had seen more than a decade earlier, had described Don Giovanni’s first act as being somewhat like “an intense Western, wherein the hero’s luck has changed, as in a movie like John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock, where everything seems to be going against the already maimed man.” I added, “Of course, Don Giovanni is not really a hero,” which in von Hove’s production so apparent that we need not even mention it.

     Indeed, I’d never before realized just how fully Mozart’s first act lays out the charges against Don Giovanni, one by one. We are witnesses, of course, to the attempted rape of Donna Anna and his wooing away from the wedding of Zerlina. If we needed even more evidence of Giovanni’s lasciviousness, we have his unhappy accomplice Leporello’s (Adam Plachetka) own testaments from the books Giovanni himself keeps about his conquests. And finally, we have the fury of one of his most recent victims, the almost foolish Donna Elvira, who convinced that he had all but married her before his abandonment, sings out her anger in “Ah! chi mi dice mai.”

     It is hardly surprising that in a world in which the wealthy Giovanni and his peers represent the controlling order of their society that Donna Anna demands her boyfriend Don Ottavio seek revenge by murdering the man, who she suddenly recognizes as Giovanni through his voice—visual recognition being nearly impossible in this world in which costumes and masks predominate.  

    If in many a production of this opera, Ottavio seems not entirely complaisant with performing such an act, in Bliss’ performance of the role, it is clear that he is ready to go along with her, gloriously singing “Dalla sua pace,” as he insists that such beauty cannot be denied its desires.

     As if we had not yet had enough evidence, however, Giovanni now throws a masked ball simply so that he might continue with his seduction of Zerlina, made possible by Leporello’s distraction of Masetto with a German dance. But Zerlina’s screams bring all the vengeful pack down upon the culprit, and by the end of Act I, we see the man cornered, ridiculously trying to blame his most recent criminal actions on Leporello. It’s all a cheap act, as hokey, we perceive, as the dozens of manikins openly placed by the opera prop workers in the windows to stand-in for the high society members supposedly attending Giovanni’s festivities. And we are nearly certain, accordingly, that this time the criminal will not escape.

     The first act accordingly, clearly shows us the evils both of Giovanni and the society in which such men exist, and firmly lays out the charges for his horrific behavior. It is only in Act II that any comic moments creep into to what we can now recognize it almost as the damnation of Don Juan.

     With Versweyyeld’s cityscape still in place, any would-be comedians and their machinations can only enter and exit through narrow pathways and creaky bridges. But amazingly Giovanni has done just that, escaped into a landscape wherein the smoky back and side streets he safely hides. As I mentioned in my earlier discussion of this opera, what amazes me is that this wealthy man, who might celebrate a life of pleasure within his own palace, spends almost his entire life on the streets like a mad homeless person looking for anyone upon whom he might prey.

     And he’s not very picky in his selection of women, for he now goes after Donna Elvira’s maid. But to get there, he must first remove her mistress, and to do that he brilliantly determines to put his accomplice Leporello on display, dressed in his own garb—as a century later Cyrano de Bergerac would voice his love behind a manikin-like cadet—with Giovanni singing of his renewed love for his Elvira in “Deh vieni alla finestra.”  

     That she falls for it makes us question her entire credibility, just as, soon after, we must once again question Zerlina’s devotion to Masetto as she tries to win him back for her now several encounters with the villain. As most of us have come to realize through today’s newspaper headlines and court-room hearings, women who have raped are nearly always subject eventually to doubts. How much, for example, were they involved in the sexual abduction? Even when we look back at the first scene, we recognize that Donna Anna’s attempts to keep him from escaping look somewhat similar to a woman trying to keep the rapist by her side. Even as witnesses, we begin to doubt her veracity.

      In this Act even the loyal Ottavio eventually begins to wonder when his fiancée will stop long enough in her determination to revenge her father’s death in order to show her love and marry him. Bliss demonstrates himself a consummate performer as he coyly draws attention away from her endless pleas for justice through what The Times critic Wolfe describes as his “added assertive ornaments to his arias,” which he found odd since “such ornamentation was rare among the rest of the cast.” Ottavio clearly wants some attention, proving it not only in his brilliant devotional arias, but moving off to sit down on the street and pout.

      It is in Act II, moreover, that we truly get to hear how sauve and brilliant Giovanni truly is, the opera allowing Mattei finally to portray his vocal flexibility. In “Ah taci ingiusto core” and other such moments we truly come to recognize how even normally level-headed women might be tempted by his seductive charms. And given the state of confusion in which all three of the formerly determined females now exist, is it any wonder that Elvira spends nearly an entire evening with Leporello in disguise as his master, and the others, trying to track down the evil-doer are ordered by his own instructions to break up and move off in two opposite directions? Like the city as portrayed in the set, their world is mirror of illusions and, as they themselves begin to ponder, perhaps delusions as well.

      If human order is thus so disoriented, it is to the gods or would-be gods such as Satan that we must look for justice. The ghost of Commendatore also haunts these streets and finally chooses to appear before his victim when Giovanni, having failed to find a single woman with whom he might make love and being sought out by so many of the city’s residents for revenge, is at his most vulnerable.

     Yet even now, he cannot see what stands before him, although the only someone less deluded Leporello can. Terrified by the specter, Giovanni’s “other” recognizes him as death, reporting back to his master what he has witnessed. The hot-headed abuser challenges even the invisible pursuer to join him for dinner, demanding that Leporello pass on his invitation even to the world he surely senses represents a terrifying fate.

      Now doomed, even in his own vague bluffs, Giovanni retreats into the full infantility that his acts have always represented. At first, like Wolfe, I was flummoxed by the truly silly dinner scene at which Giovanni begins literally to play with his pasta, juggle his bread, and finally throw edible items at his friend before tossing over the whole table. But then one doesn’t have to have seen many adolescent food-fight scenes in the movies to realize what is at the heart of the great Don Giovanni’s bad-boy behavior. He is still a frustrated child who never grew up, raping women because he hasn’t a clue how to actually behave for more than a few moments in their presence.  But the real world has no place left for 60-year-old man with the brain of reform-school punk. The devil takes him straight to hell, no fire and brimstone needed in von Hove’s and Versweyyeld’s stark reality. 

     As if, suddenly, order had been restored by the hand of God, the cold, dank streets of Seville quite literally break open to reveal their inner selves, a world of color, flowers, curtains, and other gentle flourishes of a welcoming city come to life as the sextet of Donnas Anna and Elvira, Zerlina, Masetto, Don Ottavio and Leporello celebrate in song.


      A new life is promised by all—although I worry a bit, given her new-found hatred of men and her still strong sexual libido, what Donna Elvira might do in a convent or, given his previous ribald adventures, how Leporello might influence a new master, or even how long it might still take for Donna Anna to get used to the idea that the world been ridden of Giovanni before she might marry her ever-loving Ottavio. I trust only that Zerlina and Masetto will enjoy the good dinner they have planned for themselves.


Los Angeles, May 26, 2023

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (May 2023).

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