Keeping opera performance relevant to the “next generation” is a challenge faced by every company around the world. Productions rely increasingly on technological enhancements, staging is ever-more elaborate, and classic works are constantly being transported to different eras.
But as the saying goes, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” The phrase itself dates back to biblical times, reminding us that no matter how much things change, the essential human experience remains the same. Love, hate, jealousy, revenge, redemption. These themes are as old as civilization, and are the reason why old stories, poems, paintings, and musical performances still resonate with modern audiences. It’s also why remakes are Hollywood’s favorite summer blockbuster offerings.
In the opera world, the story of Don Juan, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, has certainly seen its share of “remakes” in recent years. Here is a brief list of some of the creative productions that have sought to bring this classic tale into modern significance.
Don Giovanni in Modern Times
The provocative Peter Sellars version brought the action to a row of broken-down crack houses on a street in Spanish Harlem in the late 1980s, where all the characters are either addicts, pimps, dealers, or prostitutes. It was a controversial production, to say the least, and one that polarized both audiences and critics. It stuck around for a while, though, eventually becoming a TV movie, filmed in Austria and shown on PBS stations around the U.S.
On the opposite side of the raunchiness spectrum is an upcoming Don Giovanni production by Palm Beach Opera, which portrays the infamous ladies’ man as a stylish film noir star. Owned by Lyric Opera of Kansas City, this Don Juan wears a zoot suit and a fedora while gliding through dreamy sets filled with shadows and blue smoke. All the better to conceal his lust-driven intents.
Orlando Opera set the scoundrel loose on a college campus, prowling the frat parties for unwitting sorority girls. Don Giovanni, the “Big Man On Campus,” is no less despicable in his misogynist behavior, even though he looks like the All-American Boy.
When you can’t decide which era best fits the greatest cad in history, then why not a “time traveling” Don Giovanni, as presented by Opera North, based in Leeds, England.
What is this production like, you ask?
Director Alessandro Talevi locates the action across disparate eras and classes, with the archetypal Giovanni traveling with ease between the starched Victorian mourning dress of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, and the 1950s rock’n’roll frivolity of Zerlina and Masetto’s wedding party.
The set provides a forum for the opera, which is, as Set and Costume Designer Madeleine
Boyd says, “are really all about people’s personalities and interaction.” Several scenes are staged “Punch and Judy style” within a puppet show booth, leading us to wonder who is pulling the characters’ strings, and providing so much comedy.
Mozart called his Don Giovanni a dramma giocoso. The description means “humorous drama,” suggesting a comic opera that contains certain serious elements (conversely, Rossini used the dramma giocoso term for his bel-canto fairy tale, Cenerentola). While there are certainly comedic moments, Don Giovanni is Mozart’s darkest work, and one of the three collaborative efforts with his most famous librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte.
The French composer Charles Gounod wrote that Mozart’s Don Giovanni is “a work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection.” The story is looming and ominous, and the music matches that mood perfectly. Like the title character, it is bold, sharp, and unrepentant. Indeed the finale, in which Don Giovanni refuses to repent, has been a captivating philosophical and artistic topic for many writers over the centuries.
The last ensemble of the opera delivers its moral message in no uncertain words:
“Questo è il fin di chi fa mal, e de’ perfidi la morte alla vita è sempre ugual” (“Such is the end of the evildoer: the death of a sinner always reflects his life.”)