New York City Opera’s delightful 2009 production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni demands that we afford staples of operatic repertoire the same liberties in staging and direction that we afford theatrical staples, by which I mean Shakespeare — or at least the most familiar tragedies: Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello and Romeo and Juliet. We have all seen modern, postmodern, minimal, post-colonial and post-apocalyptic takes on these works by the Bard, and have even come to expect (and, yes, sometimes dread) them. These stories are now as familiar as fairy tales, and familiarity encourages new angles and points of entry.
Yet within the U.S. operatic world, productions that deviate from the traditional are still often labeled “controversial,” their directors “provocateurs.” But we all know the stories of Carmen, Giovanni and Faust as well as we know those of the star-crossed lovers, the Scottish king and the hapless Dane. In the twenty-first century, is a Zeffirelli set really required to provide a staircase for the Don’s escape? Must we witness Tosca hurling herself from the battlements in order to comprehend her suicide?
Director Christopher Alden’s Don Giovanni readily demonstrates that compelling drama can be achieved without the use of fake ivy and stone. The set of his production, which blurs the line between staged and semi-staged, consists of green linoleum and gray walls, a neon crucifix and forty straight-back chairs, variously rearranged by chorus and soloists to make up whatever set is required. Many scene changes are done with lighting alone. Costumes are vaguely 1930s gangster. With no rotation of the stage, props and detritus mount. And the production is enjoyable and gripping throughout.
Instead of a duel with the Commendatore — whose murder serves as the opera’s inciting incident — Giovanni brutally smashes the man’s head into a wall, leaving a bloodstain that lingers throughout the opera as a visual reminder of this murder most foul. Much attention is paid to the dysfunctional relationship of Giovanni and Leporello (the original wedding crashers), with Leporello portrayed as a manic depressive trapped in a sadomasochistic situation: he slithers along the floor, accepts petting from Giovanni, romps passionately with Elvira disguised as his master, juggles and balances chairs on his chin — making this Giovanni very much the story of Leporello’s redemption.
Most remarkable about this production is the way scenes staged in close physical proximity also bleed into each other from a dramatic standpoint: characters in separate scenes interact, knitting storylines together. Giovanni shows up in scenes where he oughtn’t; Leporello flirts with Elvira’s maid when he should be tending to the Don. The Commendatore’s coffin sits on the dining room table where Giovanni eats what will be his last meal, affecting the opera’s finale in a thought-provoking way. Ultimately, none of these staging aspects detract from superior singing, which should be the aim — and payoff — of any opera.
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