Don Giovanni is tricky. Yes, the character plays tricks, but that’s not what I mean. At least for me, Don Giovanni is a tricky opera. An opera with the hashtag #MozartsBadBoy has immediate draw; the actual experience is complicated by the fact that in this story seduction is interchangeable with rape, and it was written when rape was still considered comedy.
What this meant for me is that Don Giovanni is not the immediately satisfying experience of my favorite operas like La Boheme and Rigoletto (which shares a lot of the same themes). Despite the humor threaded through the both the original story and Seattle Opera’s clever staging, I often found myself bored and irritated.
The gratification comes in the analysis after the curtain falls. I was glad I attended the Talk Back, a 30-minute discussion led by new General Director Aidan Lang that follows the performance. Without it, I might have been inclined to write the opera off as annoying and a little gross. The discussion was surprisingly insightful and pointed, and it made me consider aspects of the opera I had overlooked.
For an opera with the straightforward original title “The Rake Punished,” Don Giovanni is on pretty shaky moral ground. It may have premiered in 1787, but it participates in the modern convention of unsympathetic and morally ambiguous characters. There are seven major characters, and nobody comes away clean. Donna Anna comes the closest; but she might be lying. Don Ottavio doesn’t do anything wrong particularly, but he takes almost an act and a half to believe the women who identify Don Giovanni as the attacker, and then fails to do anything about it. Gold-digging Zerlina is quite happy to switch spouses on her wedding day, and her husband is just an ass. As one of the audience members pointed out in the Talk Back, the only character with a consistent moral standing is Don Giovanni himself – an unrepentant villain with no humanizing or redeeming qualities, despite his Don Draper charm.
It would all be pretty unbearable if the performance wasn’t impeccable. Lawrence Brownlee (Don Ottavio) has earned his place as one of the opera world’s top lyric tenors, if you like that sort of thing. But the upside to a villain protagonist is getting a bass in the lead role. Nicolas Cavallier as Don Giovanni had my favorite aria in his serenade of Elvira’s maid. It’s a beautiful love song, if you can forget the context (he’s trying to seduce the servant of his jilted lover – you know, to be thorough). Another bass, the scene-stealing Eric Anstine, as Giovanni’s servant Leporello was mighty fine – and he had a great voice, too. The low class bridegroom Masetto – bass! The story’s image of an irresistible bad boy may be centuries outdated, but a cast full of basses will always be sexy.
As the eighteenth century Kardashian Zerlina, mezzo soprano Cecelia Hall had two of the loveliest arias. Granted, “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto” is best without the subtitles (with them, ugh), but “Vedrai carino” is perfect opera. Erin Wall’s Donna Anna was exquisite, and my views on Elizabeth Caballero are well known. Whether channeling the Furies in Act I or drowning her sorrows in Act 2, her Donna Elvira was so engaging you could almost forgive her for being such a sucker.
In many ways, the ambiguity in Don Giovanni is a function of time. An article in the booklet for the production suggested we listen to music with 18th-century ears, because the Mozart that seems quiet, slow, and repetitive today was loud, raucous, and revolutionary to his contemporary audience. The story’s impact has changed even more than the music’s. In 1787, Don Giovanni probably played as a straightforward comedy filled with standard character types. Only as society evolved did their motivations become ambiguous.
On the other hand, too many women today have been faced with disbelief like Don Ottavio’s.
How could a man who calls himself a friend…?
I can’t believe a gentleman would do such a thing.
Everyone today recognizes the train wreck Donna Elvira, who continues to throw herself at him even after she knows he’s not worth it.
Zerlina and Massetto are every reality TV couple ever.
Maybe the reason morality in Don Giovanni makes us squeamish today is not because so much has changed, but because so much hasn’t.