Don Giovanni and the Uncut Epilogue
Issue   |   Wed, 11/02/2011 - 00:59
Image courtesy of operachic.typepad.com
Conductor Fabio Luisi, who recently succeeded James Levine upon his stepping down, has a demanding season ahead of him at the Met.

The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of “Don Giovanni,” Mozart’s second collaboration with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, was broadcast on Sat., Oct. 29 at the Cinemark in Hampshire Mall through the opera house’s Grammy-Award winning MetOpera Live in HD series. Under the baton of Fabio Luisi, both the singers and orchestral instrumentalists were competent at presenting a high-quality performance of Mozart’s ingenious opera. The musical aspect of the performance was more routine than particularly impressive, yet it is fairly understandable considering the current situations at the opera house. Luisi, a native of Genoa, Italy, was appointed right before the start of the current season as the principal conductor of the Met and successor of the legendary James Levine, who is still the Met’s music director but has had to withdraw from the fall season following a back injury sustained during the summer.

Luisi’s appointment will entail a tremendous amount of work and ambitious projects, including Robert Lepage’s new production of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle,” the first time in two decades that the Met decided to undertake this operatic monument. Considering that Luisi is, in fact, conducting Wagner’s six-hour long “Siegfried” back-to-back with “Don Giovanni,” it is appropriate that he should take a rather “safe” and “conservative” musical approach in the latter, which is, after all, not quite a workout compared to the physically and musically demanding Wagner.

On the other hand, the Tony Award-winning stage director Michael Grandage creates an inventive stage set for this new production of “Don Giovanni.” Roughly resembling the Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, the set consists of two semicircular blocks of flats in early-modern Mediterranean style. Certain scenes, such as indoor feasts and parties, happen inside the circle, and some others, especially the street scenes, happen outside. It was with this simplistic but highly effective stage set that Luisi, Grandage and the Met musicians were able to produce a genuinely dramatic effect during the finale. This is the undisputed highlight of both this new production as well as Mozart’s opera in terms of the music and the libretto, and probably the moment by which most people would remember the opera and this particular performance. The traditional legend of Don Juan is about a fictional libertine and womanizer whose depravity leads to his eventual punishment and condemnation by divine forces. In Mozart’s operatic setting, the main character, nobleman Don Giovanni, has seduced some 1,800 women all over Europe for the pure pleasure of it, and his servant, Leporello, is always asked to assist him in these sexual adventures and keep a detailed record of them. Yet this time, Giovanni gets himself into trouble by pursuing Donna Anna and killing her infuriated father, the Commendatore, in a duel. Even though he is smart enough to escape various attempts by Donna Anna and her fiancé, Don Ottavio, to avenge the Commendatore’s death, Don Giovanni’s vain glory lead to his own doom. He invites the Commendatore’s statue to dinner when he and Leporello escape into his graveyard after a “hide-and-seek” with his chasers.

The statue of the Commendatore comes in, dressed in a cloak and with his face morbidly painted blue, and sings the famous bass aria “Don Giovanni A cenar teco m’invistasti” (“Don Giovanni, you invited me to dinner”), thus starting the haunting finale. The set turns cold and intimidating, away from the warm and gleaming colors of the previous banquet, the last worldly enjoyments of Don Giovanni with food, wine and women. The music recapitulates the materials directly from the prophetic overture of the opera and is characterized by its minor key-color, ubiquitous half-step motives and agitated string passages of scales and tremolos. While singing in his solid and horrifying voice, the Commendatore’s statue seizes Don Giovanni and asks him to repent for his immoral deeds. Out of either his vanity or his noble bravery, Don Giovanni refuses to succumb and thus lets go his last chance of penitence. As he chooses his own condemnation, the floor opens up amidst brilliant fireworks and flames and swallows Don Giovanni into its chasm.

The music also achieves its horrifying climax: a frightening men’s choir shows up suddenly and eerily on the semicircular set that surrounds the scene of Don Giovanni’s fall. Dressed in dark cloaks, their hands enclosed in front, and their faces down in shadow, they sing a terrifying chant in unison with such haunting cold posture while they, as well as the audience, are watching Don Giovanni futilely resist his condemnation to hell and listen to him scream desperately. This is the only moment during the entire opera when he is deprived of the glamour of a libertine nobleman and diminished to his real self by supernatural power, conveyed by the plain spoken speech that dramatically replaces sung music in a dramatic way. Moreover, Grandage’s stage design is well-suited for this fits well this both musically and theatrically transcendent moment. In the Cinemark theater house as well as the actual opera house, the audience burst into cheers at the end of this grandiose climactic scene.

The fervent applause, however, was halted suddenly when the stage was instantly lit up. Clearly, a significant number of the audience was under the false impression that the marvelous scene of Don Giovanni’s condemnation was the conclusion of this opera, and many were probably not expecting the epilogue. Donna Anna, Don Ottavio and the rest of Don Giovanni’s feudists appear only to find the libertine’s final doom. They are surprised and, indeed, delighted by the divine punishment, which according to them saved their labors in trying to capture him. They rejoice that they can finally move on with their lives: Donna Anna and Don Ottavio can be married; Donna Elvira, a noble lady deceived by Don Giovanni’s treacherous promises and flatteries, can spend the rest of her life in a convent; Zerlina, a peasant girl whom Don Giovanni actively pursued, can marry her fiancé Masetto; Leporello can find a new master. They sing a beautiful sextet that summarizes the moral of this “opera buffa” or “comic opera:” Questo è il fin di chi fa mal (“This is the fate of an immoral man”).

The simple juxtaposition of this delightful and moralizing epilogue with the morbid and terrifying is a classic problem of this difficult opera.Various musicologists and conductors, including Herbert von Karajan, claim that the lighthearted epilogue is particularly “anti-climactic” after the serious finale, and the death of the villain promises a magnificent climax and is a more suitable conclusion of the opera. In the Vienna premiere of the opera in 1788, in fact, Mozart cut the epilogue completely, as did many performances of this popular opera until the later half of the 20th century, when it became a common practice to perform the opera in full. Admittedly, this “happy” and celebratory ending after the horrible condemnation of Don Giovanni by a mysteriously animated statue is nothing short of grotesque and appears especially trite under the shadow of the grand and more-than-eventful finale. One can also argue, however, that such grotesquerie and anticlimax did not trouble Mozart or Da Ponte. Apart from the fact that the Prague premiere of “Don Giovanni” retains the epilogue, this opera’s greatness rests in its recognition of two contradictory goals: serious moralizing and humorous entertainments. Also, almost every major opera of Mozart’s ends with a contemplative and moralizing chorus that can remind the audience of classical Greek drama, from “Così fan tutte” to “Die Zauberflöte.”

The problem of the Met’s new production, therefore, does not lie in its artistic choice of keeping the original epilogue, but in its over-exaggeration of the drama of the finale. With all the terrifying gestures achieved especially through Grandage’s staging decisions, this scene of Don Giovanni’s condemnation disturbs the narrative structure of the story and the delicate balance between the serious and funny aspects of the opera, and is too “epic” to be followed and unwound by the Epilogue, which appears rather dragging and unsolicited, though exceptionally beautiful. To be fair, it is always hard to decide not to overdramatize a musical passage as inherently dramatic as the fall of Don Giovanni, and that is why modern opera producers as well as other classical musicians should be extremely cautious when presenting such music to the audience of our time; at least, our ears have undoubtedly been spoiled and corrupted by sheer volume.

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