Sunday 21 November 2010

‘Beat me, beat me!’

Don Giovanni, ENO, Coliseum, London

Don Giovanni, serial seducer, breaker of women’s hearts, travelling the world in his romantic, aristocratic attire, the great leveller of noblewomen, servant girls and peasants.

Except, in this production, as the sinister chords of the overture smear a sense of thrilled unease through the theatre, this Don Giovanni is more like a sleazy fairground worker, with his lank hair and baggy underpants. He gets dressed after what looks very like a gang rape. Yes, he puts on a frock coat and wig, but only to gain access to the house where he forces himself on a woman who tries to resist, armed with a pair of scissors.

Not much moral ambiguity here, then. If you’d planned to forget that the distinction between seduction and rape is more modern than Mozart’s opera, director Rufus Norris seems determined to remind you at once. And though the rape of Donna Anna happens offstage, thanks to the endlessly turning set, the fatal stabbing of her father the Commendatore is sickeningly present and unromanticised. Loyal servant Leporello hands over the scissors he prised from Donna Anna’s fingers, and the Don meets the Commendatore’s sportingly raised fists with a fatal weapon.

..Leaving the audience with an interesting dilemma. Because the opera is, in Leporello’s own words, ‘a lot of drama with a large dose of farce thrown in for flavour’. And this production plays the laughs as wholeheartedly as the tragedy. Brokenhearted Donna Elvira is subjected to a list of previous conquests that comes on a laptop with graphs, charts, spreadsheets (the pun doesn’t go unused) as well as a succession of photographs, a procession of women’s faces that evokes the Facebook age. Leporello’s humorous interjections often come at the most dramatic moments, their dry recitative puncturing the full emotional power of the music with laughter.

What’s more, Don Giovanni’s subsequent conquests are not rapes, but what we would today call seductions. Donna Elvira, even knowing the extent of Don Giovanni’s promiscuity, is still in love with him, and continues to forgive and pursue him to a degree that would be pathological if it weren’t so funny.  Zerlina, the peasant girl whom the Don separates from her naive fiancé Masetto, is not as innocent as she first appears. Smitten, she may be, but she knows just where things are leading. Reunited with Masetto, her song, ‘Beat me, beat me!’ could be an anthem for female submission, except that it ends with her singing joyously - ‘now I’ve learned to obey!’ – astride his supine form. It’s clear who’s in charge in that relationship.

The set is all doors and windows, all curved sections of walls with stairs that go up and over. As the characters slip through doorways and sit on windowledges, the borders between inside and outside are more frames than boundaries. The characters themselves often appear to be playing a role, whether it’s the chastely mourning daughter or the weak, straying fiancée. This is most explicit when Leporello, who’s mused in witty song about being Don Giovanni instead of just the lookout and listkeeper, gets to play his master’s role. This is pure farce, as Don Giovanni sings a serenade and Leporello mimes, setting them up for cunning vocal jokes as Leporello takes over the voice part and has to imitate the Don’s baritone flourishes. But when the (many) aggrieved parties come in search of Don Giovanni, it takes a sinister turn; the real Don, disguised as Leporello in a black hoodie, urges the vengeful crowd to find the lovers and shoot them.

Don Giovanni is amoral, willing to sacrifice his own loyal manservant to escape punishment. Yet, faced with damnation for his wickedness, he refuses to repent. ‘My fate is in my own hands, I’ve made my choice… repentance is for cowards’. Suddenly there is a whiff of Faust about him.

When Mozart wrote the piece as a follow up to his smash hit Marriage of Figaro, audiences probably saw the Don’s adventuring as a darker version of the philandering Count foiled by his wily manservant Figaro (the same singers took both roles in the first production). But today, we are far more uneasy with themes of sexual coercion and consent. We agree that rape is evil, and an uncomfortable subject to mix with comedy. But we’re uncertain where to draw the line between rape and consensual, casual sex in this liberated age. How much are Don Giovanni’s conquests pressured into unwanted sex (date-raped, in today’s terms) and how much does his reputation simply give them permission to transgress a few boundaries themselves?

We have a strangely ambivalent attitude to sex. On the one hand, we’re all liberated now, anyone can watch other people having sex on the internet, or look at naked women in magazines, without any need to be furtive. Sex toys are openly sold in supermarkets, and ‘experts’ give real people’s sex lives a makeover on television. But on the other hand, we’re warned that a tide of STIs is sweeping Britain, young people are promiscuous and irresponsible, older people are having unsafe sex, and pornography has destroyed our capacity to build meaningful relationships.

And this ambivalence makes Don Giovanni a very difficult opera to stage now. He remains a figure of fantasy, the embodiment of sexual desire unfettered by conscience or convention. He’s a murderous rapist, but he also commits a worse sin to modern eyes; he doesn’t take his own evil seriously. We are far more comfortable with a psychopathic villain than with this wisecracking sleazeball. And this production doesn’t try to resolve that dilemma for us.

There’s a strange coda to the opera. After Don Giovanni is dragged to Hell by the man he murdered, the other principals wind up the show, tying up the threads of their own stories and then addressing the audience directly; ‘Evil deeds will never pay, this is all we have to say. Take, for instance, Don Giovanni…’ Don’t take it too seriously, they might be singing, it’s only opera.


Till 27 November 2010


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