Mozart: Don Giovanni

Heaven Nightclub

London, 22 April 2012

Don Giovanni: The OperaOpera houses and nightclubs have more in common than one might think. In nineteenth-century Italy, it was common for Austrian authorities to take an interest in the programming of many houses, simply because a large part of the educated population congregated there and could be easily observed. Of course, these days systems of power are further decentralized and nightclubs are one of many social spaces that have inherited a similar cultural function, especially in a city that parades observation as an avatar for security: London. Perhaps it is only a matter of time until nightclubs inherit also the primary function of opera houses, operatic performance. Were that the case, an opera like Mozart's Don Giovanni would conceivably take those revolutionary first steps; as a dramma giocoso in which all aspects of the world are available for both glorification and subversion, Don Giovanni is arguably the perfect raw material for any Regietheater production.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Don Giovanni is transformed beyond recognition here and set in a gay nightclub (imaginatively, Heaven) in the 1980s.  More creatively, all the characters have been gender swapped to facilitate the Don's new sexual preference: men. Donna Anna is thus "Alan," Zerlina is "Zach," and Elvira is "Eddie." It is sung in English with "lyrics" (by Ranjit Bolt) that are "faithful to the spirit of the original."

On the whole, the basic idea is compelling and works well on paper, but was taken a bit too far in several respects, probably to ensure that the production would be relevant to modern audiences. But Bolt's lyrics—delightfully both insightful and crass—and the decision to transfer the opera to the "gay world" have unfortunately given it a less than ambivalent spin. In other words, this version suffers from too exact a vision that, while refreshing when compared to something like Zambello's production (a review of which can be found here), is too hegemonic.

This version's action is dovetailed between speeches by Margaret Thatcher, illustrating the supposed vast divide that separates two conflicting worlds: gay and straight. And make no mistake, this gay version of reality is incredibly specific: it is a world of free sex without consequence that revolves around the figure of a martyr: Don. For example, whilst seducing Zach, Don tells him of the world he is missing by remaining in the closet: not one of security or material wealth (as in the original with Zerlina) or freedom to be an individual (as in life), but of carnal pleasures. For a bit of perspective, this character makes Dorian Gray seem lame by comparison. In other words, Don is cast as a liberator and anti-hero; he emancipates the less fortunate from the restrictive bonds of conservative Britain with his penis, substance abuse, and indulgences in consumerism.

Duncan Rock, as "Don", has a powerful baritone and fits the ultra-hedonistic title role very well. His "Deh vieni all finestra" was really something of sultry beauty; his pianissimos created an intimacy rarely heard and communicated his character's dual desire for pleasure and death in extraordinary fashion. He happens to look the stereotype convincingly as well. In this production, however, Don is not dragged to the depths of hell literally, but figuratively: a prison of his own mind. The end of the opera sees him driven mad not from his social escapades or guilt over murder (either of which would have been dramatically finessed), but rather—surely the natural choice in the 1980s—his cocaine problem.

Rock was the only singer that was communicating something other than kitsch, though Mark Cunningham, as "Eddie" (Donna Elvira), deserves an honorable mention for failing terrifically at a very difficult soprano aria—arguably the best way to do so. The orchestra and its nameless conductor (!) were fantastic however, despite the poor acoustics and placement of the singers all over the main room.

On that note, it is a shame that director Dominic Gray did not take more (and, for the sake of texture, fewer singers) from musical theatre; a piece like The Donkey Show, which is by design interactive, for example, could've taught them a great deal. If a creative team takes the trouble to liberally update a classic, it seems like common sense to ensure that all aspects of the work are consistently updated, including the role of the audience. Sadly they simply stood in the main room for the entire two hours, some of the members clearly missing the action.

Overall, the production is good fun until one contemplates its meaning; I found it quite similar to the reality TV show Jersey Shore in that sense. To be fair, however, this production succeeded in mostly ignoring the moral layer of the opera, no easy task. The creative team surely intended to highlight instead a certain vein of gay society and its obsession with consumerism. Unfortunately, it simply didn't read that way.

By Mike Migliore



Judith HowarthRelated articles:

Review: ETO performs Teseo during the Handelfest
Preview: ETO's 2009-10 season
Review: Norma at ETO
Review: Joyce DiDonato's Handel CD