Who is Don Giovanni? Which Giovanni?
I’ve been thinking about this question quite a lot lately. It is a very good question and, believe it or not, most people know who, or at least what, Don Giovanni was. Don Giovanni is the Italian name for that great lover of women… Don Juan! No doubt you’ve probably even used that term once or twice – and not in a nice way either. Like “He is a real Don Juan…” or “What a womanizer, who does he think he is? Don Juan?” You get the point. So, just to clarify a bit, here’s what Wikipedia has to say:
“Don Giovanni, a young, arrogant, sexually prolific nobleman, abuses and outrages everyone else in the cast, until he encounters something he cannot kill, beat up, dodge, or outwit.”
Clearly this is not a nice guy and hardly one that would be the inspiration for a work that the great composer Charles Gounod a century later would refer to as “a work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection.” And yet Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” has become one of the most popular operas in the repertoire and certainly one of the most-often performed and discussed. Even the great George Bernard Shaw gets into the act with his “Man and Superman,” where he creates a parody of the opera that is unmistakable. So maybe he is not such a bad guy after all… Again from Wikipedia:
“Don Juan is a rogue and a libertine who takes great pleasure in seducing women and (in most versions) enjoys fighting their champions. Later, in a graveyard, Don Juan encounters a statue of Don Gonzalo, the dead father of a girl he has seduced, Doña Ana de Ulloa, and impiously invites the father to dine with him; the statue gladly accepts. The father’s ghost arrives for dinner at Don Juan’s house and in turn invites Don Juan to dine with him in the graveyard. Don Juan accepts and goes to the father’s grave, where the statue asks to shake Don Juan’s hand. When he extends his arm, the statue grabs hold and drags him away to Hell.”
What that description fails to mention is that the girl’s dead father is dead because Don Juan killed him! The rest is pretty much true. If you type the word ‘libertine’ into a search engine, you’ll get a pretty nasty list of notable figures who have been described as libertines. I can assure you it’s not a list you want to be on! So here we are again back at our problem. Who is Don Giovanni and why is he such an enduring character – one we want to see on stage?
The short answer is that we see him on stage, on TV, in the movies all the time. In fact if he’s played right (charming, not scary) he can be quite appealing. That is, until you see what he is really after. Plus, we all have friends (male and female) who have traits similar to his. Not the murderous, nasty traits, more like the focused, single-minded ones that help him get what he wants.
The longer answer is a little more complicated but here’s a start. For our production of “Don Giovanni,” I began to think about the possibilities for doing this opera in a new way. My first ideas were for a chamber version that could be done in very small venues. However, the story needs more space so I moved back to the stage – but not to the “opera stage” – to the concert hall instead. I began to wonder what would happen if the orchestra became the orchestra that was playing in Don Giovanni’s villa. They would be part of the action! Then… what would happen to the story if we made some minor adjustments to Da Ponte’s libretto to compress the action into one day? When I figured out how to make these things work, the rest of the project began to fall into place.
Don Giovanni is young, vital and is almost impossible to catch and defeat. That is until the statue comes to visit. In the end, it takes something supernatural to bring Giovanni to justice. That was the story I wanted to tell and so I began to rework the text of the recitatives (the sung dialogue that advances the story) into dialogue in English! I know… many of you are saying that it was written to be sung in Italian. You’re right, it was. But as New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini said in an article about a new recording of “Tosca” done in English: “If you have heard the opera only in Italian, the impact of this English version is stunning…. Suddenly ”Tosca,” a repertory staple, becomes an engrossing musical drama.” For certain, there are compromises that are made when doing any work in a language other than the one it was written in, but I really felt it was essential to remove as many boundaries between the audience and the drama as I could. If you have to rely on a translation to understand what’s going on, it becomes a multi-step process to watch a work like this. I wanted it to feel more like what you get when you see a movie. You hear a line and you understand and internalize it – without having to translate it first!
Now, we have a production that’s going to be done with the orchestra on stage, the action compressed into a 24-hour period and sung in English! The possibilities are endless. So much so that I have had to impose on myself a moratorium on any more changes to the “script” of staging for our premiere performances. The story moves with a speed that amazes me and our cast is excited about this new approach, too. Mozart’s stunning music is there in all it’s glory and is what this work is all about. All we’ve done is bring the story into the 21st century and hopefully to a new audience.