With an all-Canadian cast, Opéra de Montréal’s Don Giovanni opened Saturday night to an enthusiastic crowd at the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier.
Full disclosure: I don’t really like Don Giovanni. Don’t get me wrong, I love Mozart generally, and his operas in particular. But Don Giovanni’s antics always leave a sour taste in my mouth – and that’s a difficult thing to get past.
That said, we do not experience works as scores and libretti, but as performances. This is especially true for opera. Each staging of an opera has a life of its own, an inner cohesiveness that can challenge hermeneutic readings of the opera-as-text. For all of the contemporary schools of staging that still adhere to the “park ‘n’ bark” method, staging can lead to some striking variations in interpretation.
For example, take the staging of Opéra de Montréal’s Don Giovanni by American director David Lefkowich. This is a Don Giovanni as rapist, not rake; a cad and a manipulator, yes, but also as a brutish man who uses raw force to coerce and control his victims. It is clear in the actions and the translations in the surtitles that Don G assaults Donna Anna in the opening scene. While some may bemoan the lack of ambiguity, it was refreshing to experience unequivocal discomfort because of Don Giovanni’s actions rather than discomfort because the direction skirts the issues at hand.
The issue of representations of violence against women in opera is one we are still grappling with as performers, audiences, and scholars. (Last weekend at the American Musicological Society’s annual meeting there was a panel moderated by Suzanne Cusick entitled “Sexual Violence on Stage: How Musicologists Promote Resistance in the Twenty-First Century,” during which Don Giovanni was described as “a norm of both culture and genre, rather than an exception.”) This leads to the question: Why are we entertained by works where the suffering of women is on full display and how do we deal with it in works that still hold cultural meaning for contemporary audiences?
There are no easy answers, but it all comes down to how the director deals with the elephant in Da Ponte’s libretto, especially for an audience sensitive to the issue of sexual assault with a handsy elephant in the White House, not to mention the heard of elephants in both houses of congress. It doesn’t help that from a distance Gordon Bintner with his golden locks looks like a young Donald Trump. (Sorry Mr. Bintner.)
Our bizarre current political circumstances aside, with an interwar aesthetic that straddled both European aristocracy and a greasy American backroom, anxieties of class rose to the surface. This made Don G’s actions less the symptom of a personality pathology and more the expression of desperation from a bully who is impotent without someone to control. Throughout the night, the physical comedy between Bintner and Daniel Okulitch as Leporello hit all of the right notes, a lively slapstick that at times edged into something more sinister.
Evocative of gritty 1940s film noir, lighting designer Anne-Catherine Simard-Deraspe managed to do a lot with a static set by Donald Eastman, borrowed from Boston Lyric Opera and Glimmerglass Opera, flipping between indoors and outdoors with a heavy emphasis on shadow and that which is lurking out of sight.
The singing was excellent from all members of the main cast. Bintner was charming rather than commanding, silver-tongued instead of brassy, oozing Don Giovanni from head to toe. His foil, Leporello, was masterfully played by bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch, who, over the years, has become somewhat of a Mozart authority – and with such impeccable diction and clarity, it’s not hard to see why. Alain Coulombe’s Commendatore was stately and ominous, maintaining his steely composure even while wavering on a few notes. Jean-Michel Richer and Stephen Hegedus delivered strong performances as Don Ottavio and Masetto alike.
By far the breakout performance of the evening was made by Layla Claire as Donna Elvira, who almost did not appear in the production due to her real-life pregnancy. Though not a new take on the character by any means, an expectant Donna Elvira gives her motivations that break free from stereotypes of 18th-century female hysteria or notions of women trying to change men for its own sake; she wants her relationship with the philandering Don Giovanni to work simply because it must work. With lush tones, Claire showcased her impressive technical control while giving a thoughtful and sympathetic performance. Sopranos Emily Dorn as Donna Anna and Hélène Guilmette as Zerlina were bright and compelling in their arias, while also providing excellent counterpoint to their male cast mates in ensemble scenes.
With Jordan de Souza at the helm, the Orchestre Métropolitain was excellent as always, getting better as the night wore on. After a handful of bumpy tempo changes in the Overture where not all of the members made the leap, the orchestra settled quite nicely. This was the Opéra de Montréal debut for the young Canadian conductor, who is active in the Toronto scene with the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada. We hope that he’ll be back, though he will undoubtedly be busy in the upcoming years as he assumes the role of Kapellmeister at Komische Oper Berlin.
The only sticking point of the entire show was the ending, which (spoiler alert) involved Don Giovanni not so much unwillingly dragged to hell as flinging himself offstage into sickly green light when his dinner party with the Commendatore turns sour. Although there is nothing ambiguous about his death – there is a hell and Don G has earned a special place – the drama fell flat with the main cast crowding on stage to watch as if they had jumped the gun for the curtain call. Even though the program notes indicate otherwise, the directors opted for the “Vienna version” without the moralizing ending.
I’m not sure the alternate ending would have salvaged the staging of the final minute of the show, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only member of the audience to project my own desires onto the action. With the present moralizing in our public discourse, Don Giovanni as a cautionary tale might just miss the mark, especially as the leading lowlights of American politics are currently having their cake and eating it too. Indeed, the lines between fiction and real life have never felt more blurred; squinting just right made Don G into Don T falling into a viridescent abyss. Forget tragic and comic, it was cathartic. (Sorry Mr. Bintner.)
There are three more opportunities to see Don Giovanni: November 15, 17, and 19, 7:30PM, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts. www.operademontreal.com