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Reflection: 'Don Giovanni' remains shockingly relevant

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 23, 2011 - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's and Lorenzo da Ponte's "Don Giovanni" is a work of supreme achievement, one that has prevailed through two and a quarter centuries as among the trenchant artistic triumphs of Western civilization.

"Don Giovanni" opened Opera Theatre of St. Louis's season on Saturday in a modernized production, that is, one in which 18th-century costumes and decor are left behind in favor of a 1950s, early rock 'n' roll aesthetic.

OK, "Don Giovanni," no matter how it presents itself, commands an immutable place in the "idees dans l'air" tradition, something accepted as a masterpiece generally. "Don Giovanni" is a masterpiece that fights its way out of the boundaries of its genre. It is more than a tale, more than a romp, more than sermon, more than a braiding together of a brilliant libretto and music that is perfection. Thus for lack of a better term, it is meta-opera, a work of musical theater that transcends the quotidian and ascends to a place shared with few others, "Die Walkuere" and "Otello" among them.

The reason for this exalted status is this: Extraordinarily vivid operas -- operas such as "Don Giovanni," and serious novels, paintings and sculptures -- operate as scalpels that open human behavior to reveal effectively the operations of our basic humanity, our strengths, weaknesses, successes, failures, nobilities and incivilities.

They fix us in the real and metaphorical places we occupy in this alternately horrifying and exalting universe, a universe that supports fundamental and perhaps immutable values, but one that grows and changes, nevertheless, sometimes for good, all too often for ill. It is a system that provides room for consummate evil and divine goodness.

The main character is the legendary Don Juan, a rogue fornicator who beds women and casts them off like out-of-fashion clothing, such as the costumes worn in this realization of the piece, and leaves them behind. It is impossible to overlook the fact that as this production of "Don Giovanni" sprinted toward opening night, the adulterous behavior of the former governor of California and the alleged criminal behavior of the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund fell upon us in an avalanche of detail.

The two situations provided interesting contrasts in varsity concupiscence to the Don's. In his "Madamina" aria, the Don's butt-of-all-jokes manservant Leporello offers a catalogue of Don Giovanni's conquests, which number over a thousand in Spain alone, and more than 1,800 in all, making the former governor and former IMF director look rather like amateurs in the fornication business, numerically anyway.

Art exaggerates humanity in various ways. The better the work of art itself, the better it operates whatever vehicle it employs to drive truth home.

So while we may squirm a bit at some of the sexually suggestive choreography and deliberate sleaze in this particular show and while we may, initially anyway, laugh nervously at the outlandish behavior of Don Giovanni and although we are suspicious of Leporello's catalogue of sexual conquests, we do experience in all of this clear and revolting evidence of the progressive development of a monster and a licentious madman, one uncaring of the effects of his conquests on the women he seduces and abandons, and one unafraid of consequences.

Leporello, whom we recognize quickly not as the butt-of-the-joke sidekick at all but the voice of revelation, observes that what began as innocent fun turned very bad and very wrong, and that his master's obsessive carnal appetites would lead to disaster, and that all his guilt would be revealed.

Sure enough -- as "innocent fun" and comedy turns sour and pathological, and as murder is folded into the mix of the Don's ever more dramatic immorality, and as he, rather than seeking repentance, is increasingly emboldened by that common condition of the powerful, hubris -- we see Don Giovanni descend into madness, to be dragged into the blistering fires of eternal damnation.

A good, hard-working ensemble of young singers works well to take us from an initial tolerance of Don Giovanni, a boys-will-be-boys acceptance of what soon emerges as cruel recklessness, into a madness haunted by souls left in torment by him and thence into eternal damnation. Doing so, the singers limn a culture that tolerated, or even celebrated, such behavior. It is shocking to walk out of the opera house and to realize this was a culture not so different from ours after all, a culture examined in detail in thousands of words in the Sunday New York Times's article on "The Gossip Machine."

The set's formality and stringency -- something of a collision of Escher and de Chirico -- participated scenically in sustaining the tension.

This year's production of "Don Giovanni" is the third in the company's history, the first being Mark Lamos's production in 1983. Sad history hangs over that production for some of us. In 1982, stage director Jonathan Miller and conductor Calvin Simmons realized a never-to-be-forgotten "Cosi fan tutte," and arrangements were made to bring Simmons and Miller back in 1983 to produce "Don Giovanni." But Simmons was killed in a boating accident in the summer of '82, Miller did not return. Lamos, then early in what is a grand career, was brought in as stage director. Lamos put his own creative stamp on the show, which some found dark and unnecessarily forbidding. I would describe it as haunting then, and haunting now.

The translation of Da Ponte's libretto from Italian into English for Opera Theatre was the work of the distinguished critic, musician and director Andrew Porter, with revisions for this production by James Robinson and Michael Shell, co-artistic directors. James Robinson is artistic director of the company.

(Disclaimer: While Opera Theatre of St. Louis was celebrating opening night of its 36th season with its Mozart's towering masterpiece "Don Giovanni," I had a previous engagement that could not be changed. So, to turn in this reflection in timely fashion, the artistic administration of the opera company graciously forgave my truancy on Saturday, and let me through the doors to see the final dress rehearsal, which I attended on May 19. There was a catch: I was to confess to readers an understanding that this was indeed a rehearsal I'd seen, not the final product, and that things can go awry at rehearsals and often do.)

Opera Theatre's Don Giovanni

Conductor Jane Glover

Co-directors James Robinson, Michael Shell

Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind

Choreographer Sean Curran

Don Giovanni Elliot Madore

Donna Anna Maria Kanyova

Donna Elvira Kishani Jayasinghe

Leporello Levi Hernandez

Don Ottavio David Portillo

Commendatore Andrew Gangestad

Zerlina Kathryn Leemhuis

Masetto Bradley Smoak

Performances: May 25; June 2, 10, 12, 15 (matinee), 18, 22, 25 (matinee)

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.