As I walked out of the opera house tonight, I couldn't help but notice that I left with somewhat of a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe it was the two guys next to me that had, noting several of my senses, had smoked a fair amount of marijuana before the opera began. But that wasn’t it. Something about the production, perhaps? The singing was spectacular. I had known the Indiana University opera program was top notch but I was quite literally blown away by the sheer sound and maturity of all the voices. The orchestra as well was at the top of their game playing, of all things, Mozart, the composer that casts a spotlight on every single individual player to perform at their best or take down the entire orchestra with them. But as I walked back to my apartment around 10pm on a particularly dark path, I noticed a blue light from one of those campus emergency poles. And all of a sudden it seemed to click for me. This odd feeling I had when walking out of Mozart’s Don Giovanni had to do with the fact that I had seen a production that was firmly planted in antiquity. How could a production of Giovanni on a Big Ten college campus of all places be so unaware that we live in the age of Brock Turner, Donald Trump, and Betsy DeVos who is currently putting an end to Obama’s policy on campus sexual assault investigations? How can we still portray the Don as merely a suave ladies man when the very opening of the opera depicts a rape and eventually a murder? In 2018, sexual assault, rape, and consent are major topics on college campuses and even though I don’t believe the point of a production is to preach or shine a light on a hot topic, I do believe this complex issue was in the mind of both Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte at the time of the operas conception.
Mozart has long been one of my favorite composers. After hearing the overture to Cosi Fan Tutte in high school, I was immediately hooked on the sense of cleanliness in the music. Every time I look at a Mozart score, I am amazed how something so simple like two instruments descending in parallel 3rds turns out to be the best musical idea. I at times compare Mozart to a great burger or sandwich that has just the right amount of everything but never too much. There is never any bacon, no triple patties, no queso or some other outrageous Guy Fieri bastardization slammed between two buns. This Mozart burger is clean and simple and satisfies beyond measure. He was, and this doesn’t seem like a wildly controversial statement, at his very best when writing opera and especially the three Da Ponte operas; Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte. All three of these hold a special place in my heart. Musically speaking, they are, on the surface layer, simple and beautifully lyrical. Maybe equally as important is the political drive in all three of these operas. Each deals masterfully with sexual and social politics in unique, terrifying, comical, and ingenious ways. However, none of the three have more black comedy in it than Don Giovanni.
Let’s get one thing out of the way to start off, Don Giovanni is a serial rapist. I feel as though throughout at least in the 20th century, Giovanni was always been shown in the light of a ladies man. Any LP cover always shows this handsome ladies man with eyebrow raised with the clear intention to win you over. And it’s charming. Most productions run with this Pepé Le Pew characterization in order to a) get maximum laughs from the audience and b) not really tackle how dark the humor truly is. Don’t get me wrong, the libretto is hilarious. However, it should sting a bit. Like in all black comedy, the shock and aw that one feels when laughing at something that is clearly terrible is, in most cases, the best part and the point. De Ponte and Mozart are working at a very deep comedic level. The Catalog Aria, for example, is Leoporello bragging about the number of women Giovanni has “seduced” with heavy scare quotes. By observing the opera so far, the “seducing” we have observed is far more along the lines of sexual assault than winning some woman over. The music in this aria is comical; it imitates fanfares after exclaiming how faithful the Don is, the music parodies Catholic sacred music when discussing the women of Spain, and the sound of hunting horns lets the listener know that all of this seducing is like hunting for Don Giovanni. It is a brilliant glimpse into the character. This aria, which tallies up thousands of women that the Don has interacted with should be shocking and, in turn, laughable. But the laughs should not come easy to the audience. The same way it’s difficult to laugh while watching a man struggling to put his friend into a wood chipper at the end of Fargo. One can be sure that both Da Ponte and Mozart knew the works of the great satirists like Jonathan Swift and knew how to set up a laugh and twist the knife at the same time.
This is all to say that I found this lacking in this production and in many productions. A director does not need to necessarily update the action. That’s not always the answer (the Peter Sellars’ production is great though). I feel that a director’s choice on how to depict Don Giovanni’s “seducing” should push the boundaries and the comfort zone of the audience just as the original creators did with the opera itself.