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Don Giovanni’s terrifying descent into Hell inspired Ignatius Spencer to become a Catholic: but without faith, a secular age doesn’t get Mozart, either

Go to Garsington this year for the music: the stage director hasn’t a clue what Don Giovanni is really about

By on Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Don Giovanni, here performed at Garsington, used to be seen as a moral drama

Don Giovanni, here performed at Garsington, used to be seen as a moral drama

Yesterday evening, I saw the Garsington Opera’s new production of Don Giovanni. If you have tickets (if you haven’t, don’t bother, it’s sold out) you can look forward to a musical performance of great distinction: Garsington over the years has worked steadily at its musical standards, and they are now very high. Musically, this Don Giovanni is ravishing.

But the production: well, it was only to be expected, I suppose. Opera directors these days, as a matter of course, go in for modernised costume and sets, usually of some wholly inappropriate period, and nearly always understand the dramatic action of the opera in some perverse way which goes entirely against the grain of the opera’s original intention. This production is set firmly in the sex-obsessed high tech here and now.

Thus, last night, the opera’s opening scenes, in which Leporello stands guard while Don Giovanni attempts to rape the Commendatore’s daughter Donna Anna, having broken into her house, were wholly distorted. This is what is supposed to happen: they both appear; Giovanni is masked but Donna Anna is holding his arm trying pluckily to detain him in order to find out who he is; she cries for help. The commendatore appears; Don Giovanni kills him and escapes.

This, if you please, is entirely transformed into a scene in which it is Donna Anna — dressed in the kind of raunchy clothing you can see if you inadvertently have a look in the window of an Ann Summers sexy gear shop —who is seducing Don Giovanni, not the other way round. Her detaining grip is transformed into the kind of handcuffs you can also no doubt acquire in an Ann Summers emporium, with which she fastens him to a table while preparing to work her wicked way (she has also blindfolded him). The commendatore (in dressing gown and pyjamas) just happens to stumble in and is understandably somewhat put out by what is going on on his dining room table. Leporello gets Don Giovanni out of his handcuffs, then Don Giovanni kills the Commendatore. Donna Anna, not pleased, changes out of her sexy gear and becomes all virtuous.

From that point on, I realised that this was going to be yet another in the growing list of travesties I have witnessed over the years committed by opera directors who show every sign of actually despising the operas they are directing (in Paris I once saw a production of La Sonnambula, in which the heroine’s perilous sleepwalking scene was made particularly dangerous for the singer by having to walk from the top of one of the huge wardrobes with which the stage was filled to the top of another, and so across the stage, singing the while with her eyes shut: the set designer and director, when they appeared on stage to take their bow, were roundly booed by a classic Parisian claque, the only time I have ever witnessed this splendid phenomenon).

The point about Don Giovanni, is that though usually classified as an opera buffa (comic opera), it is also intended to have a very powerful moral dimension. When I saw Donna Anna portrayed as a raunchy seductress, I had more than a suspicion that the director wouldn’t know what to do with that element of Don Giovanni at all, and I turned out to be right.

Not, mind you, that he is the first one just not to get it. The final scene, in which the seducer is dragged off to hellfire by demons, having refused the opportunity to express penitence for his life, is clearly intended to be in deadly earnest; Mozart underlines this with music of terrifying dramatic power (in the “supernatural” key of D minor): the idea of being dragged down to hell wasn’t an idea which he could take anything but very seriously.

This is how the opera was seen until modern times: as a moral drama. Its original title was Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni (The Rake punished or, Don Giovanni). The concluding ensemble delivers the moral of the opera – “Such is the end of the evildoer: the death of a sinner always reflects his life” (“Questo è il fin”). Its potential dramatic effect is illustrated most famously by the Hon George Spencer, who was so unnerved by this depiction of the effects of a dissolute life followed by final impenitence that it was one reason for him becoming a Catholic: his conversion to the Catholic faith was gradual, but one of the key moments undoubtedly came while he was watching Don Giovanni in Paris in 1870. He later said the terrifying scene of Don Giovanni’s being dragged below by demons, surrounded by flames, caused him to reflect seriously on his own spiritual condition. He is now, of course, the Blessed Ignatius Spencer, a candidate for canonisation.

At Garsington, it was difficult to know what was supposed to be going on. The commendatore turned up for the opera’s denouement dressed as a military officer covered in medals. You didn’t know if he was dead or not (throughout the opera, you were shown him in a kind of tableau, surrounded by medical attendants, in intensive care); in the end, Don Giovanni, far from being dragged away by demons, simply collapses into the commendatore’s wheelchair, where he appears to have expired of a heart attack: when everyone starts to ask where he is (real answer, Hell, actually) they just turn the wheelchair round so you can’t see his face. That was it: a sudden death, but not exactly a frightening one; just one of those unexplained fatal heart attacks that young men sometimes suffer.

And yet you could see the real message of the opera in the surtitles; “Such is the end of the evildoer: the death of a sinner always reflects his life”. But you weren’t supposed to be paying any attention to that: the message of the performance was look at this, what a gas; hey, and listen to the music too, not bad, huh?

The moral of the production (as distinct from the moral of the opera) is that we are living in an age in which moral seriousness of any kind is seen as practically the only unforgivable sin; an age in which those in a position to do it will engage in almost any stratagem to avoid it. Catholics, of course, can see all that clearly enough, as long as we are not actually drawn into it (and with the spectacle before a man of the beautiful Natasha Jouhl as Donna Anna, all got up in her Ann Summers gear, one easily could be): but it’s comparatively easy for Catholics, as long as we remember always, like a mantra, that we are called on (JPII) to be “signs of contradiction” to all that. But what if you don’t know that?

Well, then, life can get complicated. The moral is: Just keep your eyes on the surtitles: then you’ll know what’s really going on.

  • W Oddie

    If that’s all you think this great masterpiece is, then your views on it are utterly worthless.

  • JByrne24

    I have given no views on Don G as a work of art, and am quite sure that I have only a shallow understanding of its artistic merits compared to many others. It has never stunned me however, as for example Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis did when I was a teenager.

    I have only been at pains to try to explain that all works of art are open to interpretation. What you experienced recently was an interpretation that you did not like.
    Last years BBC Proms performance of Missa Solemnis disappointed me. I think Colin Davis missed the point on many occasions. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.