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Beauty and Pathos Of Mozart
Undermined By Director's Conceit

by Harley Schlanger

January 2008

Los Angeles Opera Presents "Don Giovanni"
November 24 -- December 15, 2007

Upon recovering from my disappointment after attending the recent Los Angeles Opera production of "Don Giovanni," I can only say that even the degenerate rapist libertine, Don Giovanni, deserved a better fate than he received on stage. The stellar cast was put through a production that was contrived and dispassionate, taking the life out of Mozart's brilliant masterpiece, while undercutting their individual artistry.

Lauren McNeese and James Creswell as Zerlina and Masetto. Photo by: Robert Millard, Los Angeles Opera.

Ironically, from reading the program notes written by Mariusz Trelinski, who directed the production, it is evident that he believes the opposite -- that his vision would infuse an oft-told story with new life.

He was wrong. Instead of facilitating, as a director, the unfolding of the bold vision of Mozart and his collaborator, the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, the audience was thrust into a Tim Burton-type nightmare, as in Leperello-Meets-Edward-Scissorshands. Instead of the profound psychological insights of Mozart and Da Ponte into aristocratic power run wild, we were left with doubt as to whether the two intended anything more than an entertaining cartoonish romp on a rather risqué theme.

Trelinski's conceit is evident in his comments about art and opera, presented in his Director's Note, in which he makes clear that he places his vision, as a director, above that of Mozart and Da Ponte. He quotes the Italian film director Fellini, who said "I am moved by a sunset only when I have built it in a studio." This, writes Trelinski, "defined the convention of art, whose beauty is born of artificiality." He continues, writing that "whenever an opera attempts to imitate life, it is lying," adding that the "so-called truthfulness to life is much more keenly felt in cinema."

Truth in Art

While this modernistic conception is not surprising from one whose professional training was in film, it is at odds with the Classical tradition of art, the essence of which is perhaps best expressed by the poet John Keats, in his "Ode on a Grecian Urn," which concludes with the immortal lines,

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty --
that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
At the heart of Mozart's later operas, beginning with "Le Nozze di Figaro" in 1786, is a powerful truth, which had become more tangible in the aftermath of the American Revolution: that there is, as his contemporary Friedrich Schiller wrote, a "limit to the tyrant's power." Mozart grew to maturity in an environment shaped by debates about the Rights of Man and the limits of absolutism. The American Revolution had left a deep impression on European intellectuals, and its principles were the subject of intense and impassioned discussion. Though the stories in his operas have a quality of "timelessness," as Trelinski writes, they are also historically specific.

For example, the underlying theme of "Figaro," which was the first collaboration between Mozart and Da Ponte (the same team which produced "Don Giovanni") is the rebellion, by servants, against the arbitrary assertion of the power of aristocratic privilege. It is in defense of this privilege that Count Almaviva plots to retain the barbaric right to take the virginity of those maidens living on his estate. He is foiled, in the end, by a conspiracy run by his servants, who recruit his wife into their conspiracy.

In Figaro, the defeat of aristocratic privilege results from the assertion of human dignity, through a mobilization of key members of the Count's household, who refuse to be treated as serfs, with no rights. Figaro and Susanna are not caricatures, or symbols, but represent real human beings battling for their full sovereignty. That Mozart views them in this way is evident in the music, such as that of the rebellious Figaro in his "Se Vuol Ballare," when he decides that he will challenge the Count, or of the clever Susanna when, in Act III, she convinces the Count, in a delightful duet, that she will meet him in the garden, thus setting him up for his downfall.

Mozart's music brings out the real human qualities in his characters, as in the mournful longing for lost love from the Countessa, or the playful, testosterone-driven exuberance of Cherubino, or even in the Count's plea for forgiveness, after he had fallen into the trap set by Susanna and the Countessa. There is no artifice in Mozart, no attempt to "imitate life." The struggles by seemingly little people to be treated with justice, overcoming centuries of submission, were real, and not just allegorical, or an entertaining fairy tale.

This battle, to escape the indignities of submission, was real, as well, for Mozart. Composers and musicians of his time -- including his father, and his teacher and collaborator Joseph Haydn -- were treated as mere servants by the aristocrats that employed them.

The audacity displayed by Mozart, to put this story on stage -- with the backing of Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II, who was engaged in a decade-long struggle to weaken the powers of the Austrian aristocracy -- did not endear him to those in the Court wishing to protect their privileges. There are credible reports that Mozart's opponents organized disruptions of performances of "Figaro," insuring that its life on the stage in Vienna was limited. It was bad enough, for noblemen, to see servants portrayed on stage as sovereign beings, striving to become masters of their own fate. To see them succeed, at the expense of one of their own, was too much.

The Power of Natural Law

Mozart believed in the dignity of man and, therefore, that the right to be treated justly was ordained by a higher power than the earthly power assumed by monarchs. This higher power, or "natural law," is what Schiller presents in the drama "William Tell," when the rebellion against a petty dictator is organized in the name of the "limits to the tyrant's power." The defeat of the British Empire by the ragamuffins of the American colonies was a proof of this principle. In "Figaro", which was composed while the glow from America was still radiating, the limitation to the tyrant's power is imposed by the actions of the servants.

"Don Giovanni," however, is a different story, as the dissolute oligarch proves to be a more brutal, ruthless usurper of rights than the sometimes-hesitant Count Almaviva in "Figaro". In our first encounter with him, he is struggling with Donna Anna, his would-be rape victim. As she fights him off, he is confronted by her father, the Commendatore, and kills him in a short duel. When we next see him, there is no regret, no remorse; instead, he is jovially pursuing his next conquest, a pattern followed throughout the opera. His willingness to employ naked force against his victims intimidates them, causing them to act with caution, and it is unclear, up to the end, whether Don Ottavio, Masetto and others, possess the strength and the courage to bring him to justice.

Mozart's ironic, contrapuntal music highlights the paradoxes facing the characters on the stage, which were the same as those facing republicans in Europe during his lifetime. Can a member of the nobility be trusted to act in the interests of the people? Can the "people" act with the wisdom to assume responsibility for self-government?

Don Giovanni caught humping Zerlina
Erwin Schrott as Don Giovanni, Lauren McNeese as Zerlina and Maria Kanyova as Donna Elvira. Photo by: Robert Millard, Los Angeles Opera.

In "Don Giovanni", the audience is gripped by the way these questions are played out on stage. Don Giovanni may be wildly libidinous, but he can also be seductive, as we see in his appeal to the simple, good-natured peasant Zerlina, and in Donna Elvira's confused reaction to him, as she alternates between angrily seeking revenge, and tender willingness to give him one more chance! Don Ottavio swears to his betrothed, Donna Anna, that he will avenge the death of her father, the Commendatore, yet is reluctant to believe that a fellow nobleman, such as Don Giovanni, could be a rapist and a murderer. And Leporello is the arch-typical lackey, protesting to all who listen that he is unhappy with his master, yet always, in the end, doing his bidding, though his loyalty may sometimes stem from his fear of physical punishment.

Ultimately, it is a supernatural force which acts, through the marble statue of the Commendatore, to end the reign of terror of Don Giovanni.

Contrary to Director Trelinski, there is nothing artificial about the beauty in this opera. It comes from the brilliant artistry of Mozart, who provides, through his music, a truthful portrayal of the wrenching psychological and emotional battles waged by members of an aristocratic society who are straining to break the arbitrary power of the corrupt feudal system. Mozart grabs the imagination of the audience from the first note, and sustains it throughout, as the whole opera is composed as one unified piece. The disturbing progression played by the flute and first violin early in the Overture, which begins in D Minor, and which re-appears in the end, when the Commendatore gives Don Giovanni his last chance to repent, heightens the tension in the mind of members of the audience, preparing them for the intervention of that higher power, which imposes a final judgment on the unrepentant libertine.

Unfortunately, under Trelinski's direction, the only tension for the audience at the end of his production was whether the loincloth on the less-than-frightening Commendatore might fall off him, to the ground!

A Wasted Opportunity

Leporello with oversize hourglass
Kyle Ketelsen as Leporello. Photo by: Robert Millard, Los Angeles Opera.

One could say much more about the director's failure, by identifying any number of particular bits of silliness, e.g., having Leporello carry around a large hourglass, or the ridiculous clownish costumes of Zerlina and Masetto. However, a further enumeration would serve no purpose, as it is the conception as a whole which Trelinski applied, which is the problem.

It is a great shame, for the singers in this production were terrific, beginning with Erwin Schrott as a steadfast Don Giovanni. There was not a weak link in the cast: Kyle Ketelsen was an excellent Leporello -- even with the hourglass; Charles Castronovo provided an unusually virile Don Ottavio; Alexandra Deshorties, a very sympathetic Donna Anna; and Maria Kanyova was a convincing Donna Elvira. I found it difficult to watch Lauren McNeese as Zerlina and James Creswell as Masetto, as their costumes made a mockery of their characters.

The wonderful voices, however, could not overcome the director's conceit. For the sake of Mozart and his intriguing villain, Don Giovanni -- as well as for the fine performers -- wouldn't it be an excellent idea to give them another chance, this time with a Classical production? **

**For those not sure of what is meant by a "Classical production," let me recommend the DVD of the famous 1954 performance of "Don Giovanni" in Salzburg, Austria, conducted by the legendary Wilhelm Furtwangler, which featured Cesare Siepi in the lead role.