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Don Giovanni:
Detroit Opera’s Lack of Morals

by Jenny Burns

April 2010

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Review of “Don Giovanni”
Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Librettist: Lorenzo Da Ponte
First Performed in 1787

Michigan Opera Theater
Detroit, Michigan
April 2010

Conductor: Christian Badea
Director:  John Pascoe
Assistant Director: Chia Patino

The Michigan Opera Theater’s April 2010 production of “Don Giovanni” was a shocking misrepresentation of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s concept of his opera. The idea presented by Director John Pascoe, from the opening of the overture and throughout the performance, was the antithesis of what Mozart and Da Ponte’s work should convey. Although there were some individual moments of fine singing and acting, they were not sufficient to outweigh the overall effect of this anti-Mozart interpretation of Mozart’s own opera.  Right from the start, wild liberties are taken. During the overture, a scene is added, where 14th century flagellants are whipping themselves in a circle underneath a cross.  Had Mozart wanted this, he certainly would have written it in.  The purpose of the overture is to set the stage in the minds of the audience, to allow the unfolding of the idea that Mozart is going to present throughout the opera. This disgusting and historically inaccurate addition to the opera diverts the real issue that Mozart and Da Ponte poses to the performers, the audience and society at large: what is real morality?  

Rebekah Johnson for the Detroit Opera House/Michigan Opera Theatre

Kelly Kaduce as Donna Elvira and Robert Gierlach* as Don Giovanni.

*Michigan Opera Theater performed Don Giovanni with 2 casts, and some of the singers shown here were not in the performance we are reviewing.

The singers may have wanted to perform  “Don Giovanni” as it was written, and that sense was communicated especially by Jonathan Lasch, baritone, who, as Leporello, the servant of the sex crazed, feudal oligarch Don Giovanni, (Randal Turner, baritone) ably portrayed that sense. Leporello represents that layer of the population, those lackeys, who allow for the collapse of society and the implementation of fascism by tolerating the evil therein. The other singers also showed that their characters had no motivation for a fundamental change, but the overall impact was really hindered by the staging.  Donna Anna Caitlin Lynch (Soprano) obsessed over what once was; Don Ottavio (David Lomeli, tenor) is completely enraptured with Donna Anna;  Donna Elvira (Kelly Kaduce, soprano) desires the unrequited love of Don Giovanni, and then goes crazy because he refuses to change; and Zerlina (Sarah Jane McMahon, soprano) and Masetto, (Andrew Gray, baritone ), the bridal couple, return happily to the fantasy of the simple peasant life after her seduction by the aristocratic Don.

Rebekah Johnson for the Detroit Opera House/
Michigan Opera Theatre

David Lomeli as Don Ottavio and Caitlin Lynch as Donna Anna

Rebekah Johnson for the Detroit Opera House/Michigan Opera Theatre

Burak Bilgili as Leporello and Kelly Kaduce as Donna Elvira

None of them are able to intervene against Don Giovanni’s evil to effect the needed change in the opera, so Mozart brings in the Commendatore (Rod Nelman, bass-baritone) who comes, as if “from above” to shut down the corruption and immorality. The Commendatore is the father of Donna Anna, who had come to her defense when she was attacked by the masked seducer, Don Giovanni, who has entered her room at the opening of the opera. A duel ensues, and Don Giovanni kills the older man. The Commendatore returns, as the stone statue, at the end of the opera, invited to dinner by the arrogant libertine.

Mozart and DaPonte wove powerful images in the poetry and orchestration, and in the arias and ensembles. It was not necessary to add the overture scene, nor the extended fight scene between Don Ottavio and Don Giovanni at the end of Act.  Nor was there any reason to add raw sex to the final banquet scene, to prove that the rich oligarch here was depraved. It was clear to all when Don Giovanni sings “Long Live Liberty” in an earlier scene, that “liberty” for him was the freedom to be perverse and oppressive; but there was no need to try and get the audience to wet their pants to see that. Yet in the final scene, the director shows Don Giovanni not only enjoying his dinner as the cowardly Leporello looks on, but has him eating out of the breast and crotch of a woman laying on the dinner table!

The opera ends as Donna Elvira enters and tries again to convince Don Giovanni to change from his old ways, but to no avail.  The knock on the door and the entrance of the stone statue of the murdered Commendatore, accepting the dinner invitation, certainly breaks up the stale dynamic that had been festering in the domain of Don Giovanni and Leporello. When the arrogant aristocratic Giovanni refuses the Statue’s offer to repent, he is dragged to hell, to show what is to come if you continue the descent into degeneracy.

Rebekah Johnson for the Detroit Opera House/
Michigan Opera Theatre

Robert Gierlach* as Don Giovanni and Sarah Jane McMahon as Zerlina

Mozart and his librettist were well aware of the European political and cultural situation of his time, and composed this tragedy to provoke the minds of the audience. Using their genius and the power of tragedy, comedy, irony, humor and the beauty in poetry and music, they were addressing the situation in society 1787, counter-posing the ideas of the American Revolution to the collapsing European society. The infidelity, murder, revenge, and lust, so characteristic of the feudalism of Europe, were woven into the magnificent score, and no additions are needed to get the point across to today’s audience. As in 1787, the population needs to confront the tragedy unfolding before them, so that an audience so confronted can act to change the degenerating culture that surrounds us, and allows a collapse of human society.

Just as in the Europe of Mozart’s time, what needs to be addressed in this moment, as the entire financial system is coming down around us, is that better idea of man. Lyndon LaRouche’s role in establishing a return to an idea of man that is fundamentally different to that of animals, and that we have a higher purpose in the universe, has been critical in both science and in art. That there are fundamental truths and a commitment to morality needed to actually save man kind from a total collapse of human civilization, is what Mozart intended the mind of the audience to grasp then. It is urgent that this be grasped now.

Interview with Director John Pascoe

John Pascoe:  I dislike the word "concept" because we've all seen concept productions where "that concept" is stamped so heavily on the production that the opera disappears.

I don't believe in that for one second, I think the music and the text have to lead you. The Don Giovanni production I created for the Michigan Opera Theater is driven by the main character, a freedom-seeker who is fighting the restrictions of a religious framework in which he finds himself. The idea permeates the entire production.

The opera is set in the Seville of Mozart's period- a time when the Spanish Inquisition still ruled, Don Giovanni is a wealthy young aristocrat from he bet family in Seville, he is used to getting whatever he wants and he also believes that it is right to live out all sexual fantasies.

In the background is the repressive and powerful vehicle of the church that  existed at that time. It is against that restrictive framework of the Inquisition in he 18th century that DG is rebelling, his need for total freedom is at the heart of the show.

Bravo: In that sense he is heroic?

John Pascoe: Yes. Don Giovanni absolutely is heroic. He just happens to be a hero who rejects the mores of society.  Giovanni is uniquely and completely selfish, more than any character I can think of in the operatic repertoire.

His pursuit of freedom is something en we all share; to come to terms with what society requires if us as opposed to what we wants, and of all his more than 2000 seductions, the most important seduction that Don G makes is that of the audience. It is vital to the show. The audience must love him, want to be loved by him, or want to be him.

In one of the many strokes of genius from Mozart and Da Ponte, Don Giovanni gains our support despite his crimes. This is someone with whom we should have no sense of empathy or sympathy. In the first act he kills the Commendatore, attempts to rape or actually rapes Donna Anna, and behaves appallingly toward Zerlina and Massetto, yet he is a hero to us. We're engaged by this extraordinarily selfish, egoistical;, sexually driven creature who embodies our inner childish self.

Then in the second act Mozart shreds our belief in Don Giovanni.  By the end we should arrive at a point where despite any laudable Christian inclinations we have to not condemn other people, our instincts are to send him to hell- burn the bugger. That is the way the piece is written.

One of the details of my production that has raised an eyebrow or two is Don Giovanni's treatment of Elvira in the final scene. He abases her, this woman who loves him to distraction. I believe, by the way, the he's still completely in love with her. He refuses the contact because it would mean a full-on relationship. The staging is to horrify the Donna Elvira character as well as the audience. He tries to force her into a menage a trois with a whore... and that's where we say goodbye to him.

Related pages:

Review of Virginia Opera at George Mason University's Performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni

Schiller Institute Art, Music and Book Reviews

Mozart's 1782-1786 Revolution in Music. Fidelio (1992)

Mozart and The American Revolutionary Upsurge. Fidelio (1992)

Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart's Librettist and Friend of the American Revolution

Mozart's 'Ave Verum'. Fidelio (1996)

Mozart's 250th Birthday

A Surprise in Dresden -- Review of Mozart's Clemenza di Tito

Beauty and Pathos Of Mozart Undermined By Director's Conceit

Bach, Mozart, and the Musical Midwife

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