DON GIOVANNI, directed by Mariame Clément, at Glyndebourne. May 2023.
On Opera

Why it’s time to drop Don Giovanni

Mariame Clément’s new production of Don Giovanni falls prey to modern mores.

The old dude’s been losing his mojo for a while now. The swordsman of Seville can’t really be bothered to haul it out of the scabbard these days. And those trusty lines, the repartee, the badinage and persiflage: even the chocolate-factory ladies of York are beginning to find it a bit ripe. He’s even tried going gay, but a paltry mille e tre just seemed, well, a bit gay.

Now you’ll just find him, arthritic, unshaven, eyes like bloody oysters, in the corner of some old pub, sucking on rollups and dribbling into his half, swapping wheezy yarns with the equally remaindered Harry Flashman about those nuns in Naples and the stint as tennis coach at St Mary’s.

Poor old Don Giovanni. Perhaps Mozart had an inkling this was going to happen when he gave him that ballsachey day of thwarted plans, aborted clinches, little stunnas serially snatched from his arms. And yet, somehow, Giovanni always seemed to come out smiling, yes, even dragged to hell by pantomime demons, you’d go home happily thinking of him cradling some Plutonian poppet, doing the D with Hella from Hades.

its extraordinary surrender to a few unhappy children’s demand for black-and-white, for unqualified condemnation

At Glyndebourne (running until 15 July), director Mariame Clément charts his downfall even before the curtain goes up. During that thunderous overture, a statue of Giovanni is hauled down and smashed up. The great rebel hero, who sees conventional morality for the Establishment sham it is, who stands up to God, looks him in the eye and laughs — forget it.

He’s become prime gammon, the prick of the patriarchy, just a regular old post-lunch groper too pissed to notice the world has changed.

Which is all very well, even a bit funny, but the problem is that this is still Don Giovanni — that’s right, Mozart’s opera, not just another note-spinning fatuity but a miracle that, using nothing more than doggerel and the rather simple musical language of the late eighteenth century, makes something eternal that changes the meaning of being human.

There are a few other operas in the same bracket — Il trovatore, Tristan und Isolde, maybe William Tell, maybe Khovanschina — a couple of Dantes and Shakespeares and Michelangelos, and that’s really your lot. It’s the kind of thing we send into space to show those bastard aliens what we’re made of.

So by all means do him up like a Maltese pimp, present him as the rankest of sleazeballs — but then you really ought to tell us why you’re bothering to put the thing on at all.

While Ms Clément (a seasoned, funny and clever director) is more or less obliged by current tempora and mores to turn the disapproval up to 11, she is also old enough and wise enough (and French enough) to resist the petrified Manichaeism that has possessed the arts world, its extraordinary surrender to a few unhappy children’s demand for black-and-white, for unqualified condemnation.

Shall we just drop this opera till everyone gets over their current horror of sex

That shouldn’t be too hard — opera is frequently quite complicated, and generally attended by grown-ups. Having qualms about Giovanni’s carry-on is not exactly new: they’re right there in Mozart, spotlit in the rewrite that turned Elvira from regular comic-Maenad-dumped-girlfriend to the emotional and moral heart of the piece, full of moody insight and self-awareness.

Don Giovanni was never a mere celebration of harmless shagging, nor yet a childish parable about getting punished for same — for God’s sake, this is opera. But now the rebel-against-God lark is a hard sell, and that waxing of the Commendatore (fluffed in the staging here) never looked much like First Degree, how to justify Giovanni’s startling end?

This staging doesn’t come up with any answer, or even try; in fact the second half falls to desultory bits in the most alarming way. Yet the first act is properly headlong, musically dynamic, hard-working, setting up characters and situations cogently and staging its brilliant finale with clarity and intent.

OK, maybe trying to turn metrosexual softy Ottavio into the hero is never going to fly: his heart’s in the right place, he’s big on his girlfriend’s needs and desires, but he’s a bit wet even for the Guardian women’s page, and Ms Clément’s half-hearted advocacy peters out.

Still, Ottavio (Oleksiy Palchykov) does get one big moment, his sweetly righteous “Dalla sua pace” making the very Mozartian point that love is everything — and precisely what Giovanni hasn’t got in him, which makes him sad. This isn’t a new idea (Calixto Bieito did it better at ENO), but the text is way too sarcastic about the other personnel to make it a serious goer.

Andrey Zhilikovsky’s Giovanni might be a spiv, but he’s the only one here with any spark of life, and the drags, squares and flakes around him collapse back into suburban inconsequence the minute he’s gone.

I have a suggestion. Shall we just drop this opera till everyone gets over their current horror of sex and maleness and being human? It’s happened before: Mozart’s Così fan tutte fell out of the repertoire for a hundred years when all the women in the world magically became passionless virgins in the nineteenth century. Then (briefly — it’s about to be binned again) it turned out to be a brilliant insight into the darker corners of the carry-on between the sexes. It’ll be a drag to lose Mozart, but hey, we’ll always have My Little Pony. 

Final Don Giovanni performance: July 15

This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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