Mozart's “Don Giovanni” is an almost 250-year-old opera whose anti-hero exhibits reckless behavior and cynical indifference to real-world consequences. Updating the setting to 1936 Seville (the Don rides a motorcycle) doesn't change the opera's essentially timeless character; the Don remains personally charming, yet morally reprehensible. A great plot, in other words.
By the very nature of the beast, opera companies must schedule their seasons several years in advance, and Aidan Lang graciously acknowledges that this production of "Don Giovanni", the first on his watch as General Director, was not really his at all.
The current version, penciled into the Seattle Opera schedule three years ago, presented a most welcome solution to the company's financial restraints.
No need to build, buy or rent new sets or costumes; they dusted off the 2007 production (minimalist sets by Robert A. Dahlstrom, costumes by Marie-Therese Cramer). Stage director Chris Alexander was brought back to rehearse the actors and tweak the staging. And aside from rising superstar tenor Lawrence Brownlee (a former Seattle Opera Young Artist), there was no need to hire expensive outside talent.
The French bass-baritone Nicolas Cavallier, who portrayed all four of the menacing villains in last season's “Tales of Hoffmann,” was a natural for the suave, fast-talking Giovanni. The conductor, Gary Thor Wedow, had handled Mozart's “The Magic Flute” with great aplomb in 2011. No surprises, in other words. A perfect maiden voyage for Lang.
As the house lights dim and the overture's solemn chords foreshadow his fate, Don Giovanni is revealed undressing an all-too-willing Donna Anna. And here, even as Giovanni's faithful servant Leperello complains about having to stand watch, is the key question to the opera: Is Giovanni a criminal rapist (whom we must surely condemn) or a suave, if amoral, seducer (whom we can reluctantly admire)?
Seattle's staging seems to favor seduction. Yet the Don — abetted by Leperello — callously stabs the Commendatore when he comes to his daughter's defense. Now we're into the realm of film noir — a leading character of dubious morality and a setting full of shadows and shifting shapes.
Cavallier makes Giovanni a convincing, masculine force who lives life (and goes to his doom) with an unslaked thirst dressed up in a code of personal honor. He's surrounded by compromisers and enablers: the jilted Donna Elvira (an ex-girlfriend from hell) still loves him, Donna Anna never admits that her own lust played a part in her father's death, Don Ottavio waits like a schmuck for her grieving to end, Leperello steals his master's food.
Only Zerlina, the savvy, sexy peasant girl, seems to have the right notion of situational ethics, as do her counterparts in other Mozart operas.
* * *
The temptation is to conflate the political with the artistic. Politics is all about currently fashionable thought (or what the powerful feel everyone should think). And art, of course, is the opposite: It reflects the world, but does not judge.
Ah, you say, “Don Giovanni” glorifies sexual aggression and puts a smile on domestic violence. Well, the National Football League has no grounds to complain. Cavallier's mellifluous Don is more Hollywood celebrity than NFL thug — a nasty sort of Charlie Sheen crossed with Robert Downey Jr., if you will.
And it would be wrong to think that Zerlina's plaintive “Batti, batti, bel Masetto” really means “Beat me, beat me.” Quite the contrary. Zerlina is manipulating Masetto, not asking for trouble.
Yet the moral that's tacked on to Don Giovanni, that he who lives a wicked life will die a wicked death, is a sham; it's delivered by the opera's six survivors as a tacked-on ending, in the theatrical equivalent of a wink-wink, against a blank white curtain.
Yes, the Don goes to hell (convincingly staged, by the way, with trap door, flames, smoke, screams), but his nominal victims deserve no better.
Donna Anna demands revenge for her father's death, conveniently forgetting that it was her own indiscretion with Giovanni that precipitated the Commendatore's ill-fated defense of her virtue. "Whatever you say, dear," is the in-denial response of her fiancé, Don Ottavio. The peasant girl Zerlina deliberately cavorts with Giovanni to provoke Masetto's ire and ensure herself of punishment. The “wronged” Donna Elvira is both enthralled and repelled by her attraction to Giovanni; after he's gone she dreamily wraps herself in his cape.
And Leperello, Giovanni's faithful enabler, hands him the murder weapon in the first scene, and, in the last, literally, feeds off his amorality. There's no hint of judgment about their fates.
* * *
As an opera, Don Giovanni is both tapestry and mystery, interweaving the familiar story of the libertine (over 2,000 conquests!) who, by tradition, must be punished, with the 18th Century's spirit of political enlightenment. As art, Mozart's collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte transcends mere entertainment; it asks fundamental questions about good and evil, sex and personal responsibility. Seattle Opera's production enhances those mysteries with sublimely sung music. Even in today's nonjudgmental environment, that's a virtue.
My one quibble is the overly cute hashtag the company has chosen: #mozartsbadboy. It trivializes Don Giovanni's criminally reckless behavior as well as Mozart's stern vision of his damnation. His real crime isn't his unbridled womanizing, but his callous murder of the Commendatore.
The tragedy is that the Don, unlike the other characters, is without a moral compass; he never sees past his own selfish sense of entitlement.
Still, his double-down response, “That's just who I am,” (#canthelpmyself) wouldn't look nearly as good on the poster.
If you go: Seattle Opera presents Mozart's “Don Giovanni,” through November 1st. Tickets ($25 and up) online at Seattleopera.org, or by phone at 206-389-7676.