Sex Transcends the Barriers

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Review of 'Don Giovanni' by Wolfgang Mozart, English National Opera

Don Giovanni deals with the story of Don Juan, the irresistibly attractive man to whose charms women succumb even though they know he is a philanderer. In a superb early aria, Don Giovanni's servant Leporello (Iain Paterson) tries to convince the abandoned Donna Elvira to forget about him by reading out a list of his master's 'conquests', but to no avail.

Don Giovanni deals with the theme (or fantasy) of unbridled sexual indulgence, a challenge to Freud for whom sexual restraint was a precondition of civilisation. In this sense, it applies to women as much as to men.

From another angle, Don Juan's restless philandering marks him out as a typical modern, alienated man in search of the perfect woman. Love and sex become commodities, so that no woman is good enough, the next bound to be better than the present one, an alibi that relieves him of the need to commit himself. At a deeper level Don Juan is gripped by self-hatred, and any woman he sleeps with is thereby transformed by him from goddess to prostitute, after which the search for a new goddess begins afresh.

Don Giovanni is an aristocrat but his sexual exploits ignore class boundaries. So his prey consists of an upper class woman, Donna Anna, (Linda Richardson), a middle class woman, Donna Elvira (Mary Plazas), and a peasant woman, Zerlina (Victoria Simmonds). Rumblings of the coming revolution can also be heard from his servant Leporello, a rebellious character who rails at his lord's feudal authority. In the very first aria, he sings of his exasperation at his master and his desire to become a gentleman.

Don Giovanni reveals a stratified society whose rules and traditions formally still prevail but which is also clearly in an advanced state of decay. It is a society undermined both by defiance from below - Zerlina's fiancé Masetto (William Berger) leads a group of peasants in armed rebellion to save her from Don Giovanni's seduction - and also by the abuse of aristocratic wealth and privilege. As Anthony Arblaster points out in his excellent book Viva La Libertà - The Politics of Opera (the main title is a line from Don Giovanni), Mozart provides a musical illustration of this society in the ball scene where he allocates each class its own dance: a minuet for the aristocracy, a contradanza for the middle class and a fast waltz for the peasantry.

But Don Giovanni also prefigures the end of the old order by the fact that its protagonist actually fails in each of his attempts at seduction.

Calixto Bieito's production is set against an abstract, contemporary urban landscape, with Don Giovanni a coke-snorting, alcohol-swilling lout, and Leporello a Real Madrid-supporting hooligan. Violence features strongly in it without much justification for this in the text. Bieito has denuded it of its class content, whereas he could at least have made Don Giovanni the chief executive of a multinational.

Like so many fashionably modernistic productions, this one comes across as gimmicky, born of a desire to shock in order to shake up conventional morality. When it was first performed in 2001, it was met with boos and critical panning. This revival has been greeted with greater favour, one critic defending it on the grounds that 'opera should be living and challenging theatre'.

Naturally opera should challenge and be alive, and of course artists must have the freedom to experiment. The question is whether this production achieves its aim of getting Don Giovanni's 'message' across to today's world more sharply than a 'traditional' one, and on this criterion it can be said to have failed. Past works don't need contemporary settings and costume to be relevant to today's audiences. Any work of art is organically rooted in its historical society, but the greater the work, the more readily it speaks to us across the centuries. Would Hamlet be more relevant if he was wearing jeans and sipping a gin and tonic at a cocktail party? Hamlet is an essentially modern character whose loneliness, doubts and anxieties reflect the rise of capitalist society, and we can surely identify with his monologue about life and death without tearing him out of his historical context.

Should directors then cut down on the classics? Of course not. No doubt, though, more time and money should be allotted to contemporary composers and lyricists who of necessity have to confront the existing world.