MOZART’S DON GIOVANNI (JUAN)
A film by Kasper Holten
This is a film, sung in English, of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. In it, one of the greatest of all masterpieces is dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, and not just any old 21st century but one of cocaine-use, fast car chases, subway stations, nudity, fairly explicit sex and the “f” word used on average just about every other minute.
The original names are retained, except that Giovanni is changed to Juan. An aristocrat with no visible employment in the original, here he’s shown, on the rare occasions when it matters, as an artist, albeit one whose only project seems to be collecting images of the thousands of girls he’s slept with. Leporello, his servant in the original, becomes his assistant.
In favor of such a transformation it can be argued that modernization is nothing new in opera productions — indeed, at some times and in some places it has come to seem the norm. Arguments of demonstrating relevance, and showing how the greatest classics aren’t just of their age but for today, are routinely deployed.
The case against, in this instance at least, is that this is a great masterpiece almost entirely on account of its music. If the music is served by the production, then all well and good. But here this manifestly isn’t the case.
Vast swathes of the score are cut, reducing an opera that usually lasts some three hours to an hour and 40 minutes. And is it really the case that showing Giovanni/ Juan naked in the shower for his so-called “champagne aria” makes the experience “relevant,” “up-to-date” and “contemporary?” I don’t think so. To suggest that it does is to imply that audiences lack imagination, and are incapable of understanding what drama is really about just because it’s performed in the costumes of a past era.
The classic question is: “Who is a production like this meant to be for?” Is it for clubbers who wouldn’t normally give classical music a second thought? They’re unlikely to be impressed. Is it for traditional opera goers? They’re even less likely to enjoy it. The question is at least answered honestly by the Danish director, Kasper Holten, in a bonus-track interview. He’s created a version that he himself would like to see, he admits.
The film begins in an opera house in Budapest during a traditional performance of the opera. Juan, a member of the audience, catches sight of Anna (Maria Bengtsson), also in the audience, and manages to run off with her. The story then continues more or less as usual, with Anna’s father, here a police chief, shot by Juan and dying soon afterwards in hospital.
The story then accelerates, with major arias excised. The “catalogue aria” is sung by Leporello (Mikhail Petrenko) while flicking through images on an Apple laptop. All haste is then made to get to the seduction of Zerlina (Katija Dragojevic), despite the protests of an exceptionally charismatic Masetto (Ludvig Lindstrom). Juan and Zerlina are seen in bed together (in the opera whether this actually happens is left ambiguous), and before we know where we are she’s pleading with Masetto “Hit me, hit me, be my master, I will take anything from you” (actually not a wholly inappropriate version of the original Italian).
Less appropriate items from the translation are “Too much coke has melted brain cells,” “I’m a wanker who never should be trusted” and “Pigs nearly caught me while you’re getting blow-job”.
The finale of Act One becomes a rave, with references to the DJ, manhattans, Masetto “losing it big-time” and it being “an awesome night.” Juan and Leporello escape the inexplicably angry clubbers by setting the place on fire.
From then on the cuts become major. All the business of Leporello being disguised as Giovanni is excised, and it’s a surprise to find that Elvira (Elizabeth Futral) has her aria “Mi tradi” retained, albeit in severely truncated form, to accompany images of her drowning herself in the Danube. (She’s supposed to appear again in the last scene, but this is conveniently forgotten.)
The graveyard scene becomes a rainy nighttime street, while much of the finale takes place in an underground parking lot. There’s no final dinner, only the theft of some food from a convenience store and the murder of the shop assistant. Juan meets an appropriately hellish death when his crashed car bursts into flames.
By this time huge amounts of music have been lost. Even more important, the music that’s retained lacks its usual power. The catalogue aria misses Mozart’s zest, as if the laptop is enough to establish its significance, and the same can be said for many other items. It’s as if the whole team has become so intoxicated by the novel visuals that the need to engage the audience’s emotions with the music has been forgotten.
This isn’t to say that the soloists don’t have their strengths. But Christopher Maltman as Giovanni/Juan lacks charisma, and is instead simply routinely moody. Mozart put enormous energy and liveliness into this opera, but Kasper Holten has chosen to ignore this and replace it by gimmicks, gadgets and a not always very convincing contemporary glamour.
Holten was the director of Wagner’s Ring operas in Copenhagen [reviewed May 2, 2010]. That was a cycle which was outstanding musically and vocally, and just avoided being torpedoed by the eccentricities Holten frequently saw fit to introduce. This time, however, he appears to have allowed himself free rein, with nothing in the way of musical excellence to redress the balance.
The essential point is that Mozart’s music for Don Giovanni is sublime, but sublimity is something this film never even approaches. The result is a production that has very little to recommend it. Holten says he thinks Mozart would have enjoyed it. But Mozart, though doubtless fun-loving on occasion, was one of the greatest musical geniuses ever to have lived, and he put his all into this opera. This Holten version is a sad, trivial travesty, and I’m absolutely certain Mozart would have detested it.
Holten has recently been appointed director of opera at London’s Covent Garden. Opera-lovers in the city must be lying awake at night dreading what other facile and narcissistic productions are now in store.