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Mozart, Don Giovanni: Chicago Opera Theater, soloists, cond. Jane Glover, dir. Diane Paulus, set designer Riccardo Hernandez, costume designer David Woolard, lighting designer Aaron Black, Harris Theater, Chicago, 30.4.2008 (BJ)

For about the first 24 hours after witnessing this deplorable travesty inflicted on a great work of music theater, my head was spinning with recollections of its manifold absurdities. It was one of those productions of the sort justly and cogently lamented by Heather Mac Donald in an article, published last year in New York’s City Journal, that I urge on your attention HERE. To enumerate some of the more egregious pieces of nonsense:

The setting was a sleazy nightclub; Giovanni - to give him the honorific would be ridiculous - was represented as its owner; but when Anna called for help in the opening scene (having already been shown to us in apparently consensual intercourse with her supposed attacker), who should turn out to be in attendance at the same establishment but her father? He emerged from presumably having it off in a back room with one of the many scantily clad females who gyrated around the stage all evening, endlessly drinking and humping with any available male.

The same Anna, later in the proceedings, demurred from  too hasty a tying of the marriage knot with Ottavio, anxious about what the world, as she put it, would say about such a step so soon after her father’s death; but she had not taken the trouble to put on mourning for him. Yes, I know – as my wife told me when I came home, people probably don’t wear mourning these days; but then the people who don’t also don’t worry much about bourgeois opinion, and it was the combination of the two things that was absurd, and made the character unbelievable. Anna, incidentally, seemed to possess only one dress, which was, to put it mildly, a garment unbecoming to a person of her bodily habitus.

Elvira, for her part, was sharply got up in high boots, short hair, and what looked like an array of leather gear, which in turn made her bourgeois concerns seem pretty fanciful. Giovanni was dressed and made up as an aging and distinctly inelegant roué, for whom even the most desperate Elvira, Anna, or Zerlina would not in a thousand years have raised her knees: in his contemporary rig-out, he nevertheless offered Anna the devoted service of his hand and his sword  – score that for one more absurdity. (If you’re going to change the period of the drama and the accoutrements of the participants, at least you should have the courage to go the whole hog, changing words like “ferro” and substituting something appropriate.)

But these are all details, as was Leporello’s description of the deceased Commendatore’s marble-like white head, when all we saw was just a chap like the rest of us, recumbent on stage, and still dressed in his everyday (or perhaps I should say everynight) duds. It would be excessive if I were to recount all of the similar idiocies that littered the production. But what I realized after a day’s reflection was that the fundamental absurdity of Diane Paulus’s production was to transfer a drama that is all about morality and law and their flouting to a milieu where no morality or law exists, so that flouting them becomes meaningless.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say that the world of this Don Giovanni contained no law. After all, when the surviving principals sang their closing ensemble about what happens to those who do evil, a bunch of personages representing the Chicago Police Department arrived, put up a crime-scene ribbon, and handcuffed everyone left on stage. I suppose the idea was to remind us that we are all guilty of something. But the supposed police would have done better to wait a few minutes longer, till the production team came on to take their bows, and arrest them instead.

The only idea that seemed to me a good one was to make floozies we’d been watching turn, at Giovanni’s downfall, into the tormentors who dragged him off to his fate; not a bad notion, but hardly enough to rescue the production from artistic disaster.

I felt deeply sorry for all the good singers and musicians who were being subjected to nothing less than an evening-long obscenity. The singing on the whole was excellent, with Krisztina Szabó’s Elvira, Michael Colvin’s Ottavio, and Lucas Harbour’s Leporello probably the stand-outs, and the orchestra played well under the direction of that fine conductor Jane Glover. If I had been Ms Glover, or any one of the singers, I should have walked out before sullying my baton or my voice and person with such shameful goings-on. As a member of the audience, I was indeed sorely tempted to walk out. But I have responsibilities as a critic. I had heard reports about the way general director Brian Dickie (formerly of Glyndebourne) had raised the standard of what used to be a respectable small-scale company, mounting traditional productions sung in English, and I wanted to assess progress for myself. In any case I was there also as a participant in a colloquium on the opera, so I had to stay. Call it work,  but it felt more like torture. Please read Ms Mac Donald’s article.

Bernard Jacobson

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