“If the joke against him [Macheath, here Giovanni] is that he is vain to adopt the grand manner of the genteel rakes he at least stands their own final test; he has the courage to sustain it” (Empson, “The Beggar’s Opera,” Some Versions of the Pastoral)
Dear friends and readers,
Lately high art has once again been taking refuge in versions of the pastoral: last week Izzy and I saw Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, this past summer, she, I and the admiral saw Benjamin Britten’s The Beggar’s Opera; and yesterday we went to see in HD form at a local “center for the arts” (renovated movie and play theater) Claus Guth’s 2008 Don Giovanni done before a full audience, all dressed up (as we could see — no dressing down there as we see increasingly in the US) at the Salzburg theater in Vienna (Austria).
The production is a masterpiece, at once suggestively of wide application, and locally (in the narrow story and characters) rooted. I would say for the first time I was made to realize why this opera is said to have such depth and interest.
Claus Guth set the action in a dark wood. Everything happens on a stage which is decorated as a simple rugged ugly forest and by the end of the opera it’s filled with torn garments, dying trees, and garbage from parties (cans, wrappings, dirty food, spoilt clothes — from blood). It opens with a few leaves on trees; mid-point the trees have gone bare; the last third, it’s snowing, as Don Giovanni and Leporello defy the Commendatore (who is digging the Don’s grave just behind their picnic)
We were in a modernist take on an 18th century art work which was a kind of anti-pastoral — and in this it reminded me of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera.
Christopher Maltman as the Don and Erwin Schrott as Leporello came across on one level as two sordid fools, a kind of Vladmir and Estragon who can’t think of what to do with themselves but chase women and fight pettily with one another. They are a homoerotic pair continually squabbling.
The play’s anti- ancien regime subtext came out strongly for the Don need only say he’s the Don and Leporello shuts up — as does everyone else. The women profess to adore him: Maltman is attractive, muscled and is made to behave sort of vampirishly (he drains everyone too), but it’s his position, that he’s my lord that matters. His face is wry and twists with feelings of noblesse oblige (a pretense his pain does not matter). I was also reminded of Faust: how naive these enacted self-glorifications how narrow and silly.
As many will doubtless recall, Empson identifies the pastoral by its level-headed bringing down to reality. Through its distorting x-ray mirror, individuals can be exposed for what they are.
This is a opera where the women want sex with the Don, only on their own terms of power over him. Donna Elvira (Dorothea Röschmann) gets drunk when blindfolded and led away to think Leporello is the Don. Zerlina (Ekaterina Siurina) (this is the usual interpretation) prefers the don over the brutal jealous probably boring Masetto (Alex Esposito).
At the opening of the play we see Donna Anna’s father shoot (pistols – modernized everything) and inflict a mortal wound in the center of the Don’s stomach (perhaps to the side a little). Thus Maltman is dying slowly throughout and, refusing to acknowledge so much as the blood itself, spends the opera making jests of his pain and anguish.
This is a version which sympathizes with the Don by making him half-mad, sick (a neurotic promiscuity is the idea). Bleeding throughout and he gets blood all over Zerlina’s white dress.
The best single singing moment was the tenor Octavio (Pavel Breslik) with his aria wanting peace with Anna (Svetlana Donev). It was poignant and he no macho male. (Everyone sang marvelously I don’t mean to say they didn’t but Octavio was transcendent). Here the “new” interpretation came into play by having Anna and Octavio attempt to drive through the wood in a not-so-recent cheap-looking car that promptly broke down. The Don looks into their motor as an excuse to get at Anna. The characters go in and out of the seats. Much stage business comedy. Octavio’s aria is undercut by having her inside the car smoking moodily away as he sings his heart out. It’s clear she’s bored. Jim said he felt for Octavio for the first time.
It’s also nihilistic. Like other performances I’ve seen the last chorus is dropped — people often take this coming on stage at the end as providential. See Giovanni is punished. It’s also things are going on as usual, for in the words Zerlina is planning to go off and live with Masetto and have children, Leporello at least free (but now without a source of money) to the tavern, Octavio and Anna to bury and carry on their upper class lives. Only Elvira is stranded but she is justified. All this was dropped in any event. I was glad for I find it grating.
It is however also very much an 18th century play. Donna Anna does not go off with a gun (presumably to kill herself) for love of the Don. In this production she does not pay much attention to Octavio — she grieves intensely for her father now and again.
The importance of the father reminded me of Clarissa, of The Marquise of O, of Tom Jones. At the close the father comes back and the drunken, half-dead Giovanni falls into the grave the old man has been digging for the last moments of the opera. The centrality of sex is very 18th century and the exploration of its underside too.
It’s comedy and hard comedy at that. The characters are mad egoists charging about like they do in a Ben Jonson or Moliere comedy.
They cling while they prey on one another
I liked the jokes with clashing anachronisms, the snazzy and prosaic street costumes and stage business. The Don puts on a Burger king crown towards the end; the dancing is modern club so no one really interacts with one another.
Finally, it was a relief from the Met’s crassness this year where the general manager thinks to impress us (and put bums on seats) by overproducing and making things ultra-Broadway like. There was nothing overdone, trashy, neon-lit about it the way the Met is often. The women were all relatively young and attractive, but no push-up bras and extravagantly (grotesque) sexy outfits. (American productions go over the top in tastelessness and vulgarity, I think, because at the same time the US remains a fundamentally religious country, as fervently anti-sex for women especially as ever.) I admit I missed the Met host (or hostess) behind the scenes, the interviews, and cameras staged behind the curtain so the audience can watch scene changes inbetween acts. But we did see lovely Salzburg, enough of the inside of the theater to get a sense of its size and feel (it reminded me of Carnegie Hall).
This is the first European production I’ve ever seen (I’ve seen English ones in London but their Anglo-ness connects them to US ones); and I liked it very much. I could make out the Italian words easily (partly because of the subtitles, but the enunciation was clear). It seemed far more tasteful than what is seen in the US, less commercialized somehow, more sharp and clean, no compromises. The stage had a strange beauty — far more so than last week’s Alice because they didn’t try so hard, didn’t overdo:
A meaningful afternoon. We were charged $13.50 at half-price tickets. The H Street Playhouse (Washington, DC) is in a gentrifying neighborhood we’ve been to before — to another nearby theater to see Marat/Sade and to this one to see Orpheus and an In-series performance. The proprietor was there to introduce the movie and tell us to behave, doubtless to persuade us to feel good about the experience and tell others. Jim felt word was not getting out: he had just happened upon the ad. But then no long previews, no clutter.
Simplicity Empson said was the byword for pastoral, simplification, getting into contact with the mysterious forces of nature