Don Giovanni--A Success!

In addition to Anna Bolena, this fall the Washington National Opera performed Don Giovanni, one of Mozart's most famous operas. In it, the notorious philanderer Don Giovanni unsuccessfully tries to rape a prominent noble lady, Donna Anna. When her father, the Commendatore, comes to her defense, the masked Don Giovanni kills him and escapes. Donna Anna and her fiancé swear vengeance and seek to learn the identity of her father's killer. Meanwhile, Donna Elvira, one of Don Giovanni's conquests, has arrived to win him back. Unfortunately for her, Don Giovanni's servant Leperello shows her the book cataloging the thousands of other conquests. She is horrified and breaks up Don Giovanni's current attempts to seduce Zerlina, a peasant girl, on her wedding day; she informs Zerlina of his misdeeds, and she returns to her groom, Masetto. Donna Anna, Don Ottavio, and Elvira team up to bring Don Giovanni to justice. Don Giovanni throws a party and unwittingly invites the trio, who have disguised themselves as masqueraders. He tries to rape Zerlina during the party and his identity as Donna Anna's attacker and the Commendatore's murderer is revealed to the party-going crowds. He escapes the angry mob, but while hiding out, finds that a statue of the Commendatore has been erected in the cemetery. Leperello is terrified, as the statue appears to be sentient. Don Giovanni mockingly invites  the statue to dinner. To his surprise, the statue arrives for the meal and demands that Don Giovanni repent. He refuses to, and the statue drags him to hell. The rest of the characters are astonished, and try to shake off their horror as they announce their plans: Donna Anna will postpone her wedding to grieve properly for her father, Donna Elvira will enter a convent, Leperello is off to find a new employer, and the peasant couple will return home to start their married lives together. 

Leperello showing Donna Elvira the book in "Madamina, il catalogo è questo"
Source:, photo by Scott Suchman for the Washington National Opera (2012)

Before I saw this opera a few weeks ago, I had only heard a few arias, and wasn't particularly impressed with what I knew of the plot ("aaand then the statue draaags him to hell!" I would say in a mocking tone). This production made a convert out of me, and Don Giovanni is now probably one of my favorite four operas (the others being Cosi fan tutte, Don Pasquale, and Les Indes galantes). What was so great about it? Everything. I was able to attend musicologist Saul Lilienstein's lecture, in which he talked about the undulation between the tragic and the comedic, as well as the opera's reception and legacy. The opera, he pointed out, goes back and forth between humor and tragedy; a prime example being the opening scenes. The overture does not completely finish; it snaps into Leperello's humorous "Notte e giorno fatticar," in which he complains about having to work so hard for a difficult master, then to Anna's attempts to attack and reveal Don Giovanni (not a duet, but rather a trio--Leperello sings in the background), and then onto the Commendatore's fatal duel. The music finally ends temporarily, on a sad note, with the Commendatore's death.  However, it's a return to comedy with Leperello, who is crouching in the corner, who asks, "Who is dead--you or the old guy?" Such a mix of tragedy and comedy are essential for keeping the opera buoyant. Don Giovanni, is a terrible person--he tries to assault two women, and he kills a father trying to protect his daughter. Yet after the opera came out, Lilienstein explained, he was seen as an adventurous hero who made his own destiny instead of having it dictated to by monarchs and other aristocrats. Even Don Giovanni's refusal to submit to the Commendatore statue is a sign of him defending his own liberty. Such viewpoints are unlikely to be popular just going off of the synopsis, but unless the characters are compelling, nobody is going to want to sit through two plus hours of Giovanni violating various criminal codes. In this production, they portray his as being an adventurous, swashbuckling rogue; the director in the bulletin says he dressed Donna Elvira in leather and boots to show she's attracted to Don Giovanni because of this shared sense of adventure).

Don Giovanni unwittingly dancing with Donna Elvira during his party
Source:, photo by Scott Suchman for the Washington National Opera (2012)

Another highly interesting feature of this production was that Don Giovanni is actually in love with Donna Elvira. Throughout the opera, he is shown as being torn between his feelings for her and his fear of commitment and love of conquest and adventure. For example, Donna Elvira shows up in town with infant and nursemaids in tow (based on the supertitles, it appears that Don Giovanni married in her in a fake ceremony, probably presided over by Leperello dressed as a priest [a tactic they try to use on Zerlina]), and Don Giovanni finds himself reaching out at various times to hold his child yet retreats quickly. During the showdown at the party, Donna Elvira advances towards him with a gun; he is able to escape by swooping her into an embrace. And in the final scene when she tries to make him repent before the statue does, he hesitates as if convinced by her, but then overeagerly dismisses her.

On a final note, my two favorite things about the production were the costumes and the other characters' personalities. The actors were dressed in 1930s attire that had nods to Spanish Renaissance clothing (think tall headdresses paired with shirtwaist dresses, Donna Elvira's leather corset with a long leather trench and sunglasses, etc). The 1930s theme was used to represent the liberty that Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler enjoyed to oppress others; the director noted in the bulletin that as a nobleman, Don Giovanni used his freedom to abuse and hurt common peasants like Zerlina and Masetto. As for the characters: when I'd seen clips of other productions, Donna Elvira always came off as an annoying shrew whose flat character development almost makes you feel sympathetic for Don Giovanni when he pushes her away. This production, however, was much different. Donna Elvira is portrayed as adventurous, lively noblewoman, who tries to playfully wear Don Giovanni down, crossing the stage behind him with their baby as he unsuccessfully attempts to woo other women. Donna Anna progresses very quickly from being just a socialite to assuming her father's grand military bearing in her quest to bring his killer to justice. Her fiancé, Don Ottavio, is a diminutive man who clings to her coattails, initially cringing as she demands he vow vengeance with her. By the end of the opera, however, he has manned up and shouldered her burden.

In short, this was a lively, entertaining, lush production, and I look forward to seeing more of the performers' work again.