Don Giovanni at the Monnaie

Don Giovanni at the Monnaie

Don Giovanni at the Monnaie

Don Giovanni: Sex, Lies and Webcams

In the second of an occasional series, a pop lyricist sits in at the opera to see what all the fuss is about.

Don Giovanni at the Monnaie
Don Giovanni at the Monnaie. Photo credit: Hofmann

How do you inject new life into an opera standard such as Mozart’s Don Giovanni? At the Monnaie opera house in Brussels, director Krzystof Warlikowski took the easy route: add lashings of sex and provocation.

The tale of the inveterate womaniser is taken from a darker angle than usual. Instead of being a charming seducer that gets himself into trouble, Don Giovanni is portrayed as a sex addict and pathological liar that pulls his world down around him, as well as everyone he meets. So what is often played as a comic opera actually plays out like a tragedy.

Fair enough. There is certainly enough material in the libretto (script) by Lorenzo Da Ponte to justify this approach. Don Giovanni just cannot help himself, despite the attempts of his valet Leporello. An early murder and increasingly complicated love trysts (with more hinted at through webcams)  build up the number of people that want to see him fall.

From Shame to Macbeth

But instead of the fire and brimstone ending that opera-goers are used to, Warlikowski sees him engulfed by his own guilt at the end. The director refers to the film “Shame” more than once in the programme notes. A clearer reference would probably be Macbeth, a man driven to madness by the realisation of what he has done. A very interesting ending, nonetheless. And one that is capped by an equally interesting epilogue.

Where things become a bit less interesting is the unrelenting debauchery on view. From the opening video projections of a soft-porn orgy over the overture, the opera rapidly opens onto a vast space decorated with 70s lounge chic. The characters enter, sing and abuse each other. No scene is complete without a couple of women making love in the background. There are several scenes of oral sex. The entire climax features a long and distracting vignette of a cartoon-like female black character shuddering in climaxes.

I think Warlikowski underestimated the audience, who got the idea pretty quickly. The vintage porn shown at the beginning of the second half raised a few laughs at first but went on too long.

Brilliant opera, brilliant cast

Lulu opera Warlikowski
“Lulu” by Warlikowski starring Barbara Hannigan

So what we get at the end of the day is the basics: a brilliant opera with an absolutely brilliant cast. The level of singing and acting throughout was superb. The visual spectacle overshadowed what must be a very demanding role for them. It was all too easy to get caught up in the direction and miss the finesse. How easy is it to sing an aria on your back with a man lying with his head between your legs, I wonder?

Perhaps Warlikowski wanted the audience to disconnect their music-loving brain, but opera is a lyrical art more than anything else. I spent the first half without subtitles and was totally confused by the comings and goings with costume changes. Yep folks, the words matter in opera!

Who knew that opera singers had such fantastic legs?

Conductor Ludovic Morlot obviously plays along with the tragic tone, adding trombones towards the end for a more dramatic finish. On a totally sexist side-note, I have to add: Who knew that opera singers had such fantastic legs?

Don Giovanni cast

Don Giovanni¦Jean-Sébastien Bou
Il Commendatore¦Sir Willard White
Donna Anna¦Barbara Hannigan
Don Ottavio¦Topi Lehtipuu
Donna Elvira¦Rinat Shaham
Leporello¦Andreas Wolf
Masetto¦Jean-Luc Ballestra
Zerlina¦Julie Mathevet

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