Don Giovanni remains timeless, centuries later

Courtney Lewis, Conducting ElectricityLeave a Comment

Mozart described his masterpiece Don Giovanni as an opera buffa: a comedy. Yet the work bristles with the political issues of the day, see-sawing between farce and deep seriousness.

The Don Juan myth first appeared in European literature in 1630, when Tirso de Molina published The Trickster of Seville, a tale of an irresistibly handsome aristocrat who spends his days seducing and ruining women. Untethered by conventional morality, he escapes retribution for years until finally he is dragged into hell by the ghost of a victim. Over the coming centuries the themes of sexual power, class and privilege, male chauvinism, and, ultimately, justice appealed to artists as diverse as Molière, Byron and Richard Strauss.

As in all his operas, Mozart creates characters with whom we fall in love. His music imbues each with emotions we understand. We empathize with the conflicted Donna Elvira, who seeks Don Giovanni’s destruction while also longing for him to return to her bed. We bubble with fury alongside the peasant Masetto when the Don steals his bride on his wedding day. We laugh as Leporello, Don Giovanni’s servant, patters off a list of all the women (large and small, old and young) his master has slept with. But most intriguingly of all, we revel in Don Giovanni’s hedonism – his thrill of the chase – in a way that helps us understand the motivations of a narcissistic autocrat. He fascinates and appalls us in equal measure.

I love conducting opera, especially with the Jacksonville Symphony. Over the past few seasons we’ve spent a lot of time playing music from the classical period, written by the First Viennese School of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As we thought about how to present Don Giovanni, the greatest classical opera of all, it didn’t seem quite right to hide the orchestra in a pit. Something about putting musicians who usually sit onstage down there seems to lessen their contribution to the performance. I also love the drama of a fully-staged opera, with the singers in costumes, moving around, inviting the audience into the spectacle. So we came up with the idea of keeping the orchestra musicians onstage, and building a stage for the singers around them. This means I can make eye contact with the singers (and more importantly, breathe with them), and the audience can feel the drama unfold while also watching and listening to the orchestra as in a normal concert. The sets will be projected onto three 30-foot screens lining the Jacoby Symphony Hall stage.

Our production of Don Giovanni is set in the present. Human nature is slow to change, and many of the issues of Mozart’s time resonate with our own. Mozart was a political agitator: in both Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro he held up a mirror to power, forcing the aristocracy to look at themselves warts and all. In the days of the #metoo movement, the pain the Don inflicts is all the easier to imagine. His social privilege allows his power to remain unchecked, even as he causes irrevocable damage. Recently, the opera director Justin Wray wrote: “Don Giovanni, the Casanova libertine archetype, doesn’t believe in God. He’s an extreme version of the new direction, who does not care about the rest of society because he doesn’t believe in any higher form to control or regulate him. He’s a very-dangerous-ideas character bringing the society around him to its knees because it has no way of dealing with him.” Wray could just as easily be writing about society today. If ever there were a time to think about Mozart’s Don Giovanni, it is now.

By Courtney Lewis, Music Director of the Jacksonville Symphony

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