Posts Tagged ‘don giovanni’

Confessions of a culture-vulture

It was Cosi Fan Tutte last night.

Every November, the Glyndebourne Touring Opera give a few performances in nearby Woking, and, almost invariably, they perform a Mozart opera. Which, obviously, is fine by us. Last year, it was Don Giovanni (I reported on that briefly here). I was recovering then from serious illness, and, in my weakened state, was afraid I might fall asleep during the performance; but, in the event, it turned out to be a first step back, as it were, to life: by the end of that performance, I felt less of an invalid, less weighed down by my troubles and worries – in brief, less of a miserable old sod. Those three Mozart-da Ponte operas have that effect on me: no matter how serious the aspects of our humanity they probe into, they elate, they exhilarate.

Take last night’s Cosi Fan Tutte. One of my earliest posts on this blog was about this opera, and I dwelt at some length on how deeply troubling the whole thing was. I cannot think of any other work, in any other artistic medium, that is so exquisitely beautiful, and yet so profoundly troubling. And last night, I felt the full force of this paradox all over again: the music is so perfectly beautiful, that the sense aches at it; and yet it presents a view of ourselves, of us all, that perturbs, and leaves one uneasy. I have read many accounts of this work, and even writers with far greater command than myself of the English language clearly find themselves struggling in trying to describe its effect. It remains elusive: just when you think you have found the key to it, some new detail occurs to you, and the entire edifice you have built for yourself suddenly comes tumbling down. It is hard indeed to account for a work that so entrances with its beauty, and yet so troubles you to your very depths; and which, even despite this troublesome nature, leaves you, somehow, elated by the end.

In other words, it’s a right bugger to blog about. So let’s move on.

One full year on from when I was feeling so sorry for myself and so comfortably self-pitying, I find myself in the midst of a spree of nights out. Last night, as I said, it was Cosi Fan Tutte; last week, it was Handel’s Rodelinda at the English National Opera. This was unplanned: a friend of a friend had an extra ticket which he was willing to see off at a ridiculously low price, and it seemed rude to turn it down. I must confess, though, that I am not really convinced by Baroque opera. Not dramatically, I mean. As I understand it, opera audiences of Handel’s time went to hear fine singing from star singers; and they went for spectacle; but they didn’t really go for what we would nowadays consider drama. So Handel operas tend to consist of a long sequence of solo arias – each very beautiful, and each very expressive, but each rather static, designed as they were for the singers simply to stand-and-deliver. Modern stagings invent various piece of stage business – some ingenious, others (to my mind) a bit pointless, and even a bit silly – to prevent it all becoming a merely a long sequence of dramatically static arias; but I rarely find myself convinced. The ENO production did as good a job as can be imagined, but I don’t think I’d have lost much if it had all been done simply as a concert performance. Certainly, in musical terms, and in terms of their expressive power, the arias themselves are top-drawer stuff, and they were quite beautifully performed; but I still can’t quite see this as drama. However, this is just a personal reaction: aficionados of Baroque opera may well disagree.

And I am also attending a series of concerts given at the Wigmore Hall by the Spanish quartet Cuarteto Casals, covering all of Beethoven’s mighty string quartets. I’ve been to two already, and there is a third concert in early December. We are also going to a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers in two weeks’ time, in which a friend of ours is singing in the chorus. (To clarify on this point, when I say “I”, I mean I am going on my own; when I say “we”, I am going with my wife. We share some tastes – we both love Mozart and Verdi, for instance – but not all, and we see little point dragging each other off to events we may not enjoy.)

I will not be writing here about any of these concerts, since I am not really qualified to pass my layman’s opinions on musical matters. But when it comes to dramatic matters … well, truth to tell, I’m not really qualified to write about these matters either; but if I were to keep quiet about everything I am not qualified to comment on, this blog would never even get started. (And in any case, remaining silent when you have nothing much of interest to say would be going very much against the spirit of our times.)

And there’s theatre, of course. The Royal Shakespeare Company will be in London this winter, and they are bringing down from Stratford-on-Avon all four of Shakespeare’s Roman plays – Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. Titus Andronicus has never been amongst my favourite plays, although, given I have never seen it on stage before, I may well go along to have a look come January. More surprisingly, perhaps, I have never seen Julius Caesar or Coriolanus on stage either, and have tickets for both between now and Christmas. And also between now and Christmas, I’ll be seeing Antony and Cleopatra, which I often name as my single favourite Shakespeare play: I find it a hard play to keep away from.

(And speaking of which, the National Theatre promises us an Antony and Cleopatra next year with Ralph Fiennes. It also promises us also Macbeth with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff. At the same time the Royal Shakespeare Company is also promising us Macbeth, this time with Christopher Ecclestone and Niamh Cusack. Which one will be better? Well, there’s only one way to find out, as Harry Hill might say…)

And if all this weren’t enough, one Sunday in early December, the British Film Institute promises us screenings of all three films comprising Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (which I often regard as possibly cinema’s finest artistic achievement) in newly restored prints. I used to be a very keen film-goer in my student days, but I must admit that this is something that has long fallen by the wayside. However, I have never seen these masterpieces before on the big screen, and this really is very tempting.

So much to see, so little money in the bank…

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A retraction, and a memory

The mere few minutes that so often separate writing from publication on a blog can be a source both of pleasure, and of embarrassment. For now, as I look back on my previous post, I find myself profoundly embarrassed by the following line:

Throughout the nineteenth century, Don Giovanni was seen a romantic character, searching eternally for an ideal love.

How I wish now I had thought a bit harder about this before publishing! For, of course, the nineteenth century was no more monolithic in thought than is our own, and to dismiss the interpretations of an entire century with a throwaway and unreferenced comment is extremely foolish, to say the least. True, I have read some writings from that era that do indeed view the character of Don Giovanni in such a romanticised light, but the problem is I can’t reference these writings because I do not remember where I had read them. I should therefore have done the sensible thing and not have made any reference at all to these romanticised interpretations; or, perhaps, I could have restricted myself to something  bit more vague, such as: “Certain romantic interpretations have seen Don Giovanni as someone searching eternally for an ideal love …” or something of that nature. But it’s too late now: the damn thing is up there, and has been read. So the best I can offer now, I suppose, is a retraction of that part of my post, before someone picks me up on it.

But enough of that. Once we start retracting bits we have come to think better of, there is no end to the matter: very little of this blog would, I suspect, remain unretracted. But if past posts on this blog are regarded as articulations of what I thought at the time then rather than of what I think now, I suppose there is no harm done. What I really wanted in this post, other than retracting the bit from the last one that made no sense, was to share – given my continuing preoccupation with Don Giovanni – a memory I curiously retain of that opera from my student days, some 35 or so years ago.

Let me set the background. Having seen on television a broadcast of Don Giovanni from Glyndebourne (it was this one), I had saved up my pennies, and bought myself this recording on LP. The problem was I did not have a record player, and could only listen to it when back in my parents’ house. And, this being in the Dark Days before Spotify or even the internet, I remember that music going endlessly round my head, and wishing I could just listen to it somewhere. There was one bit in particular that haunted me. Don Giovanni has taken a fancy to the maidservant of his abandoned wife; and so, to get his abandoned wife out of the way, he sings to her from under her window, pretending to be penitent. And when she comes down, seduced once again by his honeyed tones, his servant, dressed as the master and his face hidden in the dark of the night, is to lead this abandoned wife away, leaving Don Giovanni free to add to his list of conquests. It is, of course, a scene of extraordinary cruelty. And the trio Mozart provides at this point is nothing short of miraculous. The servant, Leporello, is enjoying the adventure, while at the same time feeling sorry for Donna Elvira, his master’s deserted wife; at the same time, Donna Elvira’s surprise and incredulity gives way all too easily to a resurgence of hope, and an outpouring of a passion that had never left her. Meanwhile, Don Giovanni himself sings the most heartfelt and seductive of music, which is all the more disturbing for being so utterly cynical and insincere. And all of this and more is depicted simultaneously, in music of the most perfect beauty.

And there was one phrase from that trio that kept circling my mind ceaselessly. After Donna Elvira’s initial lament for her lost love, master and servant exchange a few words to each other, and then Don Giovanni sings, twice, “Elvira, idol mio”. She is startled. Is that the “ingrato”? And Don Giovanni replies in two glorious phrases:

Sì, vita mia, son’io,
e chiedo carità.

And for whatever reason, it was those two phrases that kept whirling around my mind. I still have such a vivid memory of walking back one evening from the university back to my student lodgings, through Sauchiehall Street in Central Glasgow, with those phrases circling incessantly in my head. And how I wished I could hear the thing!

Well, that’s all this post is about, really. The memory of a memory. Of no particular interest to anyone, perhaps, other than to myself. At least, I trust there is nothing here I would wish to retract once I’ve hit the “post” button.

Some reflections on Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”

I’ve been going through a bit of a Don Giovanni phase of late. But of course, when have I not been in a Don Giovanni phase? I discovered it in my student days, when I was making my first tentative forays into this strange, unknown thing called “classical music”, and on discovering this opera, I was instantly transfixed. As with the other two Mozart-da Ponte operas – which I acquainted myself with soon afterwards – Don Giovanni became a permanent fixture in my mind, one of those things I am constantly aware of even when I am not consciously thinking about them. But these last few days, I have been consciously thinking about it. Last Wednesday, we braved the local floods to go to the cinema to attend a live broadcast of the opera from Covent Garden: the production was an interesting one, though not, to my mind, entirely successful (but more of that later); and musically, despite superb playing from the orchestra, it struck me as being merely mediocre. Not bad as such – “mediocre” doesn’t mean “bad”, although it is often taken to – but nothing too memorable either. However, I am not qualified to provide a musical criticism, so I’ll steer clear of that: even a mediocre performance of Don Giovanni is, for me, a bit special, and, since viewing it, I have barely been able to think of anything else.  And so, this evening, still under the spell of the work, I put on the DVD we have of a Glyndebourne Festival production from the mid-1990s of  Don Giovanni. Both in terms of performance and of production, I found the Glyndebourne version far more satisfying than the Covent Garden version we saw on Wednesday; however, even in the best productions, the drama, I think, remains elusive: of the three Mozart-da Ponte operas, this is, dramatically, the most problematic.

The dramatic problems are caused in part – though not wholly – by conflation. As with Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, or with Shakespeare’s Hamlet and King Lear, there are two distinct versions of this work: in this case, there’s one Mozart had composed for the Prague première, and a somewhat different version for Vienna; and conflating the two creates certain dramatic weaknesses that don’t exist in either of the originals. In the conflated version, the dramatic momentum comes virtually to a standstill in the middle of the second act, as various arias intended for different versions are performed one after the other. In Boris Godunov, Hamlet, and King Lear, moving away from the conflated version and using one or other of the originals tightens the drama considerably. However, in Don Giovanni, what is gained dramatically by moving away from the conflated version seems to me slight, and nowhere near enough to compensate for the loss of some of the most extraordinary operatic music ever conceived: for even in the two different versions, there are, I think, dramatic problems.

The main problem – whether one uses the version premiered in Prague, or the version premiered in Vienna, or some conflation of the two – is that the resolution of the drama, that overwhelming climactic scene in which Don Giovanni is dragged down to Hell, has little to do with most of what we have seen in the rest of the opera. None of the interactions Don Giovanni has with any of the other characters, or, indeed, the interactions of these other characters with each other, fascinating though they all are, has any bearing on this resolution. So what exactly does this resolution resolve? Why present us with all these complex characters and all these complex interactions if, in the end, none of it actually leads to anything? I don’t think I have ever encountered a production that has satisfactorily addressed this problem.

In the Covent Garden production I saw on Wednesday, director Kasper Holten kept the focus firmly on Don Giovanni, making him appear on stage even in scenes where he is not usually present: so, for instance, as Don Ottavio sings privately of his feelings for Donna Anna (“Dalla sua pace”), we see behind him Donna Anna disappearing into a bedroom with Don Giovanni: we cannot be sure whether Donna Anna really is having an affair with Don Giovanni behind Ottavio’s back, or whether, as is more likely, this is a projection of Donna Anna’s desires; but the effect of staging such as this is to keep Don Giovanni constantly in the picture, throughout the entire work. So, when the climactic scene occurs near the end, it doesn’t really matter so much all those other characters in the opera have no part in it: the spotlight throughout has been very much on Don Giovanni, so there is no problem with his dominating the finale. In keeping with this focus on the principal character, the sextet that normally follows this climactic scene, in which the other characters tell us what they intend doing afterwards, is cut: by this stage, these other characters are of no interest. Bypassing the sextet, we cut directly to the final passage of the opera, in which we hear sung a rather trite-sounding moral (“This is the fate of miscreants: evildoers always come to an equally evil end”). And even here, we have a directorial twist: this passage is sung not by the characters on stage, as da Ponte’s libretto specifies, but seemingly by disembodied voices off-stage. This moral is presented as humanity’s judgement on Don Giovanni, not the judgement of specific characters, who have, by now, more or less ceased to matter. Meantime, we see Don Giovanni alone on stage: this is the greatest Hell someone like Don Giovanni can be made to suffer – an eternity of solitude. Whether this is a real Hell, or a symbolic or psychological Hell, it is up to us to decide. (It’s probably symbolic and psychological: we don’t really go for real hells in our enlightened times.)

This focus on Don Giovanni, this attempt to get inside Don Giovanni’s mind (as director Kasper Holten says is his intention), is, however, fraught with dangers. For Mozart does not, I think, give us any sort of clue at all as to what really is going on inside Don Giovanni’s mind. Despite being the opera’s principal character, despite his tremendous personality dominating the opera, he doesn’t have a formal aria: he has three short solo pieces, none of which tells us much about him. In the first of these pieces, he is commanding and energetic, giving orders to prepare a party: it is a short piece of tremendous vitality, but doesn’t really tell us anything about him that we do not already know. In his second solo piece, he is singing a serenade, and it is utterly gorgeous and seductive: however, he had used a variation of this tune a bit earlier when he was trying, with utmost cynicism, to draw Donna Elvira away from the scene so he could have a go at her maidservant: beautiful though the serenade is, it is but a formula he uses as and when he needs to: it is utterly insincere. And in his third solo, he is pretending to be his servant Leporello: once again, the real Don Giovanni eludes us.

And this is the problem: how does one get inside Don Giovanni’s head when there appears to be no path in? And yet, one feels one needs to: after all, even without Kasper Holten’s directorial decisions, his personality dominates this work; he is a character of tremendous vitality and charisma, and none of the other characters can match him in these stakes. He dominates this work as surely as Hamlet dominates Shakespeare’s play; and, like Hamlet, he is endlessly fascinating. But where Shakespeare’s play is almost overloaded with material exploring the state of Hamlet’s mind, there seems to me here to be nothing, absolutely nothing, to indicate what is going on in Don Giovanni’s.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Don Giovanni was seen a romantic character, searching eternally for an ideal love. Nowadays, we may find such ideas soppy: as enlightened modern people, we know, as our misty-eyed and rather stupid ancestors did not, that what we mean by love is really nothing more than sexual desire. So Don Giovanni must be given some other grand purpose. In an interview broadcast during the interval of the live broadcast, director Kasper Holten says that Don Giovanni is a man attempting to escape from his mortality. Fair enough, I suppose: certainly less soppy than looking for an eternal love. Except that I can see nothing either in the libretto or in the music to support this contention. In the scene where Don Giovanni forces the frightened Leporello to invite the dead Commendatore to dinner, and the dead Commendatore sings the single word “si”, we see Don Giovanni clutching his head in mental and spiritual agony at this intimation of mortality: but there is nothing in the libretto to indicate any such agony, and the music continues merely to depict Leporello’s terror, and Don Giovanni’s amusement. This idea that Don Giovanni desires to escape from his mortality is, like the nineteenth century idea that he is searching for a perfect love, merely a projection on to the Don of our own preoccupations. As to what is going on in Don Giovanni’s mind, we do not know.

My own suspicion, strengthened each time I approach his work, is that there is precisely nothing going on in his mind – that there really is no more to him than the surface that we see. The surface is so extraordinarily fascinating, we may feel that there must be something of substance underneath it: but I don’t think there is. Other than a constant, never-ending desire for sexual gratification, and, at times, a certain coarse and cruel sense of humour, there really is nothing. Even his seeming heroism when faced with the statue of the dead Commendatore may not be as impressive as it seems at first sight: it is the overcoming of fear that may be described as “courage”, but Don Giovanni does not seem even to have the capacity to be afraid in the first place, any more than he had the capacity earlier in the opera to feel guilt after killing a man. His insatiable sexual desire really is all there is of him: and beyond that – nothing.

It is hard to see what other conclusion one can come to. Every attempt to find some substance in this character seems to me to be imposing on him something that just isn’t there. For over two centuries now, the character of Don Giovanni has resisted all attempts at interpretation. It is not, as with Hamlet, that there are too many possibilities: quite the opposite – there is none. And it is precisely this – this hollowness where there should be substance – that seems to me so disturbing. All this charisma, this energy, this vitality – could it all really be for nothing?

Throughout the course of the opera, Don Giovanni is involved in four distinct dramatic strands, some of them overlapping. In each, there is a potential for a human relationship; but in each, Don Giovanni remains curiously and utterly detached. The first is his relationship with his servant, Leporello. Leporello has ambivalent feelings about his master: he clearly takes a vicarious delight in his master’s conquests, and generally finds his escapades amusing; but he retains, nonetheless, sufficient moral compass to feel at times sorry for his victims, and to recognise that his master is leading the life of a scoundrel (“briccone”). But how does Don Giovanni feel about his servant? He certainly takes a delight in seeing Leporello uncomfortable – as in the supper scene where he perceives that Leporello is secretly eating some of the food intended for his master, and mischievously orders him to whistle; and it amuses him to see Leporello frightened, as in the graveyard scene. But beyond this, there is absolutely nothing about Don Giovanni’s feelings for Leoprello, and anything we may suggest on that score is, once again, projections of our own ideas on to Don Giovanni. I rather suspect that Don Giovanni feels nothing at all for his servant: he is not capable of feeling.

The second relationship is with his wife, Donna Elvira, whom he has abandoned. This is, in effect, the situation we see with the Count and Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, but pushed to an almost grotesque extreme.  In the earlier opera, the Count is philandering, and is serially unfaithful to his wife; and she, with what in Mozart’s time was regarded as a tragic dignity but which in our own time is possibly more often regarded as stupidity, continues to love him, laments what is lost, and wishes to redeem him. Here, Donna Elvira also, despite knowing the sort of person her husband is, and despite perhaps knowing that she is doomed to failure, persists in her love, and tries to reclaim him. She retains the tragic dignity of the Countess (“Che aspetto nobile, che dolce maesta”), but she is driven almost demented by her husband’s utter indifference. Even Leporello can feel sorry for her, but such feelings are beyond Don Giovanni. It is not even hatred that he feels for her: he feels, once again, nothing at all.

The third relationship is with Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, and here, matters are complex indeed. At the start of the opera, as the curtain rises, we see Leporello keeping guard while his master is on seduction duty; and then, suddenly, the music explodes. Don Giovanni and Donna Anna burst out of the house, she trying to hold him back, and he trying to escape before the household is awakened. And ironically, perhaps, it is she who, at this point, is the dominant character: it is she who introduces the melodic material, and Don Giovanni is reduced merely to echoing her. It would seem that his attempt at seduction has failed. But has it? Is it possible that she has turned on him after a successful attempt on her honour? Is it even possible that she was not an unwilling partner? Mozart and da Ponte don’t tell us, and, as a consequence of our not knowing, the scenes involving these characters have about them a tremendously powerful edge of uncertainty. However, our modern age, it seems, cannot take too seriously the idea of a chaste woman protecting her virtue: the recent Covent Garden production is by no means the first I have seen that insists that Don Giovanni and Donna Anna have indeed been having it off, and that she was, as they say, “gagging for it”.

I really cannot see what is gained by removing the ambiguity: I can see that much is lost. For one thing, if it is really the case that Donna Anna was a willing sexual partner; and, further, that she knows that it was Don Giovanni who had killed her father; then her violent outburst in the passage leading up to her aria “Or sai chi l’onore”, and the passion of the aria itself, would all be mere simulation: the whole thing would be a long and elaborate lie. And it is not entirely clear what motive she should have to spin such a lie. In the Covent Garden production, it is implied that she spins this story because she is infuriated on discovering the relationship between Don Giovanni and Donna Elvira, but I can’t say I am convinced: even granted that she is infuriated for this reason, what could she hope to gain by telling this elaborate lie – to Don Ottavio, of all people, who has not the slightest chance of imposing himself against Don Giovanni?

By the end, in her final aria “Non mi dir”, she pledges her love to Don Ottavio – although the coloratura passage at the end of the aria may indicate something other than pure tenderness on her part. Kasper Holten interprets this scene as Donna Anna finally deciding that Don Giovanni is not really for her, and that it is Don Ottavio whom she really loves. Fair enough: but if it is indeed the case that Donna Anna develops as a character, then surely there should be some indication in the drama of why she develops in this manner, and how. And I certainly can’t see any indication at all. Once again, it seems to me, an interpretation is being imposed that has no grounding in either the libretto or in the music.

Of course, the relationship between Donna Anna and Don Ottavio is complex, and there are no easy answers. I’d guess that Donna Anna was certainly no willing partner at the start of the opera; and, further, that she probably did manage to hold off Don Giovanni while raising the alarm; but that, nonetheless, she is attracted to him: which lady isn’t, after all? But she feels tremendous guilt as a consequence of this attraction: Don Giovanni is the man, after all, who has killed her father. I accept this is all conjecture – albeit conjecture that is not inconsistent with the libretto and with what the music tells us. But whatever the truth of the matter, we are in deep psychological waters here, and presenting Donna Anna as Giovanni’s consensual partner who lies her head off for the rest of the opera does seem to me not only unwarranted, but an ironing out of complexities and ambiguities that Mozart and da Ponte had deliberately put there.

But what does Don Giovanni feel about Donna Anna and Don Ottavio? It seems to me that, once again, whatever Donna Anna and Don Ottavio may feel for each other or for Don Giovanni, he, as ever, feels nothing at all. Every time we try to figure out what Don Giovanni feels, we run into a complete blank.

And similarly with the last set of relationships involving Don Giovanni – that with the peasant couple Zerlina and Masetto. It is, once again, a sort of reprise of what we had seen in Le Nozze di Figaro, except that here it is pushed, once again, to extremes: an aristocrat tries to take away a woman from a lower social class from the man she is to marry, and isn’t concerned about what either of them may feel. But while there is some similarity between Masetto and Figaro, and between Don Giovanni and the Count, there is none between Zerlina and Susanna: Zerlina is either naïve, or manipulative, or possibly a bit of both: Susanna is neither, and remains throughout unswervingly loyal to her betrothed. The emotional climates of the two operas are very different. The Count in Le Nozze di Figaro, despite being corrupted by the power he wields, is still capable of feeling: Don Giovanni isn’t. Beyond his sexual desire for Zerlina, he, once again, feels nothing at all for her. And neither does he give a second thought to Masetto.

So how can one convincingly present on stage a character of tremendous charm and appeal, of irresistible charisma and vitality, but who is so utterly hollow underneath? Someone who is incapable of forming any sort of human relationship with anyone because there really is nothing more to him than the need for constant sexual gratification? Kasper Holten’s attempt to get into Don Giovanni’s mind is an interesting one, but I think it fails; and I think it fails because Holten is searching for something that simply doesn’t exist. What goes on in Don Giovanni’s mind? Apart from lust – nothing. What humanity there is in the opera may be found in the complex of emotions of the characters around Don Giovanni, but not in Don Giovanni himself.

Holten’s presentation of the drama probably works better seen in the opera house than it did on screen. It involved a rotating maze of doors and stairs, with various electronic projections against the walls and the characters. In the cinema broadcast, with close-ups and cuts between different camera angles, it often seemed fussy, over-intricate, and even confused. I’d guess it works better seen on stage. But I think, on the whole, that the bare stripped-down presentation that director Deborah Warner and designer Hildegard Bechtler give us in the Glyndebourne DVD is a more effective way of  presenting the opera, in which the drama is already so tangled that any further intricacy serves but to confuse rather than to clarify. But not having seen Holten’s production on stage, I wouldn’t be too insistent on that point.

I do, however, find it fascinating that we continue to try to find depths in the character of Don Giovanni where, it seems to me, there are no depths at all. Why is nothingness in this person so difficult to accept, I wonder? What is it that makes us feel that there must be something more to him than there really is? I’m afraid I still do not know: the idea that there really is nothing behind the surface disturbs me also, for reasons I cannot quite grasp.

***

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Staging the classics: the radical, and the unintelligent

As You Like It ends with multiple marriages, and the god of marriage, Hymen himself, comes down to officiate. It is an ending permeated with joy. Now, let us imagine that in a production of this play under the auspices of a respected body – such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, say – the director decides that marriage, far from being joyful and something worth celebrating, is essentially dark and tragic; and, because Shakespeare does not depict it as such in this play, he interpolates at this point some of the darkest passages from Othello.

It doesn’t really work, does it? I don’t mean the interpolation of lines from Othello into As You Like It (although I don’t think that works either): I mean my rather ham-fisted attempt at parody in the opening paragraph above. For to parody something, you have to exaggerate, and sadly, what I am attempting to parody cannot be exaggerated. For in the current production of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio at the English National Opera, director Calixto Bieito, believing that the reunion between Leonore and Florestan should not be joyful (although Beethoven’s music at this point unambiguously tells us that is is), has interpolated at this point ten or so minutes from the slow movement of Beethoven’s A minor string quartet. And I am left racking my brains trying to think of a parody that could exaggerate the sheer stupidity of this.

However, in talking about “sheer stupidity”, I am going very much against the grain: to object to a production such as this is to brand oneself a hopeless conservative who wants mere cosiness rather than a drama that challenges and stimulates. In this context, any argument beginning with “I’m no conservative, but…” is self-defeating: nothing one says afterwards is likely to be taken seriously. Now, I don’t think I’m particularly conservative in these matters: if I may be so immodest as to quote myself from my previous post:

When a work of art becomes very familiar, there is a danger that it becomes too comfortable, too cosy – that it loses its edge. Or, rather, our perceptions are so dulled that we can no longer feel its edge. Instead of exciting, or provoking, or disturbing, it merely relaxes, and becomes merely a sedative.

Other than the clumsy repetition of “merely” (one only notices these things once one has hit the “post” button!), I stand by that. I went on later in that post to say that what matters is not so much whether a staging is “conservative” or “radical”, but, rather, whether it is intelligent. And interpolating a passage from the slow movement of a late quartet – a passage that communicates a profound introspection and inwardness – at the very point where the music (composed by Ludwig himself specifically for this point) communicates boundless joy, strikes me as supremely unintelligent.

However, the production has been receiving good reviews: here is a typical one. In the course of this review, we are directed to an interview with Bieito in which, we are told, he “gives his reasons”. Except that he doesn’t give his reasons. He doesn’t explain why the reunion between Leonore and Florestan is not presented as joyful when Beethoven composed music at this point that very definitely expresses joy.

There are many other idiocies also in that interview – a lot of stuff about office buildings of glass and mirrors, Borgesian labyrinths, questioning who is really making decisions in our society, and so on – all tremendously fascinating, no doubt; but, sadly, there’s not a single word explaining what any of this has to do with Beethoven’s Fidelio.

Of course, it can be said, quite rightly, that it is foolish, and, indeed, somewhat glib, to speak of the “true meaning” of any major work of art: meanings of major works of art are rarely obvious, and good productions, both conservative and radical, can bring to light elements of the work that one had previously not considered. I agree enthusiastically. But if an alleged insight cannot be related to any part of the text of the original – and also, in the case of opera, to any part of the music – then I can’t for the life of me see how such an insight can be considered an insight into the work. If that makes me a hidebound conservative, then I’m afraid I have no option but to accept the title, albeit unwillingly: for I do agree with Pierre Boulez (in a quote so famous that I can’t seem to find it on Google Search!) that when one sets oneself to be the guardian of a pure tradition, one ends up as a guardian merely of a mausoleum.

However, it will be objected that I am criticising a production I haven’t seen. This is true. Neither have I seen Calixto Bieito’s earlier production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, which opened with a lot of people sitting on toilets having a crap. Neither, indeed, have I seen a great many other instances of similar “re-interpretation”, where the very fact of people taking exception is seen as evidence of success. I don’t, as it happens, fully subscribe to the contention that one must experience something before one is entitled to criticise it, if only because one does not need to eat a turd to know it tastes like shit; but nonetheless, let me focus now on a production by Bieito that I have actually seen: Don Giovanni at the English National Opera, some twelve years ago.

Here, the drama of Mozart and of da Ponte was presented as a bunch of lads and laddettes having a wild night out. Donna Elvira is here a drunken floozie, staggering around a bar, gulping down all the unfinished drinks she can find – not, perhaps, what we might expect given how she is perceived by Donna Anna and by Don Ottavio (“Cieli! Che aspetto nobile! Che dolce maesta!”) She, Donna Anna, and Don Ottavio, are, like Don Giovanni, mere lads and laddettes on a wild night out, thus eliminating any moral distinction that might have existed in Mozart’s opera.

As for the plot itself, there are some significant changes: as in Mozart’s version, Don Giovanni kills Dona Anna’s father in the opening scene; but, as not in Mozart’s version, he first rogers the not unwilling Donna Anna; and at the end of the opera, where, in Mozart’s version, the dead spirit of the murdered man appears as a statue to drag Don Giovanni into Hell, here, the dead man appears merely as a drug-induced hallucination: Don Giovanni’s downfall comes afterwards, as the other characters tie him to a chair and, in the manner of Murder on the Orient Express,  queue up in orderly fashion to stab him to death. New insight into the opera? Admirers of this production, and there are many, say so. But once again, I can’t see what there is either in da Ponte’s libretto or in Mozart’s music that can justify any of this. In the opera (as opposed to Bieito’s production), we are never sure whether or not Don Giovanni has had his way with Donna Anna before killing her father, and neither are we sure, assuming he had, whether she had a been willing partner; this ambiguity gives the drama an uncertain edge, and I really can’t see what is gained by removing this ambiguity – although I can see that much is lost. In the course of the opera (once again, as opposed to the production), various people try, with singular lack of success, to revenge themselves on Don Giovanni, but it is eventually only a supernatural force that achieves what mere mortals can’t. There are many legitimate ways of interpreting this, but changing it to its opposite so there is nothing to interpret surely isn’t amongst them.

One may, of course, have one’s own opinion on the quality of Bieito’s re-writing: my opinion happens to be that it is trite and unimaginative: a lot of bad boys and girls boozing and copulating and tripping on drugs is not in itself likely material for compelling drama. But that’s just my opinion: I don’t insist upon it. But whatever one’s opinion on the quality of Bieito’s re-write, why anyone should go to see a work advertised as being by Mozart and da Ponte, and see instead something entirely different, I really can’t imagine.

And what does Bieto himself have to say about all this? He talks about it here:

That Don Giovanni, he says, illustrated “what happens every Friday night” among young people across Europe…

Yes, I know, I know. But once again, he is remarkably quiet on how these typical Friday night happenings relate to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Lads and laddettes having a wild time of it on a Friday night really is pretty boring stuff: Don Giovanni isn’t.

So why does Bieito do this? Here he explains, in his own words:

And this is all done to provoke my audience, to make them think.

So now, thanks to Bieito, I’ve thunk. And, having thunk, I find I have no problem with Bieito taking a radical approach to these great works: I really have no desire to see safe, conventional stagings that put these works reverentially behind glass, as if they were museum pieces. No – I’m fine with radical reinterpretations. But I do, I must admit, have a problem with radical re-writing, and, especially, with Bieito (and other directors of similar inclination) re-writing these works in such a dull, trite, and supremely unintelligent manner: that seems to me unforgivable. Whatever Bieito’s vision may be, when I pay good money to see operas by Mozart or by Beethoven, or, indeed, by anyone else, it is not Bieito’s vision I’m interested in.