Over to the Dark Side: Garsington Opera’s Don Giovanni (2019) Back

Don Giovanni dramatically splatters a ten-foot canvas with paint as the orchestra sounds its portentous opening chords. Picking up a hose, Giovanni then covers the canvas in lurid red spray paint as Donna Elvira joins him on stage. She climbs to the top of the towering canvas, ties a blindfold around her head, wraps herself in a cloth and staples it to the artwork, willingly uniting herself with Don Giovanni’s artistic creation. Once finished with his masterpiece, Don Giovanni cuts a long, vertical slit in the centre of the reddened canvas and passes through it in an act of barely-veiled eroticism. Donna Elvira loosens her cloth bonds and joins him behind the canvas; the wild shaking of the frame during the remainder of the overture leaves little to the audience’s imagination.

The opening of the production is undeniably gripping: the paint which Don Giovanni so carelessly flings about the canvas foreshadows the carnage his sexual violence will wreak during the course of the opera.

The theme of art is threaded throughout the opera: at the ball, Zerlina is assaulted against a painting of a nude, blindfolded woman, and at Don Giovanni’s last supper, a painting of Justice glows in the background, welcoming the Commendatore’s arrival. For the most part, though, the art theme loses its purpose and integration in the plot as the opera unfolds. The use of paint in scene 1 becomes nothing more than token symbolism as Don Giovanni’s artistic endeavours are abandoned in the rest of the opera.

The eponymous anti-hero of the opera is played by baritone Jonathan McGovern. His singing is flawless and his interpretation of Don Giovanni’s character is unusually convincing. McGovern’s Don Giovanni is neither compelling nor charismatic. In fact, he is as a spectre, transparent and ghost-like, observable less in the flesh than in the wake that he leaves behind him. McGovern’s Don Giovanni is the eye of the plot’s hurricane: though tremendous devastation and high winds surround him he is himself vaporous and vacuous. Famously, this mezzo carattere slides from one musical identity to another within the opera, a veritable shape-shifter whose only consistency is his unrelenting desire.

The performances of the three female leads are similarly impressive. Donna Anna is played by Camila Titinger, who does well balancing her grief with wrath. Titinger’s voice is supple and rich in tone, and her performance is an emotional whirlwind, which is a real delight to witness. Sky Ingram plays Donna Elvira with immense fire; she portrays the most complicated of the female leads, careering between wrath and love as Don Giovanni’s (would-be) battered wife. Ingram portrays the emotional extremes of her character masterfully, capturing the tragicomedy of Donna Elvira’s dual quests to avenge herself on and rescue Don Giovanni from himself.

Zerlina is played by Mireille Asselin and her performance is a particular pleasure to watch: her voice is bell-like, her technique is faultless, and her acting is natural and compelling. Zerlina is perhaps the most relatable character in the opera; in true serva/contadina style, she allows us to laugh and not just at her but also with her.

All three female characters are played with great charisma and energy in this production of Don Giovanni, but ultimately, none of them quite ring true. They are, after all, products of eighteenth-century concepts of femininity. Women were irrational and helpless against their own passions: if unchecked by masculine rationality, they risked tipping into madness. Both Zerlina and Donna Anna are shown to be vulnerable to their emotions and unreliable in their judgments. If not carefully monitored, Zerlina can be tempted away from her bridegroom on her own wedding day with a few choice words from a passer-by. Even after learning of Don Giovanni’s true character, she continues to entertain his advances, against all reason. Donna Anna is not duped by Don Giovanni’s charms; however, she does fail to recognize her own attacker even after a long (and heated) exchange with him in Scene 1. And, in the wake of her father’s murder, she is so crippled by her emotions of grief and wrath that she cannot effectively carry out her own plans for vengeance without the support of Don Ottavio. Both Zerlina and Donna Anna need the steadying or helping hands of their men. Donna Elvira has no man to restrain her and so remains the servant of her tempestuous emotions—and the duplicitous man who would play with them. Donna Elvira’s love turns to hate, which turns to love again with no satisfying emotional transition. She is a contradiction—she is madness: but what else could we expect from her? She was a single woman in the eighteenth century.

The Garsington Opera 2019 programme observes that this opera’s depiction of power abuse is particularly relevant in the #MeToo era. Perhaps in reaction to this movement, director Michael Boyd emphasizes the danger that Don Giovanni—a powerful sexual predator—presents to women. He does not materially alter Don Giovanni’s character but draws new attention to the issue of sexual abuse through his depiction of the other men in the opera.

Masetto’s character, ably interpreted by Thomas Faulkner, proves particularly repulsive in this production. For all his self-pitying and sarcastic grumbling, Masetto leaves Zerlina unprotected and at the mercy of a man who, he (rightfully) believes, intends her ill. After doing so, he blames Zerlina for Don Giovanni’s unchecked advances in a scene that is simply frightening. ‘Batti, Batti’ has long been a controversial aria, with Zerlina inviting Masetto to hit her if that will make peace. Boyd’s production amplifies the latent sexual violence in this scene with the intimidating presence of half a dozen of Masetto’s male friends, standing around the couple threateningly and drinking beer. Later, after Masetto’s ill-fated attempt to kill Don Giovanni, Zerlina identifies Masetto’s jealous intentions in her Act II aria ‘Vedrai carino’. Neither Zerlina nor the audience is under any illusion that Masetto was motivated by protectiveness towards his bride. Rather, he is enraged that Don Giovanni tried to steal what was his. In the #MeToo era, Masetto represents not the sexual predator, but the useless male ‘friend’: a man who hears but does not listen, sees but does not act, and knows but does not protect.

Morally, Don Ottavio fares a little better—but not much. Played by tenor Trystan Llŷr Griffiths, Don Ottavio delivers some breathtakingly beautiful arias in which he declares his love for Donna Anna. Nevertheless, he initially refuses to believe her when she declares that Don Giovanni was in fact her attacker and her father’s murderer: rather, he assumes she might be ‘mistaken’ and decides to make his mind up on his own. Even after he has convinced himself of Don Giovanni’s malevolence, he continues to expose Donna Anna to her sexual attacker, seemingly incapable of handling the issue himself. In fact, for all their bluster, neither Masetto nor Ottavio is capable of restraining the wily Don Giovanni. Perhaps realistically, Da Ponte suggests that no earthly man can stop his evil: justice awaits the divine. Of course, in Don Giovanni, the divine comes in the form of the opera’s own deus ex machina, the Commendatore—brilliantly sung by Paul Whelan, whose hollow, resounding bass seems to echo with the supernatural. But save for Donna Anna’s dead father, the women are surrounded by men who are incapable of bringing them safety or justice.

Boyd strips back the anti-hero’s ambiguities. Don Giovanni is not a charming libertine, or an overgrown child. He is simply a rapist. Rape is hardly a suitable subject for a comedy, but the popularity of the opera would suggest otherwise. Mozart’s music enchants us, assuring us through its whimsical chiaroscuro that it is possible to cry and laugh at the same time. However, the innate darkness and violence found in Garsington Opera’s 2019 production of Don Giovanni may make us wonder if we should laugh at all.

Garsington Opera’s Don Giovanni was performed at Wormsley Estate, Buckinghamshire, between 30 May and 21 July 2019.