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  • “These People”: On Sebastian Baumgarten’s Don Giovanni
  • Julia Sirmons (bio)
  • Opernhaus Zürich

  • Production premiere: May 26, 2013

  • Conductor: Robin Ticciati (May 26, 29);

  • Fabio Luisi (June 1, 4, 7, 9, 14, 20, 22, 25, 27)

  • Producer: Sebastian Baumgarten

  • Stage Design: Barbara Ehnes

  • Costumes: Tabea Braun

  • Lighting: Franck Evin

  • Video design: Chris Kondek

  • Chorus master: Jürg Hämmerli

  • Dramaturgy: Werner Hintze

  • Orchestra: Orchestra La Scintilla

  • Don Giovanni: Peter Mattei

  • Donna Anna: Marina Rebeka

  • Don Ottavio: Pavol Breslik

  • Commendatore: Rafal Siwek

  • Donna Elvira: Julia Kleiter (May 26, June 1, 4, 7, 9, 14, 20, 22, 25, 27); Malin Hartelius (May 29)

  • Leporello: Ruben Drole

  • Zerlina: Anna Goryachova

  • Masetto: Erik Anstine

“Who are these people?” Jonathan Miller asked of the characters in Don Giovanni.1 Surely a director must pose this question of any opera text, but in the Mozart–Da Ponte operas, the answers prove especially tricky and endlessly debatable. Their characters are seeming contradictions: they are so vibrant, so fully and recognizably human, and Mozart’s music is often praised for its singularly expressive psychology. But their behavior is also riddled with mysteries, inconsistencies, and contradictions.

Of the three operas, Don Giovanni seems to be the most perplexing in this regard, its men and women most frequently dubbed sphinxlike and impenetrable. They are defined and united solely by their desire to bring Don Giovanni to justice. Beyond this they lack, in Miller’s words, “personalities” or a shared “social reality.”2 As for the punished rake himself, he’s completely devoid of both musical identity and “interiority,” a blank at the heart of his own opera.3

When we challenge the “interiority” of Mozart and Da Ponte’s characters, we are measuring them by novelistic metrics of developed character, such as consistent personality and transparent motivation.4 Criteria of this kind are incompatible with the fundamental themes of these opera texts; they overlook the attributes that have made them enduringly fascinating. If all three, each in their own way, concern the interplay of passion and reason, then any ostensible behavioral contradictions are no contradictions at all. Rather, they are completely credible responses to the powerful, tumultuous mysteries of desire and of other people. These characters reveal their humanity to us through such contradictions, not despite them. [End Page 368]

This is especially true of Don Giovanni, a text explicitly about the delights and torments of passion, seduction, and revenge. The abiding mystery of its characters is one of the central pleasures of the text, and numerous persuasive performance texts have posited wildly divergent answers to Miller’s question. Many of these address the concomitant mystery and familiarity of its characters via an innovative staging that illuminates or “solves” some element of the text. Such interpretations follow an “If . . . then . . .” causality. If, as in Claus Guth’s 2008 Salzburg production, Giovanni is shot in the gut during his duel with the Commendatore and stumbles painfully toward his demise throughout the rest of the work, then Leporello’s willingness to participate in his intrigues despite mounting calamity becomes instantly, heartrendingly clear. It’s all a pathetic, tender burlesque: feigned optimism to oblige a man near death, who can no longer seduce on his own. Thus a performance text can be completely novel and delightfully surprising, and at the same time feel precisely right, absolutely true to the facets of the characters that we know so intimately.

But if bold choices open some doors, they often shut others. If Guth’s moribund protagonist is oddly moving, he can never really move, and much of his fleetness and dashing élan is lost. Likewise, Dmitri Tcherniakov recasts the titular libertine as a shaggy, bumbling figure (like the librarian lothario of Alan Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests, he’s a “gigolo trapped in a haystack”) who reconfigures his haute bourgeois family into a series of incestuous permutations through desperately earnest supplication. While Tcherniakov’s production—for the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in 2010—continually proves the efficacy of this unconventional seduction through the strange and powerful responses it elicits, its vision of Giovanni is innovative but highly circumscribed, and it limits his range.

A director can also embrace the complexities of Don Giovanni’s...


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pp. 368-376
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