|Ubiquitous sex with a touch of S&M.|
Eschewing tradition, the National Theaterʼs new Don Giovanni is an opera for the 21st century: Coolly postmodern. Strikingly self-conscious. Unbridled in its appetites and morally adrift. As a slice of contemporary theater, itʼs smart, sleek and well-staged. Whether it works as a Mozart opera is another matter.
Faced with the challenge of putting a fresh face on a 225-year old grande dame, the SKUTR directing team of Martin Kukučka and Lukáš Trpišovský took a page from the playbook of Robert Wilson, putting their characters in exaggerated whiteface makeup, mirroring the foreground action with busy silhouettes in the background, and replacing the literal with the abstract.
Except for the sex. Randy, nonstop, four-on-the-floor, hands-up-the-skirt lechery that leaves nothing to the imagination. Thereʼs fellatio during the overture, a touch of S&M (“Beat me, Masetto,” Zerlina begs, lifting her skirt to offer her bare bottom) and a tabletop rape during the first act. At one point, Leporello is in the audience plying women with drinks, so Don Giovanni can hit on them.
This moral paucity is reflected in a bleak urban landscape dominated by burned-out buildings and harsh fluorescent lighting. In this world, the characters are abstract absurdities – the women all in white tights and childlike dresses with Bride of Frankenstein hair, the men in snug generic jackets and baggy pantaloons, with Don Giovanni and Il Commendatore crowned by outrageous pompadours. Dispatched in a neatly executed sword fight, the Commendatore remains on stage for most of the evening, his ghost keeping a baleful eye on Don Giovanniʼs heartless scheming and suffusing the atmosphere with guilt.
Thereʼs hardly a scene in the production that isnʼt filled with extraneous characters offering wordless comment or refracting the narrative. While Don Ottavio sings of his devotion to Donna Anna, Don Giovanni is in the background ravishing her. Groups of modern dancers flit on and off the stage, mimicking the action. During Leporelloʼs “catalogue” aria, for example, a single male dancer couples and uncouples with a series of women.
Though stylish and psychologically perceptive, the layers of metaphor and meaning can become confusing – especially in the second half, when a Mini-Me version of Don Giovanni joins the cast. At one point, he watches Eadweard Muybridge film clips in the background while Don Giovanni tries to seduce Donna Elviraʼs chambermaid in the foreground, with the Commendatore looking on. The audience for the film clips grows until it includes nearly all the singers and dancers, their chairs turned to watch Don Giovanniʼs final reckoning – about as self-referential as you can get without putting the directors themselves in the production.
That said, Kukučka and Lukáš Trpišovský deserve plaudits for sheer inventiveness; from the opening erotic pas de deux to Don Giovanniʼs cryptic demise (no descent into hell in this one), they offer fresh ideas and approaches at every turn. That, along with the harsh physicality of many scenes, is not always a comfortable fit with Mozartʼs timeless, enchanting music, which conductor Tomáš Netopil rendered in buoyant fashion at the June 9 premiere. Netopil is a skilled interpreter of Mozart, and his lustrous, perfectly paced reading of the score supported strong singing by Jana Šrejma Kačírkova (Donna Anna) and Lenka Máčiková (Zerlina). Svatopluk Sem was outstanding in the title role, singing with a confident swagger that extended even into the curtain calls.
Give the National Theater credit for being willing to give a revered icon a radical makeover. The question is, will anyone get it? Most of the Czech critics reacted to the production as if stray dogs had crapped on their front lawn. That reaction seemed more defensive than thoughtful, as if they had been charged with safeguarding Mozartʼs legacy. But Don Giovanni has been a staple at the Estates Theater for more than two centuries after it premiered there. It will take a lot more than flashy theatrics and cranky critics to change that.
Don Giovanni plays again on June 29 & 30. For cast information and tickets: http://www.narodni-divadlo.cz/Default.aspx?jz=en&dk=predstaveni.aspx&sb=1&ic=5693&pr=86487
Photo of Svatopluk Sem and Lenka Máčiková courtesy of the National Theater