I suppose the way to begin with this is to note that this is a Peter Sellars version of a Mozart opera. With these, you know going in that shit is probably going to get weird. Whether it’s brilliant weird or annoying weird or weird that takes a couple go-rounds to warm up to — well, this is always the question with Sellars, isn’t it?
This production places the action in what was at the time contemporary New York. So, New York of 1990. This is a film of an opera, not a DVD of a production from an opera house, and during the overture you see film footage of snow-covered rubble, ruined high-rises, broken windows, and at one point a glimpse of the white Christian cross sign of a mission, which will become important later. The pace of the overture is slow – we’re encouraged to take in the scenery, both musical and visual. When the second violins enter at bar 13 you can hear every single note, which is not always the case. When the tempo picks up at the ‘molto allegro’ (bar 31), you suddenly see movement on the screen, e.g. a dog chewing on a hunk of frozen bread, people walking, cars passing, a guy burning wire for scrap. Like the music of the overture, the city as presented here is big, dark and looming, but it is also full of human activity.
The rest of the production’s concept is (mostly) in line with what I have just described. Leporello and Don Giovanni are guys in black leather jackets and Guess jeans. Most of the activity centers around the entrance to an apartment building where Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, a cop, live. Elvira appears to live there too – certainly she spends a lot of time lurking behind the building’s half-shattered glass door. To guess from the clothes (those tights!) I believe the character is intended to be somewhere between party girl and prostitute. Zerlina and Masetto live in a grim-looking basement apartment nearby. There are some of the expected touches – Donna Anna shoots up at one point, Don Giovanni and Leporello bond together over a little vial of cocaine, and the feast at the end is, naturally, from McDonald’s (Don Giovanni pelts poor Donna Elvira with french fries when she shows up to demand, one last time, that he change his ways.)
As far as the concept goes, I liked this. This is a story about a bunch of deeply unhappy people who are both literally and metaphorically in a dark place. Harlem in 1990 at night is definitely that. Some liberties are taken with the subtitles both to make the dialogue track with the setting and to I suppose get the point across, e.g. in “madamina, il catalogo è” questo” the “young beginners” that Leporello mentions Giovanni liking are translated as “twelve-year-old girls.” But the setting doesn’t do any violence to the work. There are little flickers of hope and humor in this opera, and it’s possible to stage it in a way that puts more weight on those than this one does, but there’s nothing wrong with a view of the work that takes everyone involved to dark places and leaves them there.
While I am on the subject of humor. I think that the best way to get into this in more detail is via Donna Elvira, who in many productions of this opera is a slightly bizarre sort of person. Here, she isn’t.
(Next part here.)