Don Giovanni / Peter Sellars (2)

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Donna Elvira is a tricky character. I have seen versions of her that were slightly more toward the buffa end of the spectrum (here I am recalling Joyce DiDonato packing a shotgun) and also versions that were intended to evoke a reaction more along the lines of “what a strange/haunted-looking woman, and she seems to be very upset about something.” The tricky thing about the character is probably that she’s very much an eighteenth-century type. If you take the story at face value, she’s a woman who on the basis of a promise of marriage did something – sex – that she did not not want to do but would probably not have done under other circumstances. To a modern audience a woman who reacts as Elvira does to this series of events comes off as strange and sheltered and weird and perhaps an object of pity, but not for quite the same reasons that an eighteenth-century audience would have pitied her. Her clinginess and gullibility are a little embarrassing to watch – but this is part of what makes her interesting.

Donna Elvira in this production is Lorraine Hunt. And this Elvira is definitely not a joke. She comes off as a person who has been hurt many times before, but this time it’s worse – this is a turning point for her, in terms of disappointment. It’s not that she’s done anything she never has before, but rather that Don Giovanni told her he loved her and then abandoned her. The promise of affection that’s then revealed to be a trick is what hurt her.

What this Donna Elvira is in search of is not just revenge, or, later, to save Don Giovanni – she also simply wants not to be treated like garbage. Herbert Perry’s Leporello is a sympathetic one. Despite his own complicity in it, what Leporello’s boss does makes him angry, and his impulse at numerous points in the story is to try to offer comfort. This production has one of its most honest moments with the bait and switch sequence at the beginning of Act II — for one thing, Giovanni and Leporello do look alike, but in a more general way this is not a production that encourages us to laugh at, or cringe at, whatever it is that happens. In this case we know what happens. The way this is staged, after Don Giovanni’s serenade to Elvira’s cleaning lady, Leporello and Elvira are shown retreating into the shadows and during Zerlina’s tender “vedrai carino” we know exactly what the two of them are doing in a darkened corner of the stage. (As an aside, this is an effect of moving the story to a modern setting – because we don’t really have the ‘nobility’ and ‘servants’ thing here, an idea that is toyed with, or played for giggles in a more conventional version can here just simply happen. Maybe this is what the Amazon reviewer who complained of ‘too much leveling’ was referring to?) This sequence is often played as ‘yet another humiliation for Donna Elvira’ and here it’s not, quite.

And Don Giovanni knows what is going on. He catches sight of this, and he’s angry. Leporello has turned Giovanni’s trick/power play into something else, and that something else includes Leporello having a real connection to another human being. When he tells Masetto and the others that if they see a “man and a girl making love under a window,” they’re to kill the man – the way this is delivered, it’s clear that at that moment Don Giovanni wants nothing more than to inflict pain on his servant. Leporello has done nothing more than what Giovanni asked, but in doing it he’s betrayed him.

This production is set in New York in 1990 and nothing in a Peter Sellars production is ever an accident, so I figure it’s worth noting that the Perry brothers (Don Giovanni and Leporello) are black. Elvira, Anna and Ottavio are white. The translation of the libretto calls attention to this – e.g. in the catalog song, instead of “pale women” we get “white women” and the stage direction emphasizes these words. I don’t think the production is ‘about’ race in any obvious way. But Don Giovanni in any performance is definitely a guy who is in some sense on the outside of things. Here I think that they are using color to evoke a nebulous type of tension, a sense of potential difference that can be ignored or overcome but might also be a source of danger – it’s both real and not real. This is applicable to race in modern New York, but the feeling is not limited to this particular setting. This is one thing that I like about a lot of Sellars’s productions – he has a way of using modern elements to evoke specific moods or feelings that in turn illuminate the emotional content of the work in more timeless way.

So. There is a large chunk of this production that definitely worked for me in terms of dramatic logic. What about the rest of it?

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