Martin Kusej’s production of Don Giovanni is alternately buzzing white light and blue dimness. The thing begins with a large flat image of a group of women in nothing but stockings, lounging on the floor with their backs to the audience. There is a door in this image, and during the overture we see women in trench coats and heels approaching the door, opening it, and stepping inside.
This image disappears, though, to reveal a series of doors, some of which open off to the side, and some of which open into a drum-like shape that is at the center of the stage. Most of the action of the drama takes place in and around this center space, which is a cylinder within another cylinder, sometimes open, sometimes closed off. (What is it with productions of this opera and rotating central sections? I’ve seen three so far.) The beginning of “Notte e giorno fatigar” is sung not by Leporello (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo) but by Don Giovanni (Thomas Hampson) who is waiting for Leporello, who appears out of one of the doors in the middle, zipping up his trousers, to take over for the line that begins “I want to be a gentleman.” The bit that Don Giovanni gets is those opening lines that describe slaving day and night for someone he can’t please. A few minutes later, as Leporello explains how he doesn’t want to serve, he’s holding one of the doors into the central section closed, preventing – for a moment – Don Giovanni and Donna Anna (Christine Schaefer) from emerging.
But back to that interior space in the middle of the stage. Some of the action takes place in front of it, or to either side – interactions among characters who are not Don Giovanni take place here, although the others sometimes step inside the middle. The lighting is such that you see both brightness and emptiness within – the whole opera literally revolves around this bright unnerving space that often does not contain anything at all. (When it does not contain nearly-naked women, snow, and once – rather memorably – part of a football team. ) If I had to take an interpretive stab at this, I would guess that what we are seeing is a representation of whatever is going on inside Don Giovanni’s psyche.
After all, when Leporello recounts the catalog to Donna Elvira (Melanie Diener) she steps inside that central area, and basically walks through, as the thing revolves, what Leporello tells her – sort of. There is a room full of women in fur coats, which you might expect, and then there is a room where a woman in rather uncomfortable-looking underpants is shaving her legs, and two older women are cleaning, and beyond that things get a little more abstract, in that we are faced with a football team, a mirror, and a little girl jumping rope. (Ultimately the scene revolves around to a frozen room of people in wedding dresses and black suits, all of whom eventually unfreeze and turn out to be Masetto and Zerlina’s wedding party. Which is also all in Don Giovanni’s head?)
At other points in the opera, we see characters not technically on stage walking through that central space, as if puzzled or confused, when other things are going on; it is Don Giovanni’s house in which his party takes place (as the three maskers step in to a space that moments before was filled with people, the lights dim and it seems there is no one there) and it is also the place where Giovanni meets his demise. Earlier in the opera we get a glimpse of the commendatore in that space, being dressed and attended to by the bevy of mostly-naked young women who appear rather frequently in this production; the graveyard is there too; and in the penultimate scene, by which point the space is covered in snow, Don Giovanni appears to be about to be dragged away – but what happens is that Leporello stabs him, and he dies. The effect of all this is that when they get to the final chorus, it reminds you – or at least it it reminded me – that all these various people are in the room because of Don Giovanni; there is nothing else holding them there, and when the center is gone, and that last chorus is over, they basically cease to exist because they really exist only in relationship to him. (I mean, yes, this is the nature of literature, in that characters technically don’t exist ‘outside’ the text that makes them, which can be a slightly trippy idea if you follow it too far, but this is one of those issues that is perhaps best left to our
traditional foes friends in the English department.)
So, this thing can be read as a deliberate and rather elaborate self-destruct sequence on the part of Don Giovanni/Leporello.
But then there is the matter of the blindfolds and all the young – or sometimes young – women.
(Next section here.)