May 1, 2008

Racy, modern Giovanni dies in second act

On the sin-o-meter, ghastly murders and Ozzy Osbourne’s bat-biting escapades register at the very sinful extreme, while Mozart is commonly thought to settle at the other end of the spectrum along with unicorns, butterflies, and gumdrops. However, after seeing the Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, it might be necessary to revise that assessment. Don Giovanni brings wild parties, sex, and murder to the stage.

The opera starts off with a deceptively reserved orchestral suite; the only things suggesting the less-than-decent are the red florescent lights hanging over the musicians. When the curtain is lifted, a scene much like a Las Vegas strip club unfolds. Two dancing poles with scantily clad women hanging off them adorn the background while club patrons ogle the dancers. It’s a scandalous opening, especially when you consider the many senior citizens in the audience.

Amid all the pandemonium on stage, the unashamed womanizer Don Giovanni attempts to seduce the soon-to-be married Donna Anna. Even though a golden sheet is held up to conceal the tryst, Donna Anna’s identity is ultimately exposed to the crowd. Her scandalized father, the Commendatore, challenges the philanderer to a duel and is promptly shot dead. His death is the catalyst for the series of events that unfold in the three hour–long opera.

Donna Anna’s fiancé swears to avenge her father’s death, believing that Don Giovanni raped Donna Anna—although judging by her excited sighs, the seduction was quite consensual. Things worsen for Don Giovanni when his outraged former lover, Donna Elvira, confronts him. She arrives on stage dressed as a dominatrix complete with whip and swears to “rip out the heart” of her former love. She then accuses Don Giovanni of cruelly leaving her, despite her ardent love for him.

Not a man to let a former flame sour his taste for romantic conquests, Don Giovanni has his servant Leporello placate Donna Elvira. Leporello, dressed as a party monster from the ’90s in a mesh shirt, then sings the hilarious “Catalogue Aria,” which is nothing more than a detailed list of his master’s 1,003 conquests of all kinds of women in all four corners of the world. There is even a pre-breakdown reference to Britney Spears that I am sure only my friend and I understood. As Leporello describes the blondes, brunettes, princesses, and barely legal girls, a chorus line of Giovanni’s paramours comes on stage for a grinding session lascivious enough to satisfy any fantasy. Finally, Donna Elvira vows to get revenge on Don Giovanni and leaves the club.

Just as she is leaving, a wedding procession for newlyweds Zerlina and Masetto enters and Don Giovanni immediately sets his sights on Zerlina. When he tries to separate the couple to get some alone time with the bride, all three become tangled in the complicated web of deceit, lust, and adultery. Although pursued by three angry factions, Don Giovanni continues his shameless pursuit of women and the second act of the opera focuses on his elaborate plan to seduce a maid by switching costumes with Leporello.

While director Diane Paulus does an excellent job of modernizing the opera in the first act, the second act leaves much to be desired. Instead of continuing with the lighter, sexier, more contemporary interpretation of the first act, the second reverts to a more traditionally dark and serious tone. While there is more action, it was somehow less exciting than the first act’s sleazy merriment. The opera becomes increasingly suspenseful as the five characters seeking vengeance against Don Giovanni are arrested, yet ends on an anticlimactic note with Don Giovanni’s body hanging from the stage rafters.

Another problem arises concerning the inconsistent and lagging English subtitles projected over the stage. Without a libretto to follow as the story unfolded, it was difficult to understand the characters’ motives. Any viewers new to opera or the Italian language should read a synopsis before attending.