PBO does overdue justice to Don GiovanniReview
“What a clear and lovely night, perfect for hunting women.”
On paper and in the light of day, the words seem almost laughable, a cartoonishly evil quip dreamed up by a predatory caricature. But on February 24, amid the shadowy silhouettes of Palm Beach Opera’s film noir–inspired Don Giovanni, the line felt all too real.
In this cultural moment of overdue justice, Palm Beach Opera presented a beautifully performed Don Giovanni.
PBO appeared sensitive to the opera’s problematic elements in their presentation of Don Giovanni. The company’s General Director, Daniel Biaggi, penned a thoughtful program note observing that “if we claim that [these] masterpieces are timeless […] we must be willing to analyze the storyline, libretto, and character relationships from a modern perspective.” Marketing materials leading up to the three-show run emphasized the opera’s darkest qualities, and smartly stayed away from lavishing euphemisms like “seducer” or “womanizer” on the titular Don.
In the title role, baritone Andrei Bondarenko sang with a resonant voice and well-acted interpretation, creepy and conniving. Bass Joshua Bloom’s handsy Leporello nearly outdid the Don, however, feeling up Donna Elvira during the Catalogue Aria and doling out lewd observations while enabling his boss’ serial predation. Bloom aced the character’s snide cynicism and sleaziness with smooth musicality and a fragile but successful balance of dark humour.
Soprano Danielle Pastin stood out as a glamourous Donna Elvira, with a glowing voice and commanding presence. Pastin brought to life a strong woman in pursuit of justice, warning others of the Don’s abusive past, yet discredited and dismissed as “mad” by the very man whose violence and lies she seeks to avenge. During the famous quartet, Don Giovanni pinned her against the wall while Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, seemingly oblivious to the assault unfolding in front of them, wondered out loud, “Who should we believe?”
While Donna Anna recounted her trauma to Don Ottavio, Giovanni’s silhouette towered on the wall beside her, omnipresent.
Mezzo-soprano Danielle MacMillan’s Zerlina was beautifully sung and playfully acted, with “Là ci darem la mano” taking on a darker timbre in rich harmony with Bondarenko’s Don. MacMillan and bass-baritone Neil Nelson as Masetto played out the couple’s quarrels with clever forays into near-sprechstimme, adding an edge of humour tinged with realism.
As Donna Anna, soprano Caitlin Lynch sang with an effortless dolce tone and a compelling strength of character. Her emotive “Non mi dir” transformed the aria into a statement of independence, as stage direction by Kristine McIntyre had Don Ottavio – a strongly sung turn by tenor Bogdan Volkov – storm offstage rather than reconcile following his rejected marriage proposal.
Right up to the hellish drama of the final scene, Don Giovanni is, at its core, a comedy about rape.
McIntyre’s film noir vision worked well, with dark, angular scenic design by R. Keith Brumley serving as a gritty canvas for costume designer Mary Traylor and hair and make-up designer Kathy Waszkelewicz to tackle the period wear with compelling attention to detail. Lighting design by Marcus Dilliard played a big role, shadows lurking and looming with cinematic appeal. While Donna Anna recounted her trauma to Don Ottavio, Giovanni’s silhouette towered on the wall beside her, omnipresent; and when the Commendatore appeared in the climactic final scene, a bright blue neon sign flickered eerily, illuminating the drunken Don as he devoured what would be his final meal.
Stage direction by McIntyre found some successes, such as the Commendatore’s ghostly appearance in a chilling graveyard scene (a spooky, stentorian performance by bass Mikhail Kolelishvili). Meanwhile, other staging decisions seemed to lack logic – when Zerlina discovered Masetto lying beaten in the street after an altercation with the Don, she conveniently just-so-happened to have Band-Aids at the ready in her pajama pocket.
Under conductor David Stern, the PBO Orchestra took on Mozart’s stirring score with rousing tutti’s and touching wind solos. The finale was a highlight, the orchestra embracing a darkness appropriate for the eerie conclusion.
In the end, Don Giovanni is punished – but it takes supernatural intervention, not a system of real-world justice, nor the powerful voices of the brave women who stand up to him, to finally put an end to his crimes. And right up to the hellish drama of the final scene, Don Giovanni is, at its core, a comedy about rape. We’re meant to laugh at the Don’s foiled exploits, at Zerlina’s folly, at Donna Elvira’s change of heart. Leporello enumerates literally thousands of victims of sexual assault – the Don’s so-called “conquests” – in a lighthearted aria that catches some of the opera’s biggest laughs.
We can put Don Giovanni in a fedora and call him a film noir anti-hero; or we can put him in a three-piece suit and elect him to public office.
In this cultural moment of overdue justice, Palm Beach Opera presented a beautifully performed Don Giovanni with more attention paid to contemporary discourse than most companies can claim. But elevating and enshrining as a “masterpiece” a work of theatre that depicts rape as a laughing matter, season after season, breeds normalization – and normalization breeds real-world consequences.
“What a clear and lovely night, perfect for hunting women.” The words were chilling not because they were sung by some exaggerated caricature of a villain, but because they could just as well have been uttered by any number of real-world predators who, unlike Don Giovanni, won’t meet their demise – who, in fact, will more than likely be promoted to positions of power. We can put Don Giovanni in a fedora and call him a film noir anti-hero; or we can put him in a three-piece suit and elect him to public office.
In her program note, McIntyre wrote that Don Giovanni is an opera “replete with grey areas, starting with Giovanni’s own moral ambiguity.” But in reality, the libretto couldn’t be clearer, from the violent rape in the very opening scene to his refusal to repent in the grim finale. The question isn’t whether Don Giovanni is a rapist, or is evil; the question is whether we care.