CONTENT WARNING: SOME DISCUSSION OF SEXUAL ASSAULT (which occurs in the opera)
I hated the ENO’s production of Don Giovanni so much that after seeing it I was trapped for a day or more in an existential confusion spiral, left wondering whether I hated this production specifically, the ENO, Don Giovanni in general, Mozart or all opera. The theatre is powerful. It can make you question things, like whether you only hallucinated everything you ever liked about a composer.
The ENO is bedded into the old Coliseum theatre, so the venue’s gorgeous in this cheesy, dear, bust-encrusted sort of way, but the cheap seats are uncomfortable. Not Haymarket legendary ass-torture bad, but not good either. A Dark Truth Revealed: I was also a bit afraid my pants were riding too low (come on, you also worry about this at the theatre with a dudesman right behind you, you too are mortal). This resulted in me weirdly shifting a lot. As did boredom.
The English National Opera’s schtick is that they only do English language opera, so shit is always translated there (baring when they wheel out like, G&S, as they are perpetually doing: the ENO’s finances and operations are, I am told, a hot hot mess at the moment, so the money from said wheeling doesn’t come amiss). Because lines sung as opera remain hard to make out even if they are being sung in your native language (though not everyone in a London audience is necessarily super-proficient in English, of course), the ENO still does surtitles. But! only for songs proper, not sung dialogue. So like, good luck making the dialogue out.
Essentially, I think the ENO’s mission is kind of pointless now that surtitles are so well done. Why translate the opera on stage, given that you still need the surtitles? You can see how it’d bodge the music. But this is the organisation’s raison d’être, and while you can argue with this organizing concept’s utility and results, you do have to acknowledge that mission statement’s role in the ENO’s operations (something those angry over Emma Rice’s dismissal from the Globe do not, I think, adequately admit when dismissing historically-informed staging, aka Wanamaker’s organising principle).
Act 1 took nine hours, minimum, and not much happened during that period: it was like one of the more tiresome gothic novels. You could argue (and after this staging I wondered if one ought to) that not much happens in any opera, honestly. They’re usually a sort of bad play, with a thin plot and shite dialogue. A conversation with my sister, who’s classically trained (at everything, really, Meghan sings and plays a disgusting number of instruments), gave rise to examples of really good librettos and talked me down a bit as far as All Opera goes. But some combination of this libretto and this translation resulted in essentially the same bad lines repeated over and over for stretches of several minutes. Day-long, three-play Young Chekhov at the National earlier this month was less tiring (and the lines were generally worth hearing once, and maybe even multiple times, though I was never asked to do so).
Now, again, I don’t have a good enough ear to distinguish whether the problem was the score or the performance, but I came away from this production thinking ‘20% of Mozart is really good. REALLY good, as good as Amadeus promises you. The rest is plinky boring Cassio keyboard midi file hell.’ In this case we were stuck, musically, with a Diet Coke Figaro. Actually the opera-savy acquaintance I was with, who I’d also seen a Figaro with earlier this summer, wasn’t terribly impressed by the singing herein.
The set design, blocking and acting strongly reminded me of a uni production, but with a more adult budget thrown into achieving those uni-level effects. Here we are with the cast all in black and the set all in green—a sort of mid-century German minimalist look. But these choices were to no evident particular purpose. I can’t tell you what they did for this staging. It felt like the production team decided they had to do something and plucked this out of a hat without any particular vision of the effect they were going for. Same with the blocking/acting, which wasn’t so much about creating and conveying characters’ emotional through lines as giving the actors and extras Business. The most egregious moment in terms of blocking occurred during the party scene at the end of Act I. A ton of extras feebly seize-jived for ages (dark! sexy!) in the same positions as the core cast kept tripping over streamers these extras had thrown out. It was am-dram as hell—excruciatingly so, given that the National was concurrently staging Amadeus, and that their New Years party scene had a very similar moment, but staged just ridiculously better and to excellent, enthralling, chilling effect.
Yet singling out this moment downplays how many awkward impasses this production came to. The choice to stage Don Giovanni fairly naturalistically results in a lot of odd blocking, just to fill the physical space of longish arias. We opened with overture acting—never a great choice, because it tends to Stage Business. We meet Don Giovanni as his assistant helps him procure a chain of women. The Don goes into a room with each woman (and one man, oh aren’t we naughty here are the ENO) for 30 seconds, and sure, I get it’s a montage, but between this and the fact that you cast an older dude who, per my girlfriend, looks like a mid-level mobster: wtf, he seems bad in bed (30 seconds, eh?) and not hot, why are these women into it?? And they are so into it: this production if anything amps up Giovanni’s engrossing power over women.
Apparently there’s a stage tradition of playing with the complicity of Donna Anna, a woman who, per a flat reading of the libretto, Don Giovanni attempts to rape at the start of the opera. In this production, Donna Anna willingly played a rape-fantasy sex game with Don Giovanni. This went wrong when her father burst in to save her from her attacker and Giovanni killed him. Intervention in the text or no, this staging falls firmly into the ‘bitches lie about rape’ camp (the effect is exacerbated as the production goes on). Is this the staging choice you want to make right now, when rape culture is such a public discussion? Clearly this is what they’ve pinned their characterisation of all Donna Anna’s relationships in this production on, but I’d argue that doesn’t do enough for the staging to justify the choice. Besides, those relationships are kind of incoherent and unsatisfying in this rendering, so, what was the point?
Also it’s just practically awkward, because this sex game is taking place in something like a dingy hotel, but her dad is Also There with a prostitute in another room, and like… he doesn’t say ‘hey, why are you here with my daughter?’ or anything like you just… would? In such a circumstance? I begin to resent ham-fisted attempts to insert utterly silent big side plot arcs that work against the text in ways the text would comment on if this inserted development were the case. I’ve seen it a lot now with opera and Shakespeare. I am all in favour of interpretive stagings, but when your desire to mark the text or ‘add spice’ over-rides your desire to create a cogent production, ya done the badfic. The clever subversion that actually isn’t, what we’re left with is an OR DID I JUST BLOW YOUR MIND?? sophomoric, self-important mess of commentary.
As a result of this production’s initial choice to render Donna Anna complicit, we also get her lying about her father’s murder and obfuscating her knowledge of it, not wanting her fiancé at all for reasons we know nooooothing about, and, worst of all, after all her hatevows, apparently fucking Don Giovanni again in Act II during her song to her lover about how she’d never be cruel. That’s just fucking odd in the action of the story.
At the end Don Giovanni plays the gothic ghost scene like he’s not at allllll afraid, and the gothic just doesn’t work like that. There’s no trace of religious awe, for sure. The ghost scene is not operatic here, it’s not scary or grand or particularly funny. It’s just a dude in a suit and a trap door. Nothing. You’ve removed all my ability to cathect one of the big endings in opera, you stupid bastards.
Don Giovanni also switches places with Leporello, his aforementioned servant, when the devil tries to drag him down to hell. He abandons his servant to his own rightful fate and then goes back to his old tricks at the end. Essentially: Don Giovanni experiences no terror, the ghost grabs him, Don Giovanni’s a bit put out, Leporello tries to save him, Don Giovanni switches places with Leporello. Down his sole homie, Don Giovanni gets another servant to wear the Leporello wig and fucks another thousand Spaniards, raping here and there, I guess. He’s not really an amusing merry rogue, he’s a garden creep: all too mundane. How many of his seductions are just pressured servant girls? It’s sort of implied, and that’s also just dull, predictable rape. Even his lack of punishment’s mundane—he’s probably a promising athlete or something.
My girlfriend likes the idea of this non-traditional, very much not in the script ending because it makes sense for Don Giovanni’s character and picks up on an earlier farsical identity-swap. And it’s not a bad idea, but again, it’s a big SILENT CHANGE in the plot, working against the voiced text. I mentioned the shake-up to a friend who likes the opera a lot. She was kind of horrified by the loss of the story as she conceives of it, and wondered how the emotional arc could work with this particular altered ending. I could go with the swap more than I could go with the Donna Anna fucking Don Giovanni in Act II weirdness, but I see her point. I have only ever seen one good thing at the ENO (Sweeney Todd with Emma Thompson), and honestly I need to remember never to try again. I’ve been more than twice burned, and the ENO does not help me decide whether opera could be my thing, like, at all.