Don Giovanni: The sexy beast in black boxers

Portland Opera brings back Christopher Alden for another non-traditional staging of a classic

The casket at center stage in “Don Giovanni”/Cory Weaver

By JOEL KLEINBAUM

Two rows of chairs line the sparse, gray-paneled stage. The characters—when not involved in the action—sit down to watch…or not. An open casket takes center stage. Near the end of the show, one character leaves the casket, and another, lead by a child, takes his place. Is it experimental theater? Avant garde improvisation? No, it’s “Don Giovanni.”

Christopher Alden’s stark, revisionist staging of Mozart’s masterpiece—first unveiled at the New York City Opera in 2009—mustered a chorus of praise from the New York critics. The New York Times gushed: “Mr. Alden’s production shows that a bold concept, if followed through with consistency and imagination, can chip away encrusted staging habits and revitalize a masterpiece.” Bloomberg heartily approved: “But Alden’s concept brings out the violence, sex, alienation and fear of dying that seethe at the heart of the story and which do not need any particular style of costume.” And Alex Ross of the New Yorker truly enjoyed “…a funny, sexy, spooky new production of Don Giovanni, by Christopher Alden.”(3)

Portland Opera presents this highly-acclaimed production beginning on November 2. Yet Portland Opera’s coy silence about Alden’s staging  would baffle any knowledgeable opera-goer. “Please note: DON GIOVANNI contains adult content and sexual situations,” notes Portland Opera’s website in the fine print. Otherwise, nada. Oh, the press release—buried on the media page—did quote the New York Times review.

Alden’s decidedly non-traditional stagings generate controversy wherever they appear, but perhaps more so in Portland than most places. Alden’s Portland debut, a drab, “Third Reich” vision of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” included “a mini-Auschwitz below decks and… the Dutchman (taking) off his cloak to reveal the striped, ragged garb of the camp’s prisoners,” as The Oregonian described it. Alden’s 2011 “mugshot” staging of Puccini’s “Turandot”—the backdrop consisting of mugshot-style photos of the princess’s 114 executed former suitors— prompted James Bash to quip, “Instead of being in a Chinese fairy tale, all of the characters were trapped in a nightmare.”

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“Don Giovanni” provides plenty of fresh grist for Alden’s revisionist mill. He sets the action not in renaissance Spain, but an undefined place in the 1930s. As the show progresses, we slowly realize the sparse setting and those ubiquitous chairs represent a funeral parlor and the casket belongs to the slain Commendatore. (SPOILER ALERT: Don Giovanni, incidentally, dispatches the Commendatore not in a swordsman’s duel, but by a bloody head-bashing, which contributes a splash of crimson to the drab white and gray backdrop.)

The Commendatore—now a corpse—enters the casket. Instead of a statue, a singing stiff confronts Don Juan during the judgement scene. And instead of hellfire and demons, Don Giovanni’s punishment is death by coffin: exit Commendatore, enter Don Juan.

Hearty doses of physical comedy liberally intersperse this drama ‘round the casket. According to New York Magazine, “Characters stumble together, flop apart, cross paths at full tilt, embrace, grope, struggle, and dodge…”

A much-publicized scene, in which the Don and his servant, Leporello, switch identities and outfits (so that Giovanni will be better situated to seduce Elvira’s maid) gives us Giovanni and Leporello—clad in nothing else but black boxer briefs—exchanging the jacket and trousers of a single dark suit. According to the New York Times, this exchange is “a vivid metaphor, and made more striking because both singers are so buff.”  Bari-hunk fans take note: both Daniel Okilutch and Jason Hardy reprise their New York roles as Don Giovanni and Leporello in Portland.

And speaking of Don Juan, the popular opera blog, Parterre Box, says that Alden portrays the title character as “a brute, a sociopath without suavity… Zerlina’s attempted rape is vicious; in the penultimate scene, the chords which should mark the Commendatore’s approaching steps [and the Don’s impending doom]  instead accompany Don Giovanni’s sexual thrusts into the body of Donna Elvira’s maid.” (7).

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An “updated” staging replete with murder and mayhem, sex and slapstick, starring not one, but two buff bari-hunks: it would seem that Portland Opera has all the ingredients to attract the ever-elusive “new audience” to the opera house.  Why, then, does the Portland Opera appear to be so coy about this particular Don Giovanni?

Maybe because Portland’s opera-going public maintains a hate-hate relationship with Alden’s conceptions. According to The Oregonian, the 2007 Third Reich “Dutchman” sparked a flurry of heated comments. Last time around, Portland Opera bravely opened an online discussion for Alden’s “Turandot.” The feedback from patrons—both new and old—was overwhelmingly negative, by a margin of nearly three to one.

“I love “Turandot,” but last night I kept wishing I was anywhere but in the audience,” lamented one audience member. Others intimated they would drop their subscriptions: “This is the worst opera performance that we have ever seen in over 50 years of being opera fans… Now, we are seriously wondering if we should continue to be subscribers after what we were subjected to last night.” Others were aghast at the staging and put the blame squarely on the director: “The directorial ineptitude of this production was staggering beyond anything I’ve seen in my many opera-going years.”

Will this tried and tested and critically acclaimed “Don Giovanni” fare any better with the Portland audience than “Dutchman” and/or “Turandot?” Will it woo the new audience that opera so desperately needs? Or does the audience’s pleasure—or displeasure—even matter any more? Said Christopher Alden in an interview prior to his 2007 Dutchman “that’s part of the MO of being an opera director—to shock and provoke.”

Opera buffs and newbies alike can be “shocked and provoked” by Don Giovanni as presented by Portland Opera at the Keller Auditorium. Performances are November 2, 9, and 11 at 7:30 pm and November 4 at 2:00 pm.

 

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