Don Giovanni, first produced in 1787, tells the story of the incorrigible womaniser whose restless philandering lands him in hell. He is the aristocratic bully whose licentiousness is an expression of his male, feudal authority.
However, his promiscuity is classless in that the targets of his seductive urges are women of all classes—maids as well as princesses—as his servant Leporello tells the discarded lover Donna Elvira.
The three women in the opera represent the three main classes of the period: the upper class Donna Anna, the middle class Donna Elvira and the peasant woman Zerlina.
There is also some ambiguity in the character of Don Giovanni and his ceaseless indulgence of his sexual appetites. On the one hand, it represents a challenge to repressive bourgeois morality with its emphasis on restraint.
On the other, his unending amorous pursuits, his obsessive accumulation of conquests, expresses the way modern capitalism deprives most individuals of a sense of inner wholeness, prompting us to seek compensation in endless consumption.
Don Giovanni is the modern, alienated man in search of the perfect woman: love and sex have become commodities, the next woman bound to be better than the present one, an alibi that relieves him of the need to commit himself.
In one scene, he tries to seduce Zerlina, who is well aware of his fickleness but is attracted to his social position. He thrusts aside her fiance, Masetto, who returns with a group of armed peasants bent on killing the feudal master—clearly a harbinger of the coming French revolution.
The characters in the ballroom scene sing Viva La Liberta—“Long Live Freedom”.
Also, in the character of Leporello, Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte have created one of their great set of rebellious servants.
A further symptom of the decline of the old upper class is Don Giovanni’s failure to seduce either of the two women he is chasing.
The ENO’s new production by Rufus Norris is lively, witty and well-paced, with fine singing, especially by Iain Patterson as Giovanni, Brindley Sherratt as Leporello, Sarah Regwick as Donna Elvira and Katherine Broderick as Donna Anna.
The orchestra under Kirill Karabits give an outstanding performance of some of the finest music in the dramatic operatic repertoire. The only question marks were over the rather abstract modernistic set and costumes.
Whether one conveys the full meaning of an artistic product of a past era by giving it a contemporary setting remains an open question. In this case, it did little to deepen our understanding of one of our greatest “modern” operas.
Mozart’s Don Giovanni is on now at the English National Opera, Coliseum Theatre, London. Directed by Rufus Norris