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Seduction, Revulsion & Revenge

Jax Symphony takes on Don Giovanni

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“Classical musicians believe that these pieces can talk to every age, and continue to be relevant,” said Courtney Lewis, Jacksonville Symphony music director.

The sentiment is especially appropriate as the orchestra prepares to mount Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 18th-century opera Don Giovanni. Considered by many to be the most famous opera of all time, it’s a story about libertine/rascal/rapist Don Giovanni as he gaslights, lies and hides his identity in multiple attempts to “seduce” women who otherwise seem perfectly happy to resist his charms. The libretto was written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, and it was based on an older story, The Trickster of Seville (1630), by Tirso de Molina.

The Trickster is a handsome aristocrat who spends his days seducing and ruining women. He’s able to dodge a reckoning until, finally, one fed-up ghost drags him to hell. These sexual politics (and revenge fantasies) still have purchase.

Like Trickster, the story of Don Giovanni is centered around the hedonistic pursuit of random sexual gratification. It follows the eponymous Don as he encounters women he’s already “inveigled,” as well as yet more women he hopes to “beguile” (to use the euphemisms of the day). Insulated by status from the ramifications of his behavior, his is a familiar lore belonging to every privileged, unchecked son throughout history. It’s a tale of the type of brazen behavior that makes the lower classes hungry for blood: Lewis noted that the librettist Da Ponte was attempting to indemnify the noble class, and some posit that the work was a harbinger of the French Revolution. Yes, Giovanni gets a satisfyingly fiery comeuppance, but the narrative politics are not as simple as all that.

Don Giovanni is always a wonderful piece to do,” said the conductor, “but it’s particularly interesting at the moment because of #metoo. It really does change your view of the piece. In the past, I would have laughed at Don Giovanni, ‘Isn’t he such a player!’ But when you’re in an environment when you see the pain that so many women have experienced—and that’s all in the opera, too—you get a character like Donna Anna [Emily Birsan] who’s just completely destroyed. Or a character like Donna Elvira [Sofia Selowsky] who’s gone crazy as a result of his abuse. So, it has changed, and the timing right now makes it seem really relevant.”

In fact, as we (as a culture) begin to examine the cost and implications of timeworn clichés like “playboy,” “rake,” “ladies’ man” or any number of sobriquets used to tacitly dismiss entitled male behavior, art reminds us that it’s a living thing, that even as the music and words remain the same, their meanings change, as well as the public’s interpretation and reception  of those words and that music. That which was once playfully sexy becomes darkly fascinating—even as the audience recoils, they cannot look away. As ever, humor is a handy lens through which to view power.

“They [librettist and composer] were very much holding a mirror up to the aristocracy,” explained Lewis. “This was a time when it was still legal—I don’t know to what degree this actually happened—but it was still legal for the lord of the manor to go and have sex with any women he wanted in his land. There are lots of points in Giovanni where they’re saying, ‘This is utterly ridiculous.’ And only an art form that was enjoyed by the aristocracy had the power to convey that message.”

It’s important to note, however, that one-dimensional characters don’t become immortal. “One of the most telling elements of any work of art in its quality is: ‘How timeless is it? How can its themes continue to stand up hundreds of years later?’” said Tony Nickle, Jacksonville Symphony’s director of artistic administration. “Don Giovanni can be looked at through the lens of any particular era in history, and you can find relevance.”

Indeed, much rests on Giovanni’s velvet shoulders. Performer Joseph Lattanzi’s task is to not only sing, but to imbue Giovanni with excitement, humanity and pathos. When asked how he’s prepared for the role, he replied, with a smile, “Lots of Tinder.”

This moment of levity serves as a reminder that Mozart himself conceived Don Giovanni as an opera buffa: a comedy. That fact doesn’t take anything away from the bias that undergirds the work, but acknowledges the composer’s genius. It takes sympathy, nuance and humor to make an audience fall for an utterly narcissistic scoundrel.

Lattanzi makes the point: “I was thinking earlier that I get the feeling that when I sing Don Giovanni, that everything happens around Don Giovanni. When I walk off the stage, I feel like there are all these beautiful insightful arias for all of the other characters—and Don Giovanni has his arias—but I think what we are talking about, in terms of his effect on everyone, that it is supported by the music.”

“It might also be important and interesting to note,” continued the baritone, “that Zerlina [Jessica Pray], the peasant character, has learned how to operate within the system and use it to her advantage. [She] shows the aristocracy a little of the things they are missing.”

Returning to the seductive qualities of Giovanni, Lattanzi said, “I can’t think of him as a villain, and that’s not so interesting to play. And so I try to take everything that he says to all of the different women, and all of the things he does to deceive everyone, as ultimately sincere.”

Indeed, one can’t help but think of recent revelations where power, wealth and charm have formed a potent and damaging sexual charge. It is rich soil to till.

“I think there’s something there about privilege and having never had his power checked and really being able to turn every situation to his advantage. We’ve caught him on this day, his worst day,” the singer summarized.

Lewis weighed in, commenting, “That’s very interesting, because it’s something we find ourselves thinking about on an almost daily basis: Even though we can acknowledge something is destructive and unpleasant, we still are completely seduced by it. We are so intoxicated by Don Giovanni’s power that we can’t help but admire it and admire him, even though we’re disgusted at the same time, and that is so relevant.”

Nickle then added that this sort of ambiguous audience response is reified in the character of Giovanni’s servant Leporello, played by David Kravitz, who “totally loathes him, and yet wishes he could be like him.”

That the symphony is moving forward with such an emotionally and ideologically charged work reflects the strength of this season’s program. Lewis has led selections from Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle—notable not just for the extraordinariness of the music, but for the unsavoriness of the composer’s politics—and the symphony hosted Cameron Carpenter, a virtuoso organist who brought the orchestra’s historic Bryan Concert Organ to life in splendid fashion. In sum, Lewis is mounting an ambitious program that’s deeply rooted in the classical canon yet anticipates contemporary conversations. As such, Don Giovanni is the first symphony-produced opera to take the stage since the organization was under Fabio Mechetti’s baton.

It is also a singular production in another manner. The opera will be mounted in Jacoby Symphony Hall, which is technically a concert hall—it has no proscenium or curtain. In short, there is no space to hide set materials, and no efficient way to swap out props during the production. So the spectacle is billed as a “fully staged concert opera.” Further, Lewis thought it was important to keep the orchestra onstage as a key facet of the show.

“Of course, it’s wonderful having an orchestra in a pit, but there’s something about if you are used to seeing a symphony orchestra on stage, like we are in Jacksonville, there’s something kind of off-putting about placing that orchestra in the pit. I think sometimes the impression is that this becomes a less integral part of the action, which obviously it isn’t,” he said.

For Nickle, the central problem was managing the space, without yielding any of the emotional timbre of the piece.

“How can we pack all of that drama that’s in the full libretto, which is all the text, into the concert hall?” he asked. “I think we’re making a statement as to what are the possibilities to be done [while] maintaining the tradition of having the orchestra on stage and still preserve the integrity of the full opera.”

Stage director Krzysztof Biernacki commented on the aesthetics and visuals of the piece: “The score of Don Giovanni always stays the same, we always have to stay very truthful, very authentic to the score. However, we can present any work of art with a more contemporary interpretation. The music does not change, the words do not change, the emotion the characters are feeling on stage does not change, the human expressions do not change, but we present it with a very sophisticated, contemporary look.”

A key element of this more contemporary approach is the use of huge (30 feet x 30 feet) projection screens to create landscape and atmosphere. The projections, designed by Yuki Izumihara, include a mix of semi-specific locations, to evoke a sense of place, and more moody and atmospheric passages to correlate to the displays of emotion.

“We have to customize all of this for Jacoby Hall,” explained Biernacki. “Everything is arranged according to the orchestra on stage; the orchestra plays the prominent character on stage, the orchestra is the featured soloist, so to speak, with singers around them. It’s a set we’ve designed specifically for this space.” He also noted that opera has always been expensive to mount and, thus, arts organizations often get inventive in solving problems of presentation.

The stage for the singers is a horseshoe around the orchestra, “so the singers are actually singing and acting from behind the orchestra, they’re singing six feet in the air.”

The symphony is working with the University of North Florida to share resources—and give some student singers a truly professional experience.

“This is our first collaboration of this kind, we decided to see if we can combine resources to see if we can put out a theatrical presentation together […] this provides a transformational experience for the students.”

Any theatrical work is inherently collaborative, but this iteration of Don Giovanni seems to draw smartly on the strengths of the space, the Jacksonville community and the reputation of the composer. As such, the institution becomes more ideologically nimble, which is reflected in dialogue and a deeper engagement with the community.

“The reason this piece continues to be so fascinating is because of Mozart’s incredible insight into psychology,” said Lewis. “The reason it’s a great opera is because the characters are incredibly real and believable. People who don’t know opera often have a picture in their head (God knows from where) of these ridiculous cardboard people. Da Ponte was a great psychologist, but Mozart’s music adds this incredible dimension of compassion, understanding and sympathy that brings the characters even more to life. And that’s really exciting to experience.”

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