Monday, February 23, 2015

When Updating Opera Means Blandifying It; Or, Why I Hated The COC's Don Giovanni

From the COC production.

Let me start by saying right up front that I have nothing against updating opera productions. Sure -- put your characters in a modern board room. Make it be about the Iraq War. Use business suits. I love it.

However, a lot of updating I've seen lately I have hated. And the reason I've hated it is that, contrary to what is often thought, the effect of some updating is not to make opera more disturbing, relevant, thought-provoking, or edgy, but rather to make it more bland, more mushy, and more irrelevant. 

When someone complains about an updated opera production, the standard line is that they're some kind of traditionalists, who want to be lulled by opera's beauty and tradition, and that presenting them with disturbing contemporary commentary is too jarring for them.

Let me just say: for me that is the opposite of the problem. What I see in some updating is, instead, a kind of gutting of the themes of the opera. (#notallupdating).

The worst updating involves seemingly disconnected "cool" aesthetic choices, minimalist staging, and "interesting" effects like "Oh, the whole thing is happening inside a play inside a nineteenth-century garden!"

Often, I find the effect to be one of distancing the audience from the themes of the opera -- themes that, given opera, are often profoundly disturbing in themselves when the production is straightforward.

For example, I recently saw the COC's production of Don Giovanni. I kind of love Wikipedia's quick synopsis of the opera itself: "Don Giovanni, a young, arrogant, and sexually promiscuous nobleman, abuses and outrages everyone else in the cast, until he encounters something he cannot kill, beat up, dodge, or outwit."

In the recent COC production, several elements of the story were re-imagined. It was set in the 20th century, and the characters' relationships were changed so that everyone in the story who is not part of Don Giovanni's family is part of the same extended family. Don Giovanni is dressed like an ordinary schlump, usually in a ratty overcoat. About his re-imagining, the director says that it's not really about Don G. being a "bad person." Instead:

"The main clash here is between two radically different ideas about how to live a good life ... Don Giovanni here is not a seducer or a playboy; he is an older man, somebody who has experienced heartbreak and disappointment. He comes in with something of the messiah complex, but his utopia of a new kind of community unsettles everybody in the family."

I thought this approach destroyed the opera by undercutting its most interesting and important themes, without being bold enough to suggest other ones. Here are just three examples.

1. Power, money, and coercion.

In the traditional story, Don Giovanni uses his status and money as a nobleman to get what he wants at huge costs to everyone else. Because marriage to a nobleman would transform most people's lives beyond belief, young women -- such as the servant Zerlina -- will go along with him whatever he proposes. By falsely suggesting marriage will result, Don Giovanni is able to coerce and deceive women into having sex with them, even though in the traditional cultural setting, this could ruin their lives.

But in this production, any reflection on how massive wealth inequality impacts social relations is completely lost, since Don G. is just some guy, the family is presented as well to do, and Zerlina isn't a servant at all but rather the daughter of one of the family members.

Disturbing commentary on money, class, and society? Gone.

2. Love, Sex, and the Seductiveness of Evil.

Even if you gut the social commentary, you still have the extremely interesting possibility of presenting the theme related to the drives of lust and affection and how those can point in the opposite direction from the drives of good sense, love, and other nice things. It is utterly bizarre to me how in the massive suburbanization of modern life there's this party line that lust and sex are nice parts of love and go along naturally with it, while meanwhile there's this whole other thing happening with rape and sexual assaults and people in public life being completely undone by their non-monogamy.

In the traditional story, Don Giovanni is a bad guy. But he's an attractive guy. Part of that is his money, sure, but it's also because sometimes, evil is attractive -- that's one of those universal and universally interesting things about the human existence.

But in this production, Don G. isn't "evil," he's just some guy with some other ideas about living, and his charismatic effects are a total mystery. Was I the only person watching and thinking, "Who on earth would be sexually attracted to this slouching, arrogant asshole in a dirty coat?"

If you can't show why he's attractive, you can't even start with themes, because the story doesn't make sense. Plus, if Don G. is just a person with other ideas about "the good life," that suggests the update would present the opera as a reflection on the problems of modern monogamy and the possibility of something else.

You know what? That would have been AMAZING. It would have been an opera about something different, but something actually interesting, relevant, and possibly destabilizing to the audience. But I didn't see anything like that.

3. Unrepentance and Fate.

Everyone who talks about Don Giovanni seems to mention the fact that at the end ghosts appear and give him a chance to repent, and he refuses, and then goes to hell. I love that the opera traditionally has been seen as having comic elements, melodramatic elements, and supernatural elements.

But once you've gotten rid of Don Giovanni being a bad guy, the whole thing with the ghosts and supernatural elements doesn't really make sense. Is he psychologically persecuting himself? If he just has other ideas about "the good life," why would he do that? If the forces against him are that he's being ganged up on, that whole punishment and refusal to repent thing just doesn't make any sense.

Weirdly, with respect to the whole re-imagining the story idea, this Toronto Star review suggests that somehow, as traditionally told, the themes of Don Giovanni wouldn't make sense in our modern world:

"If you come to Don Giovanni to see a swaggering specimen of macho humanity break the hearts of numerous women without impunity, you will be disappointed. In this post-Ghomeshi, post-Cosby, post-Dalhousie Dentistry era, it’s hard to see how an old-school reading of this opera would fly any more."

This is mystifying to me. You're saying the themes of rich and powerful people using their influence to get other people to have sex with them -- sex that ends up being destructive or damaging -- are irrelevant to the modern world? That the stories alluded to show that that theme is passe? If anything it's the opposite. The traditional story is too relevant. It's presenting it straight that would really disturbing, destabilizing, and edgy.

It's not the traditional opera that's somehow a safe bet, a mushy, comfortable, inert bit of aesthetic fun. It's the update.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

Seems like an empty update! The opera itself is rich and fascinating. Did you ever see the update by Peter Sellars (the Vienna State Opera, I think) where it's set in the Bronx in the 1980s? The class stuff isn't as clear, because Giovanni and Leporello are sort of hoodlums, but the misogyny, and some of the suffering (Donna Anna, in particular) are, in my opinion, made more accessible by the update.