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Framing ‘Don Giovanni’ At The San Diego Opera

The production gives Mozart’s classic a new look

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando looks to the set design of San Diego Opera's "Don Giovanni."


Companion Viewing

"The Adventures of Don Juan" (1948)

"Joseph Losey's Don Giovanni" (1979)

"Io, Don Giovanni" (2009)

San Diego Opera opened "Don Giovanni" over the weekend. Mozart's classic is performed often but this production aims for something both modern and rooted in the 18th century.

Mozart’s "Don Giovanni" is based on the legend of notorious seducer Don Juan. The opera opens with the libertine seducing the daughter of the Commander of the Order of Calatrava and subsequently killing him in a duel.

The opening notes of the overture are probably recognizable to even people who have never attended an opera, and most people probably think of Mozart's music as beautiful. And it is, but it's also a lot more according to Nicholas Muni.

"Mozart’s music is gorgeous of course but I think we tend to forget how disturbing it actually is when you compare it to the music of his contemporaries."

Muni is directing San Diego Opera’s current production of "Don Giovanni." Nicholas Reveles, director of education and community engagement, agreed.

"We are so used to hearing that perfectly composed, classically structured, formal music that’s so easy to listen to that we don’t go any deeper," Reveles said, "We don’t realize that one of the arias ["Fin ch'han dal vino"] that Don Giovanni sings -- to a melody that is very well known -- is one of the most brutal pieces of music ever written because we don’t attach it to the text."

A text that reveals the depravity of a libertine. Muni, in his notes for the opera, asks that we consider the words: Libertine, Liberty, Liberal, and Liberate.

"What the definitions of these four words have in common is the concept of freedom (in the case of the word libertine, in a pejorative sense)," he wrote. "Referencing the American ideal of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", where is the line drawn between freedom of choice and personal freedom that may harm society at large? In our view, that is one of the central questions posed by this opera and much of the dramatic tension lies in the ambiguity it engenders."

But how do you get people to listen to a popular opera with new ears to hear how the word and music play off each other? One way is to get them to first see it through new eyes. So this production employs an enticing set that places an ornate golden frame around the border of the stage floor and a similar one suspended above. Then large framed paintings from the 18th century are lowered onto the stage. Muni described it as a "frame motif."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Cory Weaver

The production design for San Diego Opera's "Don Giovanni" features a frame motif.

"Our meaning for this is the sort of constraints of the 18th century on Don Giovanni who is a libertine who wants liberty to do whatever he wants to do and these frames constrain him," Muni stated.

But they liberate the audience to think about the opera in new ways.

"The director has thought an awful lot about Don Giovanni’s relationship with the society he lived in as well as to each one of the characters," Reveles said.

And each of Don Giovanni’s relationships is defined by a different musical language says Reveles.

"Don Giovanni is a fascinating character musically because he has to speak different languages in order to seduce different people," Reveles explained, "Giovanni is like a chameleon musically; he goes from one character to the other, and speaks their language and it’s so seductive that they are just ready to go."

And that’s what Mozart’s music does. It seduces us. Director Muni says both the music and Don Giovanni use a surface beauty to distract from something more disturbing underneath.

"I tend to emphasize the act Don Giovanni is putting on, the public image he’s putting on, as being very squeaky clean and almost religious and innocent. That’s his public image. His secret life is something entirely different," Muni said.

That contrast is what the production plays up.

"Don Giovanni is using his very high and noble state in life and society as a way to seduce women," Reveles said, And that makes him even more dangerous, and also makes him more contemporary. We have in our own city a perfect example of a person in high authority using that position to get women."

But there’s a turning point when Don Giovanni discards that façade.

"He doesn’t care if anybody knows what his secret life is he’s going to take that to the nth degree," Muni said, "That sort of accelerates his activity and creates a kind of descent into a level of depravity then God says -- or whoever it is who decides to end his life in the second act -- 'Okay this is your last moment on earth.'"

In the second half of the opera the frames start turning up empty.

"They not only speak symbolically about the breaking away from the structures of civil society but also of Don Giovanni’s own emptiness inside," Reveles said.

For Muni, the opera is as much about Don Giovanni as it is about the characters around him, and how he triggers feelings in them that they do not understand.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Cory Weaver

Bass-baritone Ildebrando D'Arcangelo is Don Giovanni in San Diego Opera's "Don Giovanni."

"He’s an exciting character because he does whatever he wants to do whenever he wants to do it and that’s very intoxicating and addictive and exciting, and these characters are exposed and it brings up all these feelings that they then don’t know what to do with," Muni said. "At end they are all kind of lost, they are destroyed by him but without him they are lost."

Muni wants to connect these 18th century characters with a modern audience.

"So part of the desire of the set is to have something that’s firmly embedded in the 18th century but also can look quite contemporary and clean and minimalist," Muni said.

And he hopes this lean visual style will open people’s ears to hear the opera in new ways.

San Diego Opera’s "Don Giovanni" has three more performances running through this Sunday at the Civic Theater.


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