Guillaume Tell in London

“Staging opera means interpreting a score’s ambiguities, and each
performance must bridge the space between operatic history and the
present. Inevitably, modern anxieties and prejudices fill the gaps. And
few issues are more personal and contentious than the representation of

I wrote about the Royal Opera’s production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell for the New York Times. You can read my piece there, or in the July 19 Arts and Leisure section.

photo copyright Clive Barda

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Nuremberg’s Got Talent

If the Met’s performance Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg of last Saturday were one of its own characters, it would be Veit Pogner. Pogner, Eva’s father, is aging, jovial, traditional, filthy rich (he is, after all, a goldsmith), not a great thinker, and maybe hasn’t quite thought through all of the implications of his grand plans. This was a solid Meistersinger, and it was a pleasure to have Wagner back at the Met after too long an absence. Most of it was good and a few things were more than good. Except for Michael Volle’s fascinating Hans Sachs, it was not daring and it was not exciting, but some meat and potatoes Wagner like we haven’t gotten in a while.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Met Opera, 12/13/14 (HD broadcast, but seen by me live in house). Production by Otto Schenk, conducted by James Levine with Michael Volle (Hans Sachs), Johan Botha (Walther von Stolzing), Annette Dasch (Eva), Paul Appleby (David), Karen Cargill (Magdalene), Johannes Matin Kränzle (Beckmesser), Hans-Peter König (Pogner)

I was excited back in summer 2013 when Peter Gelb announced that Stefan Herheim’s Salzburg production of Meistersinger would be coming to the Met. As you can guess from my rather extensive Stefan Herheim archive here I think he’s the best. While I’m not sure if he’s a very good fit for the Met—actually I’m pretty sure his puzzle-like, historicizing style isn’t, but I’d like to see him in New York anyway—this production proved to be accessible and I think might go over well. But it won’t be happening until the 2019-2020 season, which gives new meaning to the phrase “music of the future.” Since Wagner is not on heavy rotation at the Met these days this 2014 Meistersinger is the last hurrah of the old production, even as the Herheim is already out on DVD. (Hopefully the Met will manage a better cast than Salzburg, except for Michael Volle as Sachs the Salzburg production was quite disappointing on that front.)

Anyway, this old, current, non-Herheim production is Otto Schenk’s Germanic storybook Zeffirelli moment. Flags are waved, pillows are relieved of their feathers from second story windows (at the height of the incomprehensibly staged riot), and small children march around for no particular reason except awwwwww. The sets are gigantic, and this production was built in the era when every production had a huge diagonal staircase or ramp, so there it is in the village lane set of Act 2. The costumes are heavy, modest, and curtain-like. You might know this production from the DVD with Ben Heppner, James Morris, and Karita Mattila.*

Some effort has gone into the blocking for this production, probably because it was an HD broadcast, and for a long opera it generally keeps moving well enough. But the cast, with the exception of Volle–and Annette Dasch, except the text doesn’t give her much to do–didn’t find much individuality or edge to the characters, and the production doesn’t give them any context either, and the result was pleasant and satisfying but not much more than that. I think this bothers me in Meistersinger in particular because it’s such an obviously rich and ambiguous text. It’s about artistic revolution and innovation and the role of tradition and, in the last act, takes a turn towards something much darker. This is a production such a literal reading of the libretto’s events—rather than their implications—that it never risks the slightest scratch of the marker’s chalk (sorry, but this is one of the most meta operas there is).

Pictured is alternate cast James Morris as Sachs,
showing the child-lifting instincts of the politician

About that last act, last scene. Schenk’s parade of the tradesmen and Nuremberg festivities reach a near Springtime for Hitler density of kitsch, with the same big pretzels, but considering the monologue with which Hans Sachs closes the opera that may not be the best choice of phrase. You can argue that the monologue, a warning that holy German art is under attack and must be protected, is largely an afterthought to the rest of the opera (though I don’t agree–the thing is six hours of constructing a glorious history-also-present for German art), but even so it sits uneasily with the Schenkian preciousness that surrounds it. It’s reminds us of the text’s deeper, more complex, and sometimes far more sinister purposes and histories, something we couldn’t miss in Michael Volle’s unnervingly aggressive delivery of that monologue. He seemed like an emissary from a different production (which he kind of was since he only sang two performances of this run). Maybe he’s from the Salzburg-Herheim, which is highly instructive at this moment.

(Morris still, with Kränzle as Beckmesser. Sorry.)

But for the Met this was business as usual. James Levine’s conducting was somewhat uneven but in places vintage and not nearly as slow as I feared. The Vorspiel went badly, a bland and undifferentiated cruise without momentum or character, but things picked up after that. Some parts were very slow, much of the opening to the opera’s detriment, and the Act III quintet more successfully, and it wasn’t perfectly clean (the riot was a little closer to disorder than the score demands), but the orchestra sounded great and the balances were good, better than many of Levine’s recent exploits.

Levine is an old hand with the score, and so is Johan Botha as Walther. I actually first heard him in this role, good lord, almost ten years ago at the Volksoper in Vienna. Back then his voice had an almost wondrous ease and gleam, now it has a darker, heftier texture (though he’s still on the brighter side of the Heldentenor spectrum). He still sounds like he could sing ten more verses of the Preislied without blinking, or without any more inflection that the minimal amount he expended on the first half dozen. That’s his weakness: while everything sounds good, it also all sounds the same, with clear diction but no intent behind the words. Walther might not be the most dynamic role but it helps to have at least a modicum of vocal and/or theatrical ardor present. And acting has never been Botha’s strong suit. At this performance he made a real effort to walk around but it was very noticeable that he only knows one gesture: arms slightly outstretched and palms facing outwards. It means, it seems, anything.

He offered little competition for Michael Volle’s Sachs, by far the most interesting character onstage. He skews youngish and baritonal for this role, and his Sachs is definitely a craftsman rather than a gentleman. (I know that might seem obvious but this role is often played with more gravitas and chin-scratching.) Yet he also gave a complex, text-centric interpretation, with considerable tension and anger in the monologues. This was not a benign portrayal, as I already mentioned above regarding the end. It’s funny how an opera which began about the young Walther ends with a huge chorus hailing Sachs as its hero, and there are compositional history reasons why this is the case, but Volle actually showed that as Sachs’s journey.

The rest of the cast ranged from good to adequate. Johannes Martin Kränzle sang Beckmesser well, without parody or whining, but nonetheless played him for laughs. (The best thing about the DVD of this production, BTW, is Thomas Allen’s Beckmesser, a more conflicted piece of work.) Annette Dasch acted very well as Eva, taking a confusing character and making her a relatively convincing young woman, but she struggled to fulfill the vocal demands. Her soprano sounds dry and strained, and while she got through it without major incident and showed a lot of effort and control in the quintet it was not pretty. Hans-Peter König was vocal boom itself as Pogner, and I wish he would sing Ochs (though I don’t know if he does comedy). Paul Appleby made David’s long Act 1 lesson pleasant and the Act 3 song charming, and he has the right laid-back energy to act this role. Karen Cargill sounded fine as Magdalene (sorry, this is a role I never particularly notice). The chorus sounded terrific in Act 3 and not quite as terrific in Act 2.

So I guess that I am glad that even in These Times the Met is still able to pull off big opera. I just wish they could be a little more consistently interesting about it. I’m waiting until 2019-2020, by which point my Herheim DVD probably won’t work because we’ll all be getting videos displayed directly in our brains. Zukunftsmusik!

Die Meistersinger marches onward through December 23, but again with James Morris. Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met.

*Musicologists: this is the production in which Ben Heppner at one point suffered the unhappy cracks which went down in Critical Inquiry’s drastic-gnostic history.

VIDEO with James Morris, not Michael Volle

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The Death of Klinghoffer

When a media circus gathers around a performance, or a film,
or an artwork, the eventual performance often fails to equal the furor that
preceded it. “That’s it?” someone ends up asking. But the opposite happened at The Death of Klinghoffer: the protest was
zealous but the work emerged wiser and braver than I thought it would be. This
was the most intense performance I’ve ever seen at the Met, almost a tinderbox.
But the opera itself, despite its unevenness and a production which, in
some respects, troubled me, is far more than invective.

John Adams and Alice Goodman,
The Death of Klinghoffer. Metropolitan Opera, 10/20/2014 (new production premiere). Conducted by David Robertson, production by Tom Morris with sets by Tom Pye, costumes by Laura Hopkins, lighting by Jean Kalman, video by Finn Ross, sound by Mark Grey and choreography by Arthur Pita. Wit Paulo Szot (Captain), Alan Opie (Klinghoffer), Michaela Martens (Marilyn Klinghoffer), sean Panikkar (Molqi), Aubrey Allicock (Mamoud), Jess Kovarsky (Omar), Ryan Speedo Green (“Rambo”), Maya Lahyani (Palestinian Woman)

I don’t think I can say anything new about this work (which just in case you haven’t been keeping up is based on the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists, and the subsequent death of the American Leon Klinghoffer at the hands of the hijackers). Much
has been written about since its premiere. But I can offer some perspective based on
what I saw last night. Please forgive me if the result is scattered; I’d rather write this quickly.

I saw some of the protest beforehand, though not every speech. It was organized by local conservative Jewish groups and was big enough to make the front page of every one of the major New York papers as well as the free ones you get in the subway. What I
saw was a sequence of local politicians, including some fairly well known ones, offering angry condemnations without
the substance of any evidence from the opera itself, incongruously tempered by
the occasional disclaimer that they respect freedom of speech so don’t accuse them of calling for censorship. The opera was
repeatedly described as terrorist propaganda—the opera, mind you. No one ever
said John Adams or Alice Goodman were promoting terrorism when they wrote it,
they were careful about that. But one wonders how the opera did it all by
This is starkly different from the criticism of the 1991
New York premiere, described in Robert Fink’s essential article. The earlier protest was
led by mainstream music critics and grounded in claims about the text, as was
Richard Taruskin’s infamous 2001 condemnation. You can argue these writers were
mistaken or misread the opera or quoted selectively—indeed, I would argue just
that—but they did make specific reference to it. (I recommend Phil Gentry’s post on these issues.) Yesterday’s protestors seemed to feel no need to justify
their condemnations with any evidence, which gave their rhetoric a circular quality. This opera
promotes terrorism because it promotes terrorism. Depiction of an crime onstage
is, according to these protests, tantamount to endorsement of that crime. (As my friend said, “have they ever seen Law & Order?” As the front page of today’s New York Post said, “MURDER AT THE MET!”)
There could have been a conversation about this, and I think
it’s sad that the protestors showed so little interest in
anything beyond their slogans. Gelb has not helped. When the
complaint is one of morality, a response of “many consider it Adams’s greatest
work!” does not constitute an answer.
Along the entrances to Lincoln Center’s plaza, protests were
more heated. I was told I was despicable and should be ashamed, multiple times.
Protestors further invaded the performance itself. The most prolonged
interruption was a single person chanting shortly after the hijacking scene,
there were scattered boos and obscenities elsewhere.

The actual opera is a more complex, more elusive text than
any of this year’s protests captured. It’s a reflective, meditative work whose
presentational style owes a great deal to the Passions of Bach. Some of the
drama is acted out “live,” many sections are narrated from an unspecified remove. Choruses are
interspersed, singing texts on allegorical or, sometimes, more directly
historical themes. The libretto itself is poetic, elusive, and complex. Despite
an action movie plot (indeed, this event was made into two actual
action movies), it unfolds slowly and methodically. Adams’s tranquil music
builds up into block-like climaxes, or abruptly shatters into chaos. There are
mundane moments (Marilyn Klinghoffer’s description of her health issues) and
trivial ones (the bubbly and naïve British Dancing Girl), familiar to anyone
who heard about Leslie Groves’s diet in Doctor
. Some of these lulls seem intentional, others don’t and it is unclear why they are there at all. It’s an uneven
piece, though in the end very powerful.
For the protest’s purposes—if they were interested in the
text—the depiction of the ship-hijacking terrorists is key. (Fink,
however, argues that in 1991 the problem was not so much the depiction of the
terrorists so much as the depiction of the American Jews, particularly in a
scene which has since been cut.) The terrorists are depicted as aimless, frustrated,
idealistic, but their actions are also unreservedly described as evil. That’s
not an overstatement. Adams and Goodman give Marilyn Klinghoffer the last word,
in a long speech. She mourns her husband and condemns the world’s inaction (“If
a hundred/People were murdered/And their blood/Flowed in the wake/Of this ship
like/Oil, only then/Would the world intervene.”) Klinghoffer himself has an
elegiac exit. The terrorists, in contrast, are mostly given broken, jagged,
ugly music (with a strong touch of the melismatic exoticism conventional given
to racial others). This is not particularly ambiguous, though it is also not
simple. The issues at hand aren’t simple either.

From what I have read about the opera’s original Peter
Sellars production, it was not realistic. The opera weaves together different
orders of time, and the passion play suggests something other than literal
representation. In 2004, Penny Woolcock’s film version of the opera is grittier, making much of the music a soundtrack to documentary-like
images (I have put a video of one of the choruses from this film at the end of this post). Tom Morris’s production for the Met seems to take its cue more from Woolcock
than Sellars. In Tom Pye’s set, looming walls serve as projection screens; the ship is suggested with a few railings.The narrated, past tense sections are told as if at a memorial
event; the action is depicted realistically. Projected titles supply times,
dates, and facts about the hijacking (even beginning before the performance and
continuing during intermission), giving the entire thing a CNN or Dateline
feel. This is an uneasy fit for the more abstract material of the choruses,
performed before projected images and utilizing a variety of symbols, including
a green flag (substituting for the real Palestinian flag) and, at one point,
what looked like two crucifixions (?).

The choruses are extensively choreographed (by Arthur Pita), though this is
mostly kept to those depicting the Palestinians. They are given a series of writhing,
violent gestures which seem appropriate to the music’s motion but also are
foreign to the rest of the production. (This is first seen at length in the
Night chorus, then later in the Desert Chorus.) Additionally, Morris has modified the role of Omar, originally
written for a mezzo. Here, the role is performed by a male dancer, who dances
in the same style while a woman in an abaya sings behind him, apparently
putting the thoughts in his head.

Omar and Woman
This choreography creates an association between the
Palestinians and the body: they express themselves through extreme,
uncontrolled motion in a way which the Jews do not. Particularly in a way which
the paralyzed, wheelchair-bound Klinghoffer, the opera’s central Jewish character, cannot. I don’t like this; it seems to establish a binary which is cheaper and
less complex than the libretto or music, and plays into a number of old exotic
stereotypes. I think that the director felt the need for a stage motion
expressing the frantic energy of the score, but I’m not entirely sure if he
needed one. Or maybe not this one.
From my seat, the Prologue and Act I’s choruses seemed
somewhat underpowered, as did the soloists at times. Adams’s operas are
generally amplified (though this is not done in an obvious way) and I wondered
if they were tinkering with the mix, because things seemed better after
intermission. David Robertson conducted, and must have nerves of steel; he kept
going through all the short interruptions and must have never known what could
happen any second (not that any of the rest of us did, but we weren’t in
charge). The orchestra sounded absolutely terrific and the synthesizers seem
appropriate for the piece rather than just retro.

This is not really a singers’ opera or one with many star opportunities, but
the cast is excellent. As Marilyn, Michaela Martens’s final
monologue was sung with raw sincerity and some beautiful rich low notes. Paulo
Szot is a really excellent physical actor who almost never lapses into operatic
cliché, and sung the text very clearly (though the voice itself was somewhat
monochromatic). Alan Opie made Klinghoffer a three-dimensional character even
given the small amount of singing he had to do. As the terrorists, Sean
Panikkar, Aubrey Allicock, Ryan Speedo Green, and Jesse Kovarsky (as the
voiceless Omar) must not have had an easy task, nor did they have the most
rewarding music, but all sang with convincing conviction. As Omar’s singing
voice, Maya Lahyani showed an intriguingly grainy, cutting mezzo.

I’m not sure if the subsequent performances will seem as electric as this one. This danger must be horrible for everyone
performing. But I highly recommend you go see this for yourself if you can, with or without protests. The protests are not, it turns out, the central attraction.

Production photos copyright Ken Howard/Met
Curtain call with Adams (second from right) 


Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians, from the Penny Woolcock film:

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Die Entführung aus dem Serail, or, Men Who Hate Women

Martern aller Arten

I had a few extra days in Europe, so I decided to hop over to Berlin for Calixto Bieito’s production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, which I’ve wanted to see for ages. If your reaction to this decision is not along the lines of “well, of course,” then continue reading with some caution.

For staging fundamentalists, this production and its supposed desecration of Mozartian purity have become a synecdoche for all of Regietheater. This is basically dumb: you can’t reduce so much diverse work by so many people to one production, and while I haven’t actually seen Calixto Bieito’s do-do list I doubt that “despoil our sacred cultural heritage” is the first thing on it. So I want to talk about this production, not its reputation. But before seeing it I assumed that none of its critics had actually seen the thing, since their litanies of complaints have the snapshot quality of description obtained through photos and others’ reviews rather than seeing an actual performance. But after seeing it myself, I’m not sure this is necessarily correct.

Mozart, Die Entführung aus dem Serail
. Komische Oper Berlin, 5/23/13. Production by Calixto Bieito (revival), conducted by Kristiina Poska with Claudia Boyle (Konstanze), Adrian Strooper (Belmonte), Jens Larsen (Osmin), Guntbert Warns (Selim), Louise Fribo (Blonde), Tansel Akzeybek (Pedrillo)

This is because it actually is really shocking, and disjunctive, and explicit! Like, pretty much all of it. Some of the photos below aren’t exactly safe for work but you shouldn’t need that warning. When you describe it with sentences like “and then during the introduction to ‘Marten aller Arten’ you see all the rooms of the bordello in business simultaneously,” you are just telling the truth and not really misrepresenting. And actually that’s just about the mildest way possible I could have phrased this because my mom reads my blog, just saying. When it comes to stage productions I’m usually the too cool for school type who refuses to be phased by anything but I found that ten minutes into this I was crossing my arms very tightly across my chest and basically couldn’t relax until the end. There’s no intermission, by the way, and it’s around two hours and fifteen minutes long.

 During the overture, we watch a beautiful, athletic woman do an acrobatic trapeze routine, but this is a feint: she’s only representing the false glitter of show business, and none of the female characters have this kind of strength or control. The setting eliminates the Turkish culture clash element, making everyone European (the alla turca remains in the music, and Bieito makes a lot of its gaudiness and maniacal repetitive energy). The setting is a bordello, of which Selim is the boss, Osmin the other employee, and Pedrillo the janitor–and Selim and Osmin also seem to be the main customers. But there doesn’t seem to be much of a world outside this brothel, and I suspect it’s supposed to represent society at large.

Most of the action consists of Osmin and Selim alternately abusing and hanging out with the various prostitutes of the bordello. Constanze is being held as a prisoner in a literal cage, and (as in the original libretto) refuses to cede any emotional connection with Selim. Belmonte is someone with no real sense of self except a misbegotten sense of romanticism (which prefers Costanze to be an idea than an actual person), and goes into very unconvincing drag to attempt to reach Constanze. When he gets into the bordello, that’s when things really start to get interesting.

The quartet plays out as a very problematic reunion: the men are genuinely suspicious of the women’s fidelity, and the women aren’t sure they even want these men back. As it turns out, they don’t. In a wild twist ending, the men shoot up the bordello indiscriminately, including most of the women, leaving the entire stage splattered with blood. Selim’s act of generosity is not killing Constanze, and she does eventually shoot him. But when it turns out that Belmonte’s rescue mission has not saved Constanze but merely installed him in Selim’s place, and despite Selim’s murder the only thing everyone can do is exalt his generosity. Constanze closes the opera by shooting herself.

The point seems to be that life for these women is enslavement either way—Belmonte isn’t much more than Selim with a few love letters, whose effect quickly wear off. There’s no escape for either Constanze or Blonde, which makes the ending fairly inevitable. It’s bleak, and depressing, but it’s also quite subtle. The portrayal of the relationship between Constanze and Selim in particular takes many unexpected turns, from loathing to a weird sort of attraction right back to hatred.

I’ve left out a lot of brutal detail, much of which is described in this review on Parterre. But for all these changes of setting and character, the majority of the spoken dialogue is, I believe, the original (unlike Stefan Herheim’s very different Entführung). Mozart’s music fits Bieito’s concept quite well: Constanze’s flights up into her extreme high register and her edgy coloratura are aptly tied to extreme psychological states, Osmin’s jumps around a wide range are played for physical effect. The only character whose music really doesn’t seem to work—though her text does—is Blonde (who is actually a brunette sometimes wearing a blonde wig), whose gentle and sweet arias are only worked into the concept with difficulty.

actually last week’s Spiegel

But that’s really the exception. Most of it is pretty damn faithful to the situation Mozart was portraying, stripped of the distancing effects of exoticism and a historical setting. The words about torture that fly by on digital signs are mostly from the actual libretto. Sure, the relationships onstage are more complex and less idealized than those of the libretto, but the music is, for the most part (pace most of Blonde), far more complex and multifaceted than that, and this is a production that gives that complexity dramatic purpose. It also asks why we–from the libretto’s original ending to every “traditional” staging today–are so so dedicated to sugar-coating this story (making it, effectively, the woman on the trapeze from the opening). Bieito seems to posit that any world where this story can happen is, for Constanze, not worth living in. (For critics this seems to slip into Bieito saying that Mozart’s Singspiel is not worth producing, which is not the same thing at all.)

Like La Cieca above, I feel like including a rundown of the singers is an awkward non sequitur, because this is a production that seems to subsume everyone into it. (Note: these photos show an earlier cast.) But, on the other hand, it wouldn’t have happened without them. The tempos sometimes pushed their technique beyond its limits. The strain didn’t superhuman transcendence recorded by others at this production (OQ subscribers only, sorry) but the frantic effort expended seemed quite appropriate for this production. Overall this cast was somewhat less inspired and demented that the average Bieito gang–but it is the nth revival of a no longer new production, and I can’t imagine they rehearsed too much and, I strongly doubt they worked with Bieito himself.

But I’m sorry to start with so many qualifications, because I think overall it was a very good performance. Claudia Boyle has the slim, clear timbre for Constanze, as well as the stamina and exceptional intensity, and her high register is reliable and on pitch. Adrian Strooper’s tenor is a bit dry but he navigated the music smoothly and easily. Tansel Akzeybek was a solid Pedrillo, and Louise Fribo fine as Blonde. Jens Larsen and Guntbert Warns, as Osmin and Selim respectively, bore the brunt of the stage action and were the most committed members of the cast, and Larsen is an excellent singer as well, with the vast range demanded by this role. Kristiina Poska’s conducting was good if sometimes a bit caffeinated, and I thought it was actually very poignant that a woman should conduct this production, for obvious reasons.

I can’t say this is going to go on my list of best performances very quickly. It’s more than a little brutal to watch, both because of the bleakness and the violence, and I did not find it in the least bit cathartic. (I don’t think it’s intended to be.) I looked around a bit at what other people have written about this production, and I was interested to see that with the exception of the inimitable Heather MacDonald I couldn’t find any women writing about this subject at all. Given the demographics of music writing this is not surprising, but I’m still curious if it makes a difference.

For the author linked above watching “Martern aller arten” was about observation and gaze, about creating a relationship between stage and audience. Bu I ended up putting myself Constanze’s subject position at least some of the time. She is, after all, a woman having an extreme reaction to a violent act that she is witnessing. I don’t think he ever takes this step of identification. For me the mirror aspect made it unavoidable, and actually the production’s equal (if not greater) weight on the women’s perspectives is one of its most remarkable aspects. It resists and questions the relationship established by the spectatorship which seems to linger in the subtext of that particular description.

And that identification aspect is what makes this staging such strong stuff, I think. It’s shocking and awful, but is all too obviously both portraying the modern world and closely aligned with the original text. And if you are going to deny that I have to ask why.

Photos copyright Monika Rittershaus


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Donna Anna Wore a Short Skirt

“The fire of a superhuman sensuality, a glow from Hell, had cast its reflection over her senses and she was powerless to resist. Only he, only Don Juan, could awaken in her the erotic madness which she lavished upon him.”
-E.T.A. Hoffmann, “Don Giovanni” (1812), trans. Chistopher Lazare (A.A. Wyn, 1946)
[“Das Feuer einer übermenschlichen Sinnlichkeit, Glut aus der Hölle, durchströmte ihr Innerstes und machte jeden Widerstand vergeblich. Nur er, nur Don Juan konnte den wollüstigen Wahnsinn in ihr entzünden, mit dem sie ihn umfing, der mit der übermächtigen, zerstörenden Wut höllischer Geister im Innern sündigte.”]

“Towards all her fellow-creatures [Donna Anna] presents a coldly correct personality… it would be beneficial to her personal growing-up if she had been pleasantly raped by Don Juan.”
-William Mann, The Operas of Mozart (1977), page 468.

This post is apropos the upcoming new production of Don Giovanni at the Met. There’s one thing I will be watching for very carefully.

Donna Anna, the noblest of the three women in Don Giovanni, tends to have a bad reputation. She is “self-absorbed and aloof” (Edward Dent), “has etiquette where her feelings should be” or is “cardboard” (these citations are from Kristi Brown-Montesano’s excellent Understanding the Women of Mozart’s Operas). Moreover, whatever happened offstage with Giovanni, no one seems to think it was actually rape. The more you look at the text, the more convoluted this reading looks, and its grounding in the assumption that no woman alive could resist Don Giovanni (ignoring the fact that Zerlina ultimately seems to as well) is pretty offensive.

The action of the opera really begins when Donna Anna cries for rescue from a strange man in her bedroom. Her screams attract the attention of her father. He and Don Giovanni (for that is who it is) fight a duel and Don Giovanni kills the old man, thus setting off the opera’s plot. Here it is. (This staging isn’t the best but I chose it because it has English subtitles.)

The entire disturbance is touched off by Anna herself, with her line “Unless you kill me, you have no hope of escaping me.” (“Non sperar, se non m’ucidi, ch’io ti lasci fuggir mai.”) This has been often reinterpreted as, “I want you so bad.” But her following lines, crying out for servants to help catch Giovanni (which, as she must have anticipated, also catch the attention of her father), seem rather to make a secret tryst rather implausible.

The second scene contains this dialogue:
LEPORELLO: Bravo, two pretty deeds!
Force the daughter and kill the father!
DON GIOVANNI: He wanted to fight.
LEPORELLO: But Donna Anna, did she want to?
DON GIOVANNI: Silence, don’t bother me, away unless
you want something too!

Later, Donna Anna recounts the events of the night to her fiancé, Don Ottavio. Her journey through various minor keys in the recitative gives it a tense cast; Don Ottavio tends to respond in a reassuring (or, according to some, gullible) major. She then goes into her aria “Or sai chi l’onore,” wishing for vengeance on her father’s killer and, most importantly, resolving the tension of the recitative in a heated pledge of revenge for the wrongs done onto her.

E.T.A. Hoffmann was one of the earliest and most influential of the “Anna wanted/needed it” school. In his “tale” based on the opera, quoted above (full text in a different translation available here), Anna has both a passion for Giovanni and the potential to become his redeemer. Far from a a villain, the nineteenth century’s Giovanni was a tragic hero, independent, virile, charismatic, etc. Donna Anna receives a Katerina Ismailova-like awakening courtesy of his invasion. (This is generally not seen onstage. Thank goodness for small favors.) In Hoffmann’s telling, Anna then feels massive guilt after her father’s death, which sparks her lust for vengeance:

Even the raging love that consumed her soul with hellish flames, flaring up at the moment of highest gratification, was aglow, now, with annihilating hatred… she feels that only the destruction of Don Juan can bring peace to her mortally troubled soul.

Hoffmann claims to interpret the opera “purely in terms of the music and ignoring the text.”

The idea that Anna just must have felt some passion for Don Giovanni persists in both criticism and staging, though usually in subtler form than William Mann’s astonishing pronouncement that she should be “pleasantly raped.” Funnily enough, some of these analyses also claim to rest on an interpretation of the music rather than the text, but reach very different conclusions from Hoffmann. Alfred Einstein and, most convolutedly, R.B. Moberly (Three Mozart Operas, 1967) read Donna Anna’s narration to Ottavio as deceptive and dishonest (the music supposedly betrays her), and interpret her ambivalence towards Don Ottavio not as grief or trauma but as a telltale sign of her secret passion for Don Giovanni. This analysis was thoroughly demolished by Julian Rushton in his Cambridge Opera Guide to Don Giovanni: “The real indecency here [that Anna cares for Giovanni rather than Ottavio] is to suggest, in line with the worst present-day mores, that she could not care so deeply about her father, nor be horrified by the attempt upon herself.”

Stage productions today often show a Donna Anna secretly in love with Don Giovanni. But they do this with an air of Freudian mystification as to the impulses of Woman. Anna turns up as an enigma who has no idea what she wants. To me this confusion seems quite directly contrary to her portrayal in any part of the opera text. This is a lady who knows exactly who she is and what she wants to do. Making her indecisive and infatuated reinforces a value system where the Don is a hero and woman is weak. I think there’s also a lot of pseudo-empowered “she is uncontrollably attracted to dangerous men and that makes her sexy,” which is all grounded in a big pile of patriarchy, as well as the mind-blowing assumptions cited by Rushton. Besides, isn’t her righteous anger pretty badass already?

To echo Rushton, the real indecency here is how contemporary society just doesn’t take the word of a woman who says she’s been raped seriously. Donna Anna enjoyed it and is just feeling guilty because she revealed herself as a slut. This kind of rape denial shit is an enormous problem for women today everywhere, and this particular interpretation seems to be in line with the worst present-day mores.

For example, consider Anna’s actions here in Martin Kusej’s Salzburg production. I’m aware I’m considering this out of the context of the production, but it is the first scene.

This seems to be fairly typical these days with the exception of some by-the-books traditional productions. Francesca Zambello’s production when I saw it in London had Anna kissing the Don (though it’s done differently on the DVD, interestingly enough), and Jean-Louis Martinoty’s Viennese train wreck last December (pictured at the top of this post) gave her an S&M thing. I find it very disappointing that some productions that seem to have a lot of thought put into them (I am not including Martinoty here) still default to such a reflexively patriarchal portrayal.

Or take Calixto Bieito:

I can’t tell if Renée is entertaining second thoughts here or if this is just poorly staged:

Can’t we consider the Occam’s Razor of emotional decoding, the simplest solution, which is that Don Giovanni attempted or succeeded in raping Donna Anna and she was very angry about this? Apparently it’s not that easy.

Recommended non-patriarchal Don Giovanni reading:
Kristi Brown-Montesano, Understanding the Women of Mozart’s Operas. University of California Press, 2007.
Daniel Heartz, Mozart’s Operas. University of California Press, 1990.
Julian Rushton, Don Giovanni. Cambridge Opera Handbooks, Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Lydia Goehr and Daniel Herwitz, eds. The Don Giovanni Moment. Columbia University Press, 2008.

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