As a director, I see three important truths in this opera that forever color my approach. One: from the moment Don Giovanni slays the Commendatore, he is thwarted at every turn, and never adds another name to his repugnant list. Two: the killing of the Commendatore thrusts him (and, by association, Leporello) into a dark, fragmented, maelstrom-like world. Sure, we end up in specific places, but I don’t think he’s sure how he gets there. We go from a street to a field to a courtyard to a graveyard with no clear sense of architecture, time, or map, and even when he ends up back in his palace, it seems as if the building itself is working against him. In the end, the whole hellish hallucination is in service to the Commendatore’s ghost, who has been taking him down since the beginning. Three: the women are archetypes in its purest interpretation. Donna Anna is the chaste damsel in distress, Zerlina is the lover, the seductress, Donna Elvira is the hysteric, running after Giovanni with a rolling pin over her head.
To be sure, I have approached it this way in the past, and the more I explore the piece, the more I feel the need to fight these images. The women are the key to Giovanni. In the end, it’s the three women who bury him, who are there at every turn to knock him off his game. I love the notion that Elvira and Zerlina appear, seemingly out of nowhere, to link arms with Donna Anna and push him to his death. It’s almost as if they were conjured into this spiral of horrors to aid in his well-deserved demise.
When I approach a work as well written as Don Giovanni, I think less about altering it or modernizing it, and more about turning it over to look at it from another angle. To find the feminine strength and inherent truth in this piece, we need to approach the women’s words and music with a different lens, one that is both female and can be armed with how far we’ve evolved in gender and sexual politics without stripping the story of its horror and nastiness. This is also not to say that the piece is always serious. It has serious themes, but the story is remarkably funny. It’s the fact that we all laugh that makes the horrid moments more horrible, and the poignant moments more poignant, just as I believe we should find Giovanni suave and outwardly charming so that his actions make us question ourselves and what we know about books and covers. Ultimately, Don Giovanni is one of my favorite pieces in the repertory because it is not what it seems. It has depths that are seldom mined, and characters with a psychological profile that allow us infinite possibility in their portrayal, not to mention the fact that this smooth-talking harasser’s just demise still speaks truth to our society more than 200 years after its premiere.