Crime and Punishment

In Michael Grandage’s Met-debut production of Don Giovanni, the title character wasn’t just a serial seducer but an intensely complex individual. By Philipp Brieler

It was back in 1630 that Don Juan first swaggered into the public consciousness. Spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina’s play El Burlador de Sevilla y Convidado de Piedra is considered the first written account of the story of the legendary lothario. Little could the author have known that his creation would lead to a long line of adaptations by such diverse literary figures as Molière, Byron, Pushkin, Baudelaire, George Bernard Shaw, and José Saramago. (Not to mention movie versions featuring everyone from Errol Flynn to Johnny Depp.)

But the definitive interpretation of Molina’s “trickster of Seville” was to be a musical one: Mozart and Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni, first heard in Prague in 1787. The opera returned to the Met during the 2011–12 season in a new production directed by Michael Grandage and conducted by Fabio Luisi, with baritone Mariusz Kwiecień in the title role. At the core of Grandage’s approach to the piece was the complex nature of its eponymous antihero—a character that has been portrayed as both the image of youthful vigor and as a villainous, decadent criminal. “Don Giovanni has a charismatic lust for life, but he’s not just some serial seducer—he’s a dark, complex individual,” Grandage says.

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“The starting point of Don Giovanni is a death, and the brilliance of the opera is that Mozart then takes us to a piece about life. There’s something quite Shakespearean about it: a serious subject that has many opportunities for comedy, for lightness of touch, for all sorts of layers in the portrayal of the characters.”

Grandage, who made his Met debut with this production in 2011, won critical and public acclaim as the artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse. His work there included stagings of Hamlet with Jude Law and King Lear with Derek Jacobi, both of which were also seen in New York, as well as John Logan’s Red, about the painter Mark Rothko, which won Grandage a Tony Award for its 2010 Broadway run.

This new Don Giovanni also marked Mariusz Kwiecień's first Met performances of the title role. He was joined by a host of accomplished Mozartians, including Barbara Frittoli, Ramón Vargas, Luca Pisaroni, Joshua Bloom, and Štefan Kocán, as well as Marina Rebeka and Mojca Erdmann in their Met debuts.

The design of the Met’s new production, with sets and costumes by Christopher Oram, lighting by Paule Constable, and choreography by Ben Wright, took its cue from Don Giovanni’s Spanish origins. The set consisted of a series of towered walls with balconies and crumbling paintwork in warm, faded Mediterranean colors; these pieces can be arranged in a variety of combinations to reflect the story’s fast-paced episodic structure. Being able to keep the action moving with the story was one of the goals in creating the design. “Each of the towers has a number of rooms and these buildings part and open up on different levels, and the buildings have balconies and the balconies have interiors,” the director points out. “And at the same time you still have to make sure there’s something at the very front of the stage so we can communicate with the audience directly.”

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An extraordinary cast did the work of communicating the director’s ideas from the stage to the auditorium. Polish baritone Kwiecień, who has won international praise for his portrayal, says, “It’s one of my favorite roles. Don Giovanni has such a huge variety of expression, and that’s wonderful because you can never say, ‘mission accomplished.’ It’s a role that grows in you and with you.” The singer was very conscious of how his view of the character has developed. “Mozart and Da Ponte wrote this when they were in their 30s,” he explains. “And I think when you’re 35, you don’t have much knowledge. Don Giovanni is a role that should not be too intellectual. It needs this feeling of freshness, of going with your intuition, not necessarily with your brain.”

For almost 400 years, artists have psychoanalyzed this character. He has been examined as the subject of tragedy and satire by its various creators and interpreters. Depending on the author’s point of view, his story can be delightful or depressing, a prank or a warning. Mozart and Da Ponte’s version is either a dramma giocoso, or “jocular drama” (according to the libretto), or an opera buffa, a comic opera (according to the composer’s catalog of his works). The terms are in fact closely related and their meanings overlap. But it is worth noting that the two creators of Don Giovanni chose different labels for their joint effort. With the possible exception of Die Zauberflöte, none of Mozart’s other operas covers such a wide range of tone, atmosphere, and emotion, from the lighthearted and playful to the threatening and sinister. And few 18th-century stage works, whether comic or dramatic, plunge audiences into the action as suddenly and as grippingly as Don Giovanni—with a fatal duel in the very first scene. From this dark and ominous beginning, the story moves toward its climax in a rapid succession of episodes that alternate among the humorous, the serious, and the sentimental. But the unsettling ending, director Grandage points out, is the direct result of the opening scene: “You have to tackle this head-on,” he declares. “Giovanni is going to hell because he killed a man. He’s not going to hell because he seduced a lot of women. If you go to hell for seducing people,” he adds, “then hell’s a pretty busy place I should imagine.”

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With the story firmly anchored between the poles of Don Giovanni’s crime and punishment, the concept of hell became one of the focal points of the production. Grandage and his design team chose to set it in the mid-18th century. The Catholic background of both Mozart’s own life and era and the story’s Spanish setting thus took on special significance. “If you look at this period, the literal nature of hell and its religious aspect are very important,” the director explains. “You’ve got to be able to deal with what hell means for a society at that time”—a society in which religion was part of people’s everyday life in ways hard to comprehend for a modern audience. “Without giving away too much,” Grandage says, “I think we’ve found a way to achieve this that is believable.”

Every production of Don Giovanni, whether intentionally or not, carries with it four centuries of backstory. The challenge, then, is to make that story contemporary. “The fact that you’re doing this piece now has to be a big part of any equation,” Grandage sums up. “The word ‘modern’ is very difficult to interpret because the moment you say it people will imagine it’s going to be modern dress, which we’ve decided not to do. It’s all about making the audience feel the piece is for them so they can relate to it in some way. It has to feel modern.”