Trying, trying, trying to hold my tongue... not sure that it's going to happen. It's still possible that Elke Neidhardt's staging of Don Giovanni will be a better experience than the soundbites she herself is issuing would suggest. Well, I hope it's still possible. These interviews she's giving are putting my teeth on edge, however.
So she has set Don Giovanni in the present day. Gee, how revolutionary. Nobody's done that before. Fair enough, though, I suppose it's the first time this country, or at least this company, has had a 20th/21st century Don Giovanni contend with. Hence the defensive angle of all the press surrounding it. What troubles me is that in explaining herself, she seems to claim that the opera must be approached like this. If she wants to explain the reasons why it's possible, and perhaps desirable, to bring Don Giovanni completely into our own time, then fine, no problem — we want a director who believes in her concept. But when I read statements like "Audiences used to film and television will not, and should not, accept traditional treatment of old material", I baulk. Excuse me? I do, and I believe I should, accept traditional treatment of old material, when the mood takes me. I accept it alongside more controversial approaches, but I don't think there needs to be a mutually exclusive arrangement; nor do I consider my experience of film and television necessarily relevant to my expectations of opera. "Should not" is for audiences to decide, not for Elke.
She tells us that we won't believe in the supernatural elements of Don Giovanni as presented, and that the opera will therefore have no relevance for us. She claims it's necessary to update the opera because as it is, it's preposterous and we, the audience, won't have it. From The Australian comes this gem:
"You cannot do nodding, walking statues in the year 2008," she says. "You would be laughed off the stage anywhere else in the world except in Australia."
Brilliant — she manages to dismiss both the libretto and Australians in one fell swoop. Nicely done. She used the statue as her big, justifying example in the Allerta! article too. This seems like a poor argument to me. She seizes upon one of the opera's rare extremes of supernatural goings on to illustrate its supposed distance from reality, ignoring the fact that 90% of Don Giovanni revolves around real-life interpersonal relationships which we can probably all recognise. I think we (most of us, anyway) are bright enough to figure out those figures in eighteenth-century costumes are people too. Which is not to say modern day stagings shouldn't happen — just that this sense I'm getting from Elke, that they must happen, that they are the only way to make sense of an otherwise ridiculous and obsolete work, does not sit well with me.
And yes, I'm bothered on behalf of the Australian people by these slightly snide asides of hers reminding us how provincial we are. Audiences here are simple folk, apparently. Unsophisticated, which is why we're not appalled when someone takes the libretto at its word and presents a statue who comes to life. Oh, and how silly and laughable that, in the context of a national company which rarely presents nudity, the fact that Elke's Don Giovanni comes with a warning actually draws notice. Because, after all, "In Germany, no one would raise an eyebrow at nudity."
None of this means she's made a bad Don Giovanni, however. I question her motives, but if the result is interesting and doesn't make me want to scream, then I might be prepared to acknowledge that the ends justify the means, to some extent at least. Something which does worry me about her actual conception of the piece, however, is the suggestion in her Allerta! interview that she believes "offending a statue" to be the cause of Don Giovanni's downfall, a concept which, she scornfully laughs (I assume — the article, not surprisingly, doesn't say as much) "would be pretty hard to sell today". Yes, it would, but luckily that's not the concept the opera attempt to sell. Is it? We meet Giovanni on the final day of a life full of unspeakable debauchery and nasty narcissim, an amoral figure who rejoices in the trail of suffering he leaves behind him. It is the day on which all of his victims, all those who've suffered at his hands, and all the bad karma he's accumulated, come for vengeance. That confrontation happens to take the shape of dinner with an animated statue of a man he murdered, but it's pretty clear that what's going on here runs far deeper than a statue in a foul mood.
Besides, when does he offend the statue? He murders the Commendatore, which is a bit more than just offensive; when the statue comes to life, it's with the express mission of serving the Don with the nasty fate he deserves. The fact that Don Giovanni mocks the statue, taunts it, argues with it are besides the point as far as his demise is concerned — that much has been decided before dinner even begins.
I'd like to believe that the problem here is in the translation, that these brief press reports, obviously meant to tantalise and occasionally épater the ticket-buying bourgeoisie, don't properly reflect how much intelligent thought and good judgement has gone into this Don Giovanni. Soundbites are difficult creatures, to be taken with a grain or five of salt. There is one glimmer of hope — the article in The Australian revolves largely around the possibility that this production might drop the moralising sextet finale and go Viennese, ending with the Don's descent. Now that's a decision I can get on board with. I hope she does it. As for the rest, the proof will be in the "black and angular" pudding.
(To save me slotting links in above, the articles I've been citing are as follows:
Directing Don Giovanni a "cow of a job" - Allerta!
Mozart's cad faces a fitting damnation - The Australian
Opera's bad boy strikes raw nerve - Sydney Morning Herald)
Update: ACD has some slightly stronger words on the subject.