Michael Haneke’s 'Don Giovanni'

There has always been a strong link between cinema and opera with several directors - Losey, Visconti, Zeffirelli, Chéreau and even Tarkovsky – working successfully in both disciplines. In recent years, the Paris Opera have been particularly experimental in their productions, exploiting this connection with cinema and commissioning work from the avant garde Catalan group La Fura dels Baus (Fausto 5.0), and a forthcoming punk opera in June directed by Emir Kusturica featuring his No Smoking Orchestra, based on his film Time of the Gypsies. For their 2006 celebrations of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart, the Paris Opera invited the controversial Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke to direct one of his operas.

As Haneke’s roots are in theatre, the move to opera is not such a great leap, but even so it’s difficult to see how the film director’s particular austere, minimal approach could be reconciled with the grandeur usually witnessed at the Palais Garnier and the Opéra Bastille. There could only be one Mozart opera that lies within Haneke’s range and remit. Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito, at either ends of Mozart’s career, are too classical in origin, their dramatic structure mired in the long-winded demands of the opera seria. While there are certainly intriguing themes in The Marriage of Figaro, Così Fan Tutte and Die Entführung aus dem Serail, they have perhaps too many burlesque and farcical elements for Haneke’s seriousness of purpose. The Magic Flute is more notable for its lyricism than its themes, which are perhaps too esoteric and removed from everyday concerns for the Austrian director – not to mention that the La Fura dels Baus’ recent ludicrous ‘Mozart on Bouncy Castles’ re-conceptualisation of the opera for the Bastille is perhaps too fresh in the memory for it to undergo yet another modernisation. Don Giovanni on the other hand is certainly Mozart’s darkest opera. Tense, dramatic and bipolar, it reflects the full range of Mozart’s extraordinary personality, flipping between outrageous exuberant irreverence and bleak meditations on death, grief, guilt and revenge. It’s perfect material for a director like Haneke to work with, particularly as its story of serial seduction, murder and revenge makes its subject the one most amenable to modern-day reinterpretation.

The successful production revived in 2007 for the Paris Opera at the Bastille, Michael Haneke’s Don Giovanni - reverting back to its original title of Il Dissoluto Punito ossia il Don Giovanni ('The Dissolute Punished or Don Giovanni') – takes the world of business executives in a modern high-rise office complex as its setting, its large windows affording a view of a built-up downtown business district. Working late one night, Junior Director Donna Anna is sexually assaulted by a dark figure who enters her office. Her father, the Chief Executive, Il Commendatore, hears the commotion and tries to intervene, but is brutally murdered by the unknown assailant, who makes his escape pursued by Anna’s fiancé Ottavio. The killer is a young Junior Executive, Don Giovanni, a notorious womaniser who, with the assistance of his PA, Leporello – a personal poodle to support him in his crimes and deceits – continues his attempts at serial seduction undeterred by recent events, even trying to get off with Zerlina, a cleaning lady who is just celebrating her marriage to Masetto. With thousands of similar seductions enacted by the high-flying jet-setter across the globe (one thousand and three conquests in Spain alone!), Don Giovanni has quite a history, but his past is about to catch up with him. Donna Elvira, a Senior Executive at a firm where Don Giovanni once worked, is looking for him and when she meets Anna and Ottavio hunting for the killer of the Commendatore, she believes she recognises the modus operandi of her former husband who has deserted her. Masked, they make their appearance at one of the young executive’s orgiastic office parties, seeking retribution.

While it may still be difficult to recognise any familiar Haneke themes from what sounds like a fairly typical modern updating of an opera or drama into the world of corporate affairs, power-dressing and designer suits, the director nevertheless perceptively draws out the essence of the characters – already powerfully and lyrically expressed by Mozart and Da Ponte, but given a characteristically darker twist by Haneke. The Don Giovanni of this production is less of an adventurer and seducer than an aggressor and a rapist - a pumped-up young executive full of his own self-importance and confident in his charms, but unable to handle rejection, reacting violently to any challenges to his authority. Underlying this behaviour there is a strong sense of guilt, fuelled not so much by his avoidance of commitment as an unwillingness to accept that his actions have consequences on other people. Along with the use of masks throughout the opera, the theme of keeping one’s true nature hidden, a refusal to accept personal responsibility for violence enacted on other people, self-destructive behaviour and a generalised subtext that can be read as an oblique critique of corporate globalisation or US foreign policy, you have fairly familiar material for Michael Haneke to get his teeth into.

What is not seen so often in Haneke’s own work is the counterpart of this sickness in society and the individual – the more laudable aspects of human behaviour, their ability to deal with adversity, their capacity for forgiveness and their desire to do good. It’s an aspect that is perhaps only really notable in Haneke’s film The Time of the Wolf - which is consequently one of the director’s best films - and from the way that he handles the character of Donna Elvira, it’s a pity that this strength is not explored by him more often. Elvira sees through his mask and recognises the true darkness in Don Giovanni’s nature ("Da quel ceffo si dovria/ La ner’alma giudicar"), but is convinced that she can reach out to his better nature. It’s one of the strengths of the opera that she is of course wrong – Don Giovanni is too far gone. Consumed by guilt, ashamed of his actions and weighed down by his past, and with perhaps some sense of his own self-importance, he willingly accepts the dramatic nature of his fate.

Haneke, of course makes the most of this in his direction - the single unchanging low-lit stage set sterile and bleak, neutrally coloured and shrouded almost permanently in shadows. The modern setting and updating of the characters is fairly easy to accept, remaining open enough to allow personal identification and interpretation. By the second act, any novelty in the office setting sinks into the background and the sheer strength of Mozart and Da Ponte’s arias, the performance of the Paris orchestra and the exceptional cast regains ground. It’s to the credit of the direction that it doesn’t over-impose itself in this way, working with the dramatic, lyrical and thematic strengths of piece and the performers. That is not to say that Haneke’s hand remains invisible, but reasserts itself exactly where required and with the force you would expect from this director. The characteristic shocking flash of violence that he does so well in his films of course has its counterpart here in the first scene of the opera with the senseless killing of Il Commendatore, but Haneke even manages to shock the audience with another unexpected killing at the end. While Don Giovanni’s demise at the end of the opera is never in doubt, the manner in which Haneke brings it about is quite stunning.

I have seen many spectacular representations on the stage of Don Giovanni being dragged down to the fiery depths of Hell, but none are quite as powerfully violent as Haneke’s staging. There is no place in Haneke’s modern rationalist vision for ghosts, demons or animated statues – strapped to an office chair, the bloody corpse of the Commendatore is wheeled on by the masked figures of Elvira, Anna and Ottavio. The other masked figures of the revellers at the party (bizarrely, the masks are all Mickey Mouse faces – a symbol perhaps of the worldwide economic and cultural rape by corporate America?), also represent the other nameless, faceless victims of the Junior Executive’s lying, his rapes and his conquests. Together the victims confront the Don with the real-life consequences of his actions and enact a more immediate and earthly vengeance. Anna plunges a knife into Don Giovanni’s black heart, the exploited masses propel his screaming form from the office windows where he plunges to a violent and spectacular death. As well as being symmetrical in dramatic terms, it’s a death that moreover makes the moralising epilogue that he who lives by the sword dies by the sword just that little bit darker, more menacing and perhaps more politically pointed.

Il Dissoluto Punito ossia il Don Giovanni, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)
Dramma giocoso in two acts (1787)
Libretto: Lorenzo da Ponte

Performance: 2nd February 2007
Venue: Opéra Bastille, Paris

Musical Direction: Michael Güttler
Direction: Michael Haneke
Set Design: Christoph Kanter
Costumes: Annette Beaufaÿs
Lighting: André Diot
Chorus Manager: Peter Burian
Don Giovanni: Peter Mattei
Il Commendatore: Mikhail Petrenko
Donna Anna: Carmela Remigio
Don Ottavio: Shawn Mathey
Donna Elvira: Arpiné Rahdjian
Leporello: Luca Pisaroni
Masetto: David Bizic
Zerlina: Aleksandra Zamojska

Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris

Opéra National de Paris
Il Dissoluto Punito ossia il Don Giovanni

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