By Rolf Strom-Olsen, Academic Director of Humanities Studies at IE Humanities Center
One of the advantages of living in a large European capital is that one may, on occasion, refinance one’s house to buy a ticket to see the opera. So it was that the other night I went off to see Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Madrid’s Teatro Real, which has recently fallen under the artistic vision of professional avant-gardiste  and sometime musical director Gerard Mortier. I’ll say at the outset that if you can’t see something good, then the next best option is to see something spectacularly bad, rather than pale and unmemorable mediocrity. Happily then, Mortier’s decision to tag Dmitry Tchernyakov to bring his vision of Don Giovanni to Madrid has served up an ample dish of the memorably rotten.
Opera is, as a narrative genre, largely ridiculous since it requires the audience to suspend disbelief to the extreme and buy into the idea that, as the story (or what passes as a story) unfolds, the protagonists will stop repeatedly and sing about what they have just done or intend to do. As such, it lends itself easily and appropriately to widely divergent visions of adaptation. Marriage of Figaro set in a carwash? Why not. Carmen as an allegory of the Spanish Civil War? Sure. But there are some basic limits, and Tchernyakov’s re-interpretation of the Don offers a salutary reminder of what they are.
In this production, Tchernyakov has taken extreme liberties with the story of Don Giovanni. Instead of a story about how a relentless womaniser of noble birth with louche intentions towards every women he meets (…ma in Ispagna sono gìa mille e tre) meets his comeuppance, this Don is set as a Freudian family psycho-drama. The characters – including Leporello – are all part of a single family. The opera opens (before the Overture) with a scene designed to provide the necessary narrative explication – the Commendatore, as the paterfamilias, meets and greets the different characters at a family dinner.
With this redaction of the general plot in place, the Don’s exploits become incestuous lechery, which makes his appearance through the second half of the staging as a drunk pathetic wretch with major Daddy issues understandable enough. Numerous deviations from da Ponte’s actual story are thus required. For instance, the Commendatore, instead of being killed in a duel, is accidentally killed in a family squabble. And our schizophrenic Don, accidentally responsible for killing his father, keeps seeing the paternal ghost throughout the staging. Pity the Canadian tenor Russell Braun, (mis)cast as the lead, required to accommodate Da Ponte’s milquetoast lyrics and Mozart’s amiable melodies, with the needed stricken looks of psychological terror as the ghost of his father, aka the Commendatore, appears silently wandering through his nightmarish world of personal guilt and self-destruction.
If that sounds ridiculous, it is and here is the point. Opera is absurd artifice, so it is fine to get all avant-gardey in the faces of ruthlessly bourgeois opera audiences so they can be properly épaté-d. Yes yes, we get it – what we don’t like is good for us, challenge our conventionality, dare us to think differently and all that stuff. But there has to be a modicum of sympathy between the original material and the adaptation. Da Ponte’s insubstantial and jejune libretto is silly enough when staged straight up, while Mozart’s music is, for the most part, pleasant, lyrical and accommodating. Only in the final great dinner scene does Mozart strike dark notes of terror . The rest of the score is D-major happiness, lyrical string lines, woodwind filigree, and upbeat fanfares. This is hardly strong material to use as the basis for an Ibsenesque retelling, in which the characters hint darkly at their tortured souls and move inexorably toward their own destruction.
Moreover, if one insists on offering a radical reinterpretation of Don Giovanni that is all transgressive and shit, why stubbornly keep the absurdly ill-suited lyrics of Da Ponte instead of adapting them to the actual story you are telling? I mean, we’re not talking Schiller or Shakespeare here. Da Ponte was a notorious third-rate hack, and I don’t get the point of stitching his ridiculous buffa lyrics into a tapestry of histrionic family melodrama. Maybe that would have required too much effort of our avant garde enfant terrible?
By changing the story but maintaining the lyric, Tchernyakov is, in effect, offering audiences a three hour opera version of what is more familiarly done as joke remixes of movie trailers. Renarrating the Big Lebowski trailer as the personal psychodrama of a suffering Vietnam War veteran  is funny. Because it is three minutes long and a joke. Spinning out a ridiculous renarration of Don Giovanni, completely unsupported by the actual story as a deadly serious exercise to own a new version of the Don, is tedious and pretentious.
And guess what. Audiences hated it. Happily in the age of youtube, you can see for yourself the mixture of anaemic applause with boos and whistles directed at Tchernyakov  when he came up onstage on opening night, the audiences suitably outraged, to bask in the animus. But unhappily this exercise in self-indulgence has more serious repercussions. I don’t know what the quality of the performance was on opening night. But by the time I went to see it a week into the run, the performance was being mailed in. Singers and orchestra were frequently out of sync and it was painfully clear that the main goal of the evening was to simply get through the experience. Audience shouts of “for shame,” “horrific,” and “get out” that punctuated the performance I attended were, by that point, well-familiar to the cast, who – the reviews  make clear  – had been enduring the abuse since opening night. When it finally ended and a loud chorus of boos and catcalling erupted from unhappy Madrileños, no doubt the cast was resigned. The curtain call was perfunctory, pro forma, and barely fifteen seconds long. No individual recognition, no flowers, no smiles, none of the ritual that normally attends the end of an opera to recognise the efforts of the performers.
This is very unfair to cast and audience alike. Why should the performers make an effort if they know already that they will be rewarded with boos and whistles? Who can blame them for simply looking at it as a paycheck. Tchernyakov has been alienating audiences for some time now , and Mortier knew perfectly well that bringing this production to Madrid would create hostility and philippic. Driving an audience to anger and alienation and reducing your performers to resigned misery is certainly memorable. But what’s the point?