Sex and violence entered a new dimension last night at the Kennedy Center, with the world premiere of Joseph Losey's version of "Don Giovanni."
Those ingredients have been in the opera for 193 years, since it shocked and delighted its first audience in Prague. But until Losey brought his cameras into tight focus on the script, it was possible for audiences to leave these elements in a dark corner of the mind, concentrating instead on symbolic values or the music. Yet "Don Giovanni" is first of all a story of sexual obsession, and Losey's production makes this explicit as no staged performance can.
In the opening scene, Don Giovanni kills a man while escaping from the scene of an attempted rape. This sequence is played with a dramatic and visual impact that would make almost any opera but Mozart's masterpiece an anticlimax for the next three hours.
But this "Don Giovanni" has several later moments to match that quality: a performance of the seduction duet, "La ci daren," a delicate counterpoint of temptation and resistance; a catalogue aria in which Leporello's list of Don Giovanni's conquests shifts subtly from near-slapstick comedy into pure pathos; a graveyard scene where the comedy blends with terror; and the arrival of the masked guests at the ball, with brooding mystery for the eyes to balance the exquisite clarity of the music.
This is not a perfect "Don Giovanni" (there will never be one), but its best moments offer a unique and memorable experience: total opera, with an impact beyond the power of live bodies on a stage.
In this production, "Don Giovanni" completes the cycle that began with its original appearance as a short of morality play by the Spanish monk, Tirso de Molina. In the three centuries since then, Don Giovanni has joined Faust and Quixote as a universal symbol. Moliere used him for a comedy (in which he chose to play the role of the Don's servant); Byron made him a romantic here; Shaw used hims as a mouthpiece for philosophical reflections. Musically, Richard Strauss endowed him with pure, exuberant energy, and Mozart with an ambivalence between tragedy and comedy. Now, Losey underlines the moral issues again -- this time in social rather than religious terms. His Don is a bully who pulls rank to satisfy his obsession; the material is there in the libretto, but Losey supplies emphasis.
He also works in visual symbols, making it a film about the beauty and terror of fire about people who wear masks and hide their faces, about a particular flavor of grandeur and decadence, embodied perfectly in the buildings of Palladio which are the picture's setting.
The film has its weaknesses -- mostly those of the opera itself, but magnified in this larger-than-life medium. Don Ottavio is a wimp, for example, and it is impossible to make him seem anything else. But he is a wimp with two of the most beautiful tenor arias in opera. Kenneth Riegel makes him a wimp with an excellent voice, and Losey supplies beautiful if dubiously relevant visual backgrounds. The champagne aria is unconvincing, although Ruggero Raimondi sang it well -- perhaps because it is an aria of fantasy and it was presented in a realistic setting.
Musically, the film is better than one could expect any staged performance to be, thanks to the resources of a recording studio. The musical and dramatic surprise of this production is the performance of Teresa Berganza, making a brilliant debut in the role of Zerlina. Other cast members are seasoned experts in their roles -- though not on film -- and they performed well. Lorin Maazel drew from the Paris Opera orchestra the kind of fine performance one expects of him.