Mozart's score for "Don Giovanni" is arguably his most sophisticated, emotional, and forward-looking opera. There are moments of such Germanic emotionalism underscored by his wonderful canvas of chromaticism and Sturm und Drang elements that foreshadow Beethoven, von Weber, Bellini, Berlioz, Verdi, and of course, Wagner. Da Ponte's libretto is also one of his best, mixing dark drama with many moments of giocoso (playfulness). Mozart even labeled it a dramma giocoso when it premiered in Prague at the National Theatre of Bohemia in 1787 (later entering it into his catalogue as an opera buffa.) The blending of comedy, melodrama, and supernatural elements is also a forerunner of the 19th century Gothic fiction by Mary Shelley, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, and Bram Stoker.
But it has a problem, a big problem.
For most of its life as a performed opera for the public, audiences have historically been entertained by the story of Don Giovanni, loosely based on the myth of Don Juan as well as the real-life Casanova, as a simple tale of the rake-seducer of women who ends up being punished for his libertine life by being taken directly down to Hell by the supernatural figure of the Stone Guest who he has invited to dinner and who enters in during the act two finale with some of the most famous music ever written. Many women who are patrons and opera lovers of a certain age have told me that they find the idea of a grand seducer quite a positive figure to love/hate onstage. For others, they wonder why the show is done anymore.
Why? Because Don Giovanni seduces women, sleeps with them, and then dumps them so that he can find a new lover. This was a libertine notion, and certainly not foreign to the Europeans who first saw the opera as it spread across the world and gained in popularity. According to Giovanni's servant, Leporello, he has done this not just hundreds of times, but over a thousand times; all over Europe. Reading a translation of Leporello's aria "Madamina..." is like reading a horror story of tricked women, many of whom were most likely taken against their will or at least slept with him under false pretensions (promises of marriage in particular). The loss of a woman's honor was a huge, massive and often completely devastating loss to her and her family.
So why was it such a popular opera, given that the first thing that happens is a chase scene where Giovanni's latest conquest is following him out of her house late at night as he is fleeing masked? This is a scene that has, over the recent years especially, become quite complicated to stage. Did Anna ask him up? Did he break in to force himself on her? What happened right before the opera's curtain goes up? There's nothing in the libretto, only later do we get Anna's story where she tells her fiancé that a man she did not know appeared in her room, tried to force himself on her, and then finally tried to get away because she was screaming. We also meet one of his spurned women, Donna Elvira, who has chased him to Seville to either exact revenge, or plead with him to renounce his life and return to her. During the course of the opera we witness another seduction, that of the peasant (and recently married) Zerlina whom he later attacks in his castle. In act two, Giovanni sings a serenade under a window in order to get a woman to let him in. Is this his modus operandi? Serenade women with a mandolin and then take their virginity? And how is that anything to applaud or think might be something to turn into a beautiful moment onstage? Giovanni himself talks about how wonderful a night he's had "hunting young girls".
Giovanni is a monster.
So as the stage director for a "Giovanni" production, what am I to do with not just his character, but the whole piece? The music is too fantastic to jettison this opera from the repertoire but the subject matter is way too traumatic to put on the stage, especially with students who are very aware of #MeToo, the PTSD involved in sexual harassment and assault, let alone the trauma of presenting this onstage to others.
So I've taken Giovanni the monster and made him an actual monster in my production, one who lives in a completely fictional world of vampires.
This idea came to me ten years ago when I was mounting a semi-staged production at McGill. I explored the idea, it was somewhat successful, and then I put it away. However, once we decided to produce it again at McGill, it was clear I needed to address the issues that made the piece untenable to many of my students.
If one looks at the libretto, one finds a large number of references to blood. Anna sees the pool of blood around her murdered father, the Commendatore. Anna demands of her fiancé that they kill the offender and make his blood flow. Elvira shows up demanding vengeance of a kind that can only happen by Giovanni being killed. Giovanni talks about hunting young women. Leporello talks about a "flush of blood" during the act two finale.
And what is this assault Giovanni makes? It is to murder a woman's honor, something so awful for so many centuries, that a part of their self dies too. During the Gothic era, when vampire tales became extremely popular, it was clear that the metaphor for a vampire being invited into the house by his victims, biting and sucking their blood in the bedroom, and then flying away as a bat or running away as a wolf into the night, was mostly about sex. Vampires have been sexualized ever since they changed from the eastern European nosferatu monster who lives in cemeteries into a dapper, sexy, gentlemanly Count Draculas who seduce women and then kills them. This sexy vampire character is now all over present-day media, books, film, and tv - from Anne Rice's "Interview with a Vampire" to those many angsty-teenage stories of High School heartthrob vampires found all over the world.
It then transforms the piece to remove the sexual assault and replace it with actual assault where a literal, supernatural predator is out there hunting women to kill them. It makes clear that everything Giovanni is doing is terrible and monstrous. There is no room for "oh, but his serenade in Act Two is so melodic and lovely" because he's under that window trying to get a woman to invite him in so he can kill her.
In order to adjust the opera for this concept, I have placed it in the Victorian, Gothic period of the 1880s in Bohemia so that the supernatural elements can seem more at home. Giovanni lives in an abandoned castle falling apart next to a grave yard. Donna Elvira is a 19th century Buffy-the-vampire-slayer who arrives in town hunting Giovanni, loaded with weapons to kill him. She shows up with a crossbow, a bag of stakes, a crucifix, garlic, holy water, a knife, and a pistol with lots of silver bullets. She is here to kill him. The Commendatore dies not by a sword fight, but by shooting five bullets into Giovanni's body as he walks toward him, unaffected, and them is attacked in the classic vampire way - he is drained of blood and dies. For me, the move into the fictional world of the vampire works quite well for this particular character since he shows up as the invited Stone Guest - a supernatural figure. In the world of a vampire, if you are bitten you might end up UnDead. So the Commendatore's reappearance at the end of the opera is just another vampire seeking revenge on his maker.
There are many other implications with this concept. One of the biggest is how I treat the serenade at the top of Act Two. No longer is it "cringy" watching a potential rapist try to get invited in while we all listen to this gorgeous serenade sung by a lovely baritone. I show it now as part of his supernatural powers. Vampires were known to be able to hypnotize, so I show another woman (the owner of a tavern next to the other building) coming under Giovanni's "spell" (his voice), and being pulled toward him against her will. We clearly understand he is there to kill, and so he does; just as the accompaniment to his serenade ends he attacks her and she dies. Will there be applause after that aria I wonder? Should there ever be applause after that aria when one thinks about its implications?
Other transformations: Instead of a big feast of food at a table in the act two finale, we see dead bodies lying around as servants bring in peasants for Giovanni to feast on. He drinks their blood and even talks about what great wine he is being served. We see his voracious appetite for death on display as happy orchestral music is played from various operas known to audiences at the time. But perhaps the biggest change for a character in this concept is Leporello.
How complicit is Leporello in the original libretto? Is he forced to do his master's bidding? There are a few times when it is clear that Leporello tries to emulate his master's behaviour (resulting in getting slapped at Zerlina's wedding by one of her friends). He so often starts a scene by saying he's going to leave his master because he is fed up with his life and his master's morals. Yet he doesn't. He is strangely tied to Giovanni. In my vampire-Giovanni world, Leporello is a Renfield type of character who is caught under the vampire's spell.
I'm not sure if this concept answers other questions about the morals of the piece when seen through a 2022 lens, but it has been an interesting one to explore with the designers and the student cast members.
As well, I hope that our audiences enjoy the choices of our music director, Stephen Hargreaves, who has led the students to create the most highly ornamented Don Giovanni I've ever been a part of.
And remember -- vampires aren't real.