The Lyric’s Don Giovanni Turns the Table on Opera’s Most Infamous Sex Abuser

It doesn’t end well for Don Giovanni (Lucas Meachem) in his confrontation with the statue of the man he murdered (Mika Kares), Photo credit: Kyle Flubacker.

It may seem odd that Don Giovanni, the opera premiered by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1787, has taken on new social relevance more than 230 years later. But the recently increased awareness about and condemnation of sexual abuse, spurred by the #MeToo movement, makes the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s outstanding current production more thought-provoking than ever.

Don Giovanni—based on the tales of the Spanish libertine Don Juan and performed by Lucas Meachem—is, after all, a hideous predator. In the opening scene, he attempts to seduce or rape Donna Anna (Rachel Willis-Sørensen), then murders her father, the Commendatore (Mika Kares), who comes to her defense. His 2,000+ “conquests” are catalogued by Leporello (Matthew Rose), his feckless servant, in the aria Madamina, il catologo e questo that he sings to Donna Elvira (Amanda Mejeski), another of Giovanni’s victims. 

Even as Anna, her fiancé Don Ottavio (Ben Bliss), and Elvira pursue him seeking revenge, the insatiable maniac attempts to steal farm girl Zerlina (Ying Fang) from Masetto (Brandon Cedel) on their wedding day with promises that he will take her to his castle and marry her. He later sucker punches Masetto and beats him to a pulp, while twice setting up Leporello almost to be killed.

Donna Anna, performed by Rachel Willis-Sørensen, vowing revenge for the murder of her father. Photo credit: Kyle Flubacker.

It is true that Don Giovanni ultimately becomes a morality tale, though it takes an astounding supernatural turn to bring him to justice. The climactic scene is one of the most famous in opera:  a statue of the slain Commendatore comes to life, demands that Giovanni repent, then condemns him straight to Hell when he refuses to do so. The Lyric’s current production, which debuted on November 14, adds some thrilling stagecraft, as a table on which the Don is sprawled is tipped by the statue and then descends through a cloud of smoke as Giovanni frantically tries and fails to climb to safety.

Yet, despite all this darkness, Mozart categorized Don Giovanni as a comic opera (opera buffo). In fact, when the protagonist is not being totally vicious, his hubris, con artistry, vainglory, dismissive attitudes toward the women in his life, and bullying of Leporello are often played for humor in the libretto that Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote for Mozart. 

Now, in light of altered societal attitudes about sexual misconduct, the chuckles produced by the dialogue are more uncomfortable than they might have been over the centuries. The brutality represented by Don Giovanni is truly no laughing matter, and even if you have seen this opera before, you may take enhanced satisfaction at his hellish and well-deserved demise.

The powerful but deeply conflicted character of Donna Elvira represents women who, still today, find themselves trapped in abusive relationships. Burning with the fury of a woman scorned throughout Act One, Elvira threatens violence against her faithless seducer, trails him, rescues Zerlina from his clutches, and helps reveal him as an evildoer during a masked ball that precedes the intermission. Yet her story takes an unexpected turn when she reveals, in the beautiful and plaintive Ah taci, ingiusto core (Be quiet, unjust heart), that she just can’t quit Don Giovanni.

The vengeful but conflicted Donna Elvira, performed by Amanda Majeski. Photo by Kyle Flubacker.

Not until near the end, after her pleas for Giovanni to change his ways and save himself are rejected, does Elvira give up. In this version of the opera, Elvira pulls a pistol and wounds Giovanni, just prior to his fatal confrontation with the spectral Commendatore.

Gunplay—Don Giovanni also shoots the Commendatore to death in the opening scene, and other characters are threatened with a firearm at various times—is one of the modernizing touches created by director Robert Falls, with the production moved from 18th century Seville to the 1920s. This is accented in the early scene in which Elvira arrives on a motorcycle while Giovanni sits at a table under a bright neon sign that says “Bar.” A scene in the second act has Masetto and townspeople hunting for Giovanni on bicycles.

In another effective production touch, three arias that occur during set changes are performed in front of a lowered curtain decorated—cleverly, given the subject matter—with black roses.

The cast, from top to bottom, was remarkable and memorable. The vocalists are world-class. And given the bold characterizations and wrenching emotions of this piece, the acting was a match for the singing. From the ominous opening phrase of the overture, the Lyric Opera Orchestra, conducted by James Gaffigan, did well by the master Mozart.

Additional performances of this highly recommended production will take place through December 8; visit the Lyric website for schedule and tickets.

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Bob Benenson

Bob Benenson is publisher/writer/photographer of Local Food Forum, a new newsletter that covers the broad sweep of the Chicago region’s food community. He is a longtime advocate for a better, healthier, more sustainable food system and is an avid home cook who gets most of his delicious ingredients from local farmers.