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DEEP, DARK LOVE: Lyric uses classic cinema to cast light on Mozart anti-hero

By Paul Horsley

Don Giovanni: despicable misogynist, or dashing ladies’ man with anger-management issues? When the Lyric Opera’s creative team, led by director Kristine McIntyre and scenic designer R. Keith Brumley, set about to craft a fresh concept for Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s most troublesome opera, they sought a world with all the ambiguity and chiaroscuro of this dark villain/hero. “I thought, there must be some place in the American psyche that delights in shades of grey,” said Kristine, a leading U.S. director who has staged five previous Lyric shows to great acclaim (The Turn of the Screw, John Brown, The End of the Affair, Così fan tutte and Norma). “How can I characterize Don Giovanni so that we enjoy him as an anti-hero, we understand that he is morally indefensible, and at the same time are completely engaged in his story? And that’s how I realized the connection to film noir.”

Think about the quintessential noir playbook: Sexy, tough criminal-type with a weakness for strong women (and vulnerabilities that are all too apparent), surrounds himself with fascinating, fabulously dressed ladies who are either enablers or prove themselves his equal (or both). “This is a happy opportunity to find a way to look at this so that the women are much less victims than they are in most productions,” Kristine said. “It allows us to let Giovanni do his thing without us having to apologize for who he is.” And it permits the team to craft great female characters who are squarely in line with Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s original concept. Donna Elvira, the past lover who is furious about being abandoned, becomes the femme fatale who “gives Giovanni a foil, someone who is sort of his sexual equal … who can give as good as she gets,” Kristine said. Donna Anna, the virtuous, tortured figure whose father the Don kills 20 minutes into the opera, is the Lauren Bacall figure in The Big Sleep, because “if you look at it carefully you realize that she really is as good as she seems.”

Kentucky Opera presented Kristine's first noir 'Giovanni' / Photo by Patrick Pfister
Kentucky Opera presented Kristine’s first noir version of ‘Giovanni’ / Photo by Patrick Pfister

Kristine and her team (with lighting designer Marcus Dilliard and costume designer Mary Traylor) began expanding on a concept she had tested at Kentucky Opera in 2013 (with a different set designer) but wanted to take a step further. “And the more we explored it the more fun it became.” On September 26th the Lyric Opera opens its season with a new Don Giovanni featuring Daniel Okulitch in the title role, Rachelle Durkin as Donna Anna, Elizabeth Caballero as Donna Elvira and Joshua Bloom as Leporello. Gary Thor Wedow conducts the Kansas City Symphony in the pit.

Based loosely on the Don Juan figure of old, Don Giovanni (described by its authors as a dramma giocoso, suggesting both comic and serious elements) presents us with a spoiled, arrogant nobleman who will stop at nothing to prove his seductive prowess. We meet him precisely at a time when his rapacious behavior is coming back to haunt him. Undaunted, he continues to try to seduce every woman in sight, though during the action of the opera each of his pursuits is hilariously interrupted.

Elizabeth Caballero sings the role of the jilted Donna Elvira / Photo courtesy Lyric Opera
Elizabeth Caballero sings the role of the jilted Donna Elvira / Photo courtesy Lyric Opera

On the contemporary stage Giovanni presents a multitude of problems: The ambiguities inherent in the title character have led opera companies into a wide array of wrong directions. Either the Don is presented as a “really, really despicable bad guy, and the joy of the piece is in watching him get his comeuppance,” Kristine said. “Or there’s some sort of contrived excuses, usually at the expense of Donna Anna, of really making him not that bad of a guy, and all these kinds of shrewish women are chasing after him.” Over her long career as stage director, during which she has presented more than 60 operas, Kristine has made a search for authenticity the hallmark of her directorial style: Her operatic work here in Kansas City has always been marked by a sense of real people living real lives.

Kristine McIntyre has directed some of the most admired Lyric Opera productions over the years
Kristine McIntyre has directed some of the most admired Lyric Opera productions over the years

Much of the fun of recreating a noir look is in stunning visuals, Kristine said: Not just the gritty, single-source lighting but also the dazzling clothes. “Glamour is so much a part of it. There’s elegance in Mozart’s music, even when it’s desperate,” and thus any resetting of a Mozart opera into a period other than 18th-century Europe must be mindful of style and taste. “All of the femmes fatales of these films are well-dressed,” she said, often in fashions that you might see on a Milan runway this season. “There’s nothing better than a beautiful A-line dress. So why not?” Opera is, after all, “a visual art form,” she added, “and it has been throughout its whole history. We tell stories with images set to music. … That’s why I often look to film and art as keystones to telling those stories.”

At top: Daniel Okulitch, who sings the title role in the Lyric’s ‘Don Giovanni’ / Photo courtesy Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

Don Giovanni runs from September 26th through October the 4th at the Kauffman Center. For tickets and information call 816-471-7344 or kcopera.org. For more about Kristine and her activities go to knmcintyre.com.

To reach Paul Horsley send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter (@phorsleycritic). To read more about society and culture in KC subscribe to The Independent at 816-471-2800.

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