Content warning: discussion of rape culture, sexual assault
“Leave the women alone? You’re mad!” Don Giovanni exclaims in Act II of the opera that shares his name. In a later scene, he eschews consent: “Just kiss. I don’t even wait.”
Oh, sorry, there’s been an error: that last quote was uttered by American president-elect Donald Trump.
The two men are easy to mix up. Both are powerful, wealthy, manipulative, and openly misogynistic. If Don Giovanni was not a fictional 18th century nobleman, he might have contended for the Oval Office.
Composed in 1787, Don Giovanni recounts the exploits and ultimate downfall of the titular mythical libertine. Opéra de Montréal showcased Mozart’s iconic opus from November 12 to 19 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, starring baritone Gordon Bintner as the shuddersome Don.
Opéra de Montréal’s production transported the setting from a grand palace in a distant era, to the mansion of a mafia kingpin – with the theme of copious violence threading each scene together. In the very first scene, there was an attempted rape and a point-blank homicide – in a captivating, film noir vibe. Lighting designer Anne-Catherine Simard-Deraspe deserves praise for her attention to the mesmerizing interplay of shadows across Donald Eastman’s minimalistic set.
Over the course of two acts, the audience meets three women who have been assaulted by Don Giovanni. In the opening scene, Donna Anna – powerfully portrayed by soprano Emily Dorn – stands backed against a wall, struggling to push the masked Don’s grip from her thigh. Later, Donna Elvira, Don Giovanni’s abandoned wife who is pregnant and livid, takes the stage. Played by soprano Layla Claire, Donna Elvira is equal parts courageous and keen. She embarks on a mission to warn other women about Don Giovanni’s cruelty and duplicity: the way he manipulates his words to spin blatant lies into promises of a better tomorrow. Sound familiar?
The libretto by Mozart’s longtime collaborator Lorenzo da Ponte leaves no room for doubt that Don Giovanni is the villain of the story. In fact, the opera’s full title is Il dissoluto punito – “the philanderer, punished” – with Don Giovanni facing interment in literal Hell for the sins he committed and his refusal to repent by the end of the opera.
However, this narrative of punishment for wrongdoing doesn’t absolve the opera of participating in a culture of misogyny and violence against women and femmes – which is not to say that Don Giovanni is immoral, inappropriate, and therefore should not be performed. Rather, it must be performed – frequently and fervently. Through the critique of Don Giovanni, the audience is invited to confront, question, and conquer the patterns of sexual violence embedded within art and society, from the opera stage to the White House.
Opera is a living art. Each director, each singer, and each lighting designer approach the story differently. The art becomes versatile and dynamic, crafted meaningfully through thoughtful interpretation. Context also has a significant impact: a performance of Don Giovanni in November 2016 holds a different sort of significance than an identical performance a month earlier, or a decade.
Shortly after the October release of Donald Trump’s misogynistic comments (caught on a hot mic back in 2005) where he bragged in no uncertain terms about making non-consensual sexual advances, two women came forward to the New York Times with their accounts of sexual assault by Trump. The then-candidate responded with vehement denial. “These people are sick,” he accused at a rally in North Carolina, adding that the allegations were “all false. They’re totally invented, fiction. All one-hundred-percent, totally and completely fabricated.”
Donald Trump seems to have borrowed this tactic from his operatic counterpart. When Donna Elvira reveals Don Giovanni’s past crimes to Donna Anna and her fiancé Don Ottavio – played by tenor Jean-Michel Richer, who shone in Opéra de Montréal’s Les Feluettes last season – Don Giovanni’s response is to twist and discredit her words. “The poor woman is crazy,” he attests. “She’s crazy! Pay her no mind.”
Anna and Ottavio stand strong. They hesitate: “in whom should we believe?” they wonder aloud, but ultimately remain unconvinced by Don Giovanni’s words. Later, they join forces with Donna Elvira and with Zerlina’s husband, Masetto – bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus, to formulate a plan for the Don’s demise.
Anna and Ottavio’s questioning whether to believe Donna Elvira’s accusation, or Don Giovanni’s discreditation – that is the truest danger of Don Giovanni, and of Donald Trump. Both men leverage their wealth and influence to distract, lie, and distort reality for their own benefit and absolution.
The audience, like the electorate, is complicit in this pattern of blame and distortion. Don Giovanni’s attendant Leporello – who, in Opéra de Montréal’s rendition, is a wily, gunslinging goodfella sung by bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch – presents Donna Elvira with a detailed list of the Don’s past sexual targets. However, the famous “Catalogue Aria” is delivered as a laugh line. “My dear lady, this is a list of the beauties my master has loved,” Leporello begins, rifling thoughtfully through the pages of a pocket-sized notebook. “In Italy, six hundred and forty […] In Spain, already one thousand and three.” The audience chuckled as if on cue. The scene was portrayed as comedic, even though the aria’s lyrics enumerated thousands of women who had experienced sexual assault.
Later, in the aria “Là ci darem la mano,” Don Giovanni promises to sweep Zerlina away to an extravagant villa. “You were not meant to be a peasant girl,” he tells her. Zerlina swoons, caught in the fantasy of wealth and romance, even though she is already married to Masetto. Later, when Masetto finds out, he accuses her of infidelity and stupidity. And for a moment, the audience agreed: yes, Zerlina was stupid to let herself fall for Don Giovanni’s tricks. It was her fault. She was asking for it.
Then the moment dissipated, and I was left horrified for wrongfully blaming Zerlina, and my complicity in accepting Don Giovanni’s advances as trickery rather than harassment.
In the second presidential debate, Donald Trump responded to a question about his lewd 2005 comments with a shrug: “It’s just words, folks. It’s just words.” But it’s never “just words.” Words are power. Words are peril. In Don Giovanni’s words, alluring fictions conceal a lifetime of criminality. Even resolute Donna Elvira falls under the spell of his dangerous words – his serenade “Deh, vieni alla finestra,” beautifully sung by Bintner – chasing the hope that she might again be loved by the man who harmed her.
In the opera’s final scene, the ghost of Donna Anna’s father – killed in cold blood by Don Giovanni at the start of Act I – reawakens to urge Don Giovanni to atone for his sins. When Don refuses, he is dragged offstage, where Hell awaits. This, of course, is pure fantasy – not because of the ghost, but because in the real world, men who assault women aren’t held accountable for their actions. Instead, they’re elected president.