Sellars' Don Giovanni Wallows in Gore and Grime of a Bronx Slum


Mozart--poor unsuspecting fellow--called his "Don Giovanni" a dramma giocoso .

The description suggests a humorous drama , traditionally a comic opera that contains certain serious elements. The term probably can be traced to Carlo Goldoni, whose librettos in the mid-18th Century often mixed the trials of noble aristocrats with the diversions of scheming servants and buffo peasants. It may be worth remembering that Rossini used the dramma giocoso label for his bel-canto fairy tale, "Cenerentola."

Peter Sellars, whose often brilliant, often perplexing update of "Don Giovanni" will be aired by various PBS stations this weekend (KOCE-Channel 50 at 9 p.m. tonight and on KCET-Channel 28 on Sunday at 3 p.m.), doesn't always take Mozart at his word.

Sellars places the opera in a crumbling South Bronx slum. The antihero is a small-time macho thug and sometime rapist. On festive occasions he sprawls on a stoop and dines on Big Macs and French fries. In moments of agitation he snorts cocaine. To demonstrate his climactic penchant for liberty, he strips to his skivvies.

Anna--certainly no Donna here--suffers from an Electra complex as well as a dope problem (she shoots up to motivate the feverish bravura in "Non mi dir"). Ottavio, her wimpy boyfriend, happens to be a narcotics officer, and he appropriates the graceful fioriture of "Il mio tesoro" for a little mad scene. Sweet Zerlina, who seems to harbor a certain weakness for masochism, takes the once-flirtatious text of "Batti, batti" quite literally.

And so it goes. Everyone teeters on the brink of hysteria or desperation, usually both. Everyone wallows in gore and grime.

It isn't pretty.

The violence takes place on a dangerous urban street in a single night. Figures don't just pop in and out of shadows. They pop in and out of open trenches and manholes. The stage music for what used to be the banquet scene comes courtesy of Leporello's boom box.

It is all very bleak, relentlessly sordid, frequently perverse. Sellars gives us much dramma , no giocoso .

He does so without apology. "Two-hundred years after this opera was written," he proclaims in a characteristically overwrought introduction, "we're still struggling to understand its deep, dark, insatiable power."

Understatement is not Sellars' forte. "Don Giovanni," he avers, "is about human sexuality, the one thing that none of us really knows how to talk about. And the music gets right in there and probes the very darkest and most mysterious corners."

Sellars sees the opera as "a night in hell." Period. "By the end of the evening," he adds, "it's eternal damnation all the way."

It is always easy to dismiss Sellars as a gimmick-prone egomaniac. Too easy. Myopic, literal-minded traditionalists do so all the time, and ignore both his musicality and his probing intellect in the process. Even his most staunch defenders, however, may have trouble with his "Don Giovanni."

The premise, of course, is fascinating. The execution, for the most part, is brilliant. Still, the concept seems to go too far.

It ignores the charm and the elegance in the music, elements that Mozart intentionally used to offset the heroic pathos. It bypasses the class distinctions that motivate the action and point toward social revolution.

It insists on veristic gloom even when Mozart and his librettist had other things in mind. Giovanni seems to contemplate suicide, not seduction, in "Deh, vieni alla finestra," a serenade bereft here of both object and mandolin.

Sellars uses the text for ironic effect when this suits his vision. Giovanni raises a milkshake in a takeout cup when he apostrophizes--in Italian, of course--a fine wine. The iconoclastic director is not disturbed by trivial contradictions. His eyes are fixed on broader issues.

His excesses can be alienating. They do, however, serve a unified theatrical purpose. That is more than can be said for the glamorous, stilted and unimaginative charades that pass for "Don Giovanni" these days at the Met, in Salzburg, at the New York City Opera and in San Francisco.

At least the Sellars production isn't boring. It takes nothing for granted.

The television version, filmed in Vienna and decorated with some grim location footage from the Bronx, documents the controversial staging created for the Pepsico Summerfare in Purchase, N.Y. The cameras spare us one dubious episode--the soft-core slide show that accompanied Leporello's catalogue aria. For some confusing reason, the cameras also look the other way when the ghost of the Commendatore makes his first, crucial appearance.

The cast--a genuine ensemble of enlightened singing actors--does Sellars' bidding with virtuosic dedication. Eugene Perry is the sonorously sleazy Giovanni, perfectly seconded by his twin brother, Herbert Perry, as Leporello. Dominique Labelle (the frantic Anna), Lorraine Hunt (the intense, punk-oriented Elvira) and Ai Lan Zhu (the not-so-innocent Zerlina) complement each other tellingly as the three central women. Carroll Freeman is the painfully ardent Ottavio, James Patterson the booming Commendatore, Elmore James the aggressive Masetto who, in a previous season, had served Sellars in the title role.

Craig Smith conducts with stylish verve. He actually cares about the dramatic stress of embellishment, and restores the Leporello-Zerlina duet. Dunya Ramicova's costumes and George Tsypin's set project the wonted atmosphere of squalor deftly. Brooks Riley's slangy subtitles take a lot of liberties, yet serve their odd post-mod purpose.

One doesn't have to admire this "Don Giovanni." Still, one cannot ignore it.

"Cosi fan Tutte," possibly the best of Sellars' Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy, follows in mid-February.

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