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Don Giovanni - The ‘opera of all operas’?

As Glyndebourne embarks on the production of its ninth new Don Giovanni, Philip Boot looks back at the Don’s legacy.

Glyndebourne’s Archivist Phil Boot looks back at the legacy of Don Giovanni.

Mozart’s Don Giovanni, once called ‘die oper allen opern’ (the opera of all operas) by the German Romantic author ETA Hoffman, has been at the heart of Glyndebourne’s repertoire since the very beginning. It appeared in the 1936 Festival but was originally intended to be presented alongside Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre during the inaugural 1934 season. The valkyries have never materialised at Glyndebourne, but the Don has been ever-present since his 1936 Sussex debut.

Don Giovanni, 1936. Glyndebourne Archive.

Don Giovanni was Glyndebourne’s fifth Mozart production to be staged, with the Company finding firm footing as a ‘Mozart-house’, despite John Christie’s initial dreams for Wagner operas. Glyndebourne was the perfect scale for Mozart, who wrote for smaller, more intimate theatres holding no more than 700 people, a far cry from the 2000+ seater venues modern audiences may be accustomed to. A smaller pit too, which means a smaller orchestra, closer to 30 musicians than Wagner’s 90. But Glyndebourne’s (then) 300 seat auditorium, small enough so that even the back row could see perfectly, proved a perfect setting for the subtlety of Mozart.

Glyndebourne, from the first Festival, would trailblaze the way for a revival of Mozart operas in the UK, starting with Così fan tutte, which had rarely been seen in the UK since its 1811 London premiere. 1951 saw Idomeneo enter the repertoire, a premiere for the opera in England. So much so is the house’s dedication to Mozart opera that at least one production of the composer’s work has been staged under the Glyndebourne banner every year since 1934, with three exceptions; 1940, 1946 and 2018.

Designed by Glyndebourne’s ‘house’ designer, Hamish Wilson (who had designed all but two of the seven pre-war operas), who gave it his usual faux-Rococo look, with costumes by German designer Hein Heckroth, the 1936 production of Don Giovanni received universal acclaim, with The Times calling it ‘the most complete presentation of the work’, a comment echoed by the Glasgow Herald ‘it was the best our times have seen’.

Post-war years saw a shift in productions at Glyndebourne, with old ones being retired in favour of updated versions and new designers. Thus, unsurprisingly, a new production of Don Giovanni would be introduced during the 1951 Edinburgh Festival. Directed by Carl Ebert and designed by the modernist painter and printmaker, John Piper, the new Don Giovanni would receive gleaming reviews, though would not match the levels of surprise and acclaim that the 1936 production earned. Piper’s contribution to stage design at Glyndebourne is significant. His Glyndebourne debut would be designing Britten’s world premiere of The Rape of Lucretia (1946), which placed the opera house firmly in the tradition of theatres engaging visual artists (painters, printmakers, ceramicists etc.) as stage designers. Consequently, Piper’s sets were regarded as some of the visually finest to grace the Glyndebourne stage.

The Ebert/Piper production would be only the second of (soonto-be) nine different versions of Don Giovanni to be staged at Glyndebourne, with other productions by Günther Rennert (‘keenly human’, ‘vivid’), Franco Enriquez (‘stylised’, ‘ingenious’), Peter Hall (‘masterly’, ‘gripping’), Deborah Warner (‘radical’, ‘controversial’), Graham Vick (‘hit’, ‘slagheap’) and Jonathan Kent (‘magnificent’, ‘unrelentingly dark’) all receiving varying degrees of acclaim. Eight productions. Eight very different faces of Don Giovanni.

Don Giovanni, 1955. Photo: Guy Gravett

Looking at reviews (from which the above descriptions are taken) from 1936 through to the last staging of the opera at Glyndebourne in 2016, the thread that unites all productions of Don Giovanni is its reputation for being difficult, both in the staging and musically. Writing in 1891 the playwright George Bernard Shaw sullenly noted that he had been in search of a satisfactory performance of Don Giovanni since childhood, but had little hope of finding it in his lifetime (interestingly, GBS would find himself in the audience at Glyndebourne for the 1936 production). Reviewers often start their critiques noting that to stage Don Giovanni is an impossible task. The sheer delight of the production, in many ways, is due to audience and critics’ awareness of the difficulties of the piece. An additional layer of complexity comes in the form of Don Giovanni himself, the Enlightenment hero/harbinger of evil, a problem understood by past general administrator Moran Caplat: ‘It’s an impossible character. It’s like trying to play God on stage – you simply can’t do it. What is he? Great seducer… playboy… hero… charmer… rebel..?’

Caplat’s comments are perhaps reflected in the minds of contemporary audiences who identify that the politics and morality within the piece are troubling and difficult to navigate, despite the timeless beauty of the music. Mariame Clément, who will direct Glyndebourne’s ninth production of Don Giovanni in Festival 2023 believes that the piece is open to being deconstructed and reconstructed for a 21st century audience and that the Don can easily withstand a modern, post-#MeToo, interrogation. Festival 2023’s Don Giovanni promises two things; as the Enlightenment hero, audiences will once again fall under his seductive spell. As the bringer of chaos, Don Giovanni will finally get what he truly deserves.

Don Giovanni runs from 19 May to 15 July

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