Opera: Don Giovanni and the Dream of Freedom
by ARTS CORRESPONDENT in Aix-en-Provence
21 Jul 2010 22:40
Almost four centuries after the first appearance of the literary figure Don Giovanni, he is more alive than ever in our postmodern, globalized society. And the questions he poses are still those of contemporary man. The legendary Aix-en-Provence Festival in the south of France recently commissioned a new staging of Mozart's Don Giovanni, asking Russian director Dimitri Tcherniakov to introduce a new vision of the character. The Tcherniakov production was first performed on July 1, 2010, in the Théâtre de l'Archevêché under the baton of French conductor Louis Langrée. Employing historically informed instrumentation, the excellent Freiburger Barockorchester offered an almost archeological sonority, while the vision offered on stage was strikingly unconventional, even radical. Tcherniakov transports the mythical struggle of the 18th-century libertine into a nouveau riche Russian setting of our own time.
As soon as the first dramatic chords of the overture, prophesying Don Giovanni's eventual punishment, resound, the curtain rises to reveal an antique, olive-colored dining room surrounded by bookshelves typical of the British style of the 19th century. There is the feeling that the residents have never cracked open a single book, that they are just there for show. The members of a family stand around an oval table in the middle of the stage. At its head, directly in front of the audience, sits the Commendatore, like a godfather in front of whom the tribe does not even dare to sit without permission. After this short mute scene, the curtain lowers, not to rise again until the end of the overture. As the opera unfolds, we will see how this initial impression of the family's fear-driven unity will be demolished by Don Giovanni's behavior. In the end, he is in turn destroyed by the family's members as he struggles against the traditional, suffocating institutions they represent.
As I watched the production, I thought of how the myth of Don Giovanni can shed new light on contemporary Iranian society. He can serve as a means to analyze the issues young Iranians are confronted with, just as he has been used for centuries to express the revolt of the individual against society. In contemporary Iran, Don Giovanni would have a lot to grapple with: religious rule, a patriarchy that enforces a rigid moral code, and iconic Shia figures haunting Iranian souls night and day.
How to become the actor of your own life in Iran? How to become an individual in a patriarchal, Shia society? You must make compromises with religious authority and find an inner balance between your own desires and the moral context imposed from without. Affirmation of the self takes various paths. Some young people -- the children of the Revolution -- feel they have no choice other than to rebel by going to extremes. They are Don Giovanni figures, dangerously exploring their freedom and defying Islam and its rules.
Don Giovanni is commonly regarded as a symbol of the cruel seducer, collecting women and rejecting them once he is sexually satisfied. His origin is Spanish. As Don Juan, he first appears in a play, El Burlador de Sevilla y convidado di pietra, written by Tirso de Molina and published in 1630. He became famous in Molière's 1665 play Dom Juan ou le Festin de pierre. In the libretto written by Lorenzo da Ponte for Mozart's 1787 opera, he becomes Don Giovanni -- a libertine seducer who defies God and traditional morality, and thus incarnates the mythical figure of Western modernity. With the complicity of his servant Leporello, he betrays all women, breaks their hearts, even rapes them. He is finally punished by the dead figure of the Law embodied by the Commendatore, killed by Don Giovanni at the beginning of the play as he tries to protect his daughter. What is most relevant is not the number of Don Giovanni's sexual conquests, but the way in which those conquests express the rebellion of the individual against the law of the father, whether embodied as a religious figure, a political one, or God himself. This is the origin of the mythical dimension of Don Giovanni.
Once they start aspiring to personal freedom, young Iranians cannot avoid struggling with the patriarchal Shiism that dominates the country's institutions. They learn to play several different roles, different characters, according to the situation and whether they are in public or private. If the new actor -- the individual in progress -- is smart enough, he or she can develop a critical religious mind, accepting the Qu'ran as the word of God but seeking personal answers to existential problems. Others, more superstitiously, decide to pay attention to the many Shia saints, freely confessing themselves to iconic but compassionate religious figures. Some, inspired by Sufism, may develop a mystical love based on spiritual beauty.
But many young men and women find no other way to cope with their oppressive circumstances than by adopting transgressive ways: lying, abusing others in order to attain their goals, taking hard drugs, and pursuing multiple sexual experiences whether for money or pleasure. Some of those who follow this path can outwardly behave like perfectly serious students. The Don Giovanni figure in Iran has nothing to do with the young who defy the patriarchal code by adopting Western fashions -- heavy make-up, colorful scarves, bright nail polish, trendy haircuts, torn jeans. Whichever path they pursue -- critically religious, superstitious, mystical, Don Giovanni-esque, or simply defiant -- all these young people have one thing in common: the quest for freedom and emancipation of the self.
At the time when the figure of Don Giovanni appeared, the West was exploring a new concept: individualism. Family values and Christian morality were now posed as obstacles to the vision of the world that arose with the Enlightenment. Libertinage, sexual transgression, and ceaseless hedonism offered a way to throw off the constraints of traditional social mores.
In Tcherniakov's interpretation of the myth -- on which he collaborated with dramaturge Alexeï Parin -- becoming an individual is more difficult today than it ever was. He respects the traditional characterization of Don Giovanni, as an obsessive seducer who believes he is innocent in God's eyes, even as he explores the social and religious aspects of the figure in a profound way. He proposes a depressed, disenchanted Don Giovanni, often lost in thought, who comes to life only when he feels desire -- sexual desire -- and violates the established order.
This Don Giovanni has no illusions. Building a satisfying personal life seems to be beyond his capacities. Perversion, lies, and manipulation represent the easiest if not the only way for him to feel alive. Meanwhile, he is aware that living according to his sexual impulses offers nothing more than a transient sensation of self-accomplishment. And his disappointment exasperates the mechanism of his sexual desire as a way to exist in the world.
In Tcherniakov's vision, the character is on a quest for a way of being that is more natural, less civilized. It is as though he seeks the ultimate source of human nature in an animalistic, instinctive feeling for life. This Don Giovanni is a pioneer, experimenting with a new way of living even though he is not able to establish nor even properly conceive any sort of truth. This postmodern Don Giovanni enacts the rebellion of a son in a world that -- unlike the character's original setting -- is no longer ruled by God, distant king, or even the law, but by a dictatorial patriarch.
On one side we have a rigidly moralistic society trying to preserve itself against modernity. On the other, we have broken dreams and the spontaneous way of life of someone motivated by individualistic aspirations. The most crucial and difficult self-accomplishment in the Western world seems to be the discovery of how to live life in one's "own way."
Some of the Iranian Don Giovannis have left their homeland and live now in the Western world. It is interesting to observe how they experience liberty in their new environment. For they have to live under a disincarnated sky and learn how to deal with an abstract concept they formerly knew only in their dreams. What to do with newfound freedom when your whole psyche has been structured around the necessity of lying and abusing others in order to survive? How will these young Don Giovannis find new meaning in life without the oppressive but defining presence of a religious establishment with which to contend?
The ones I have met remain strangely the same, behaving as if they were still in Iran while imagining they are finally free. The deep feeling of fear instilled by the patriarchal system hasn't left them: they know nothing better than to put on a happy face as they seek desperately for social recognition and status. No one is in a position to castigate them for their attitude and no one can predict how or if these young people will change. The figure of the Iranian Don Giovanni, whether at home or abroad, is more alive than ever and, sadly, has not surmounted the challenges involved in becoming a free individual.
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