Don Giovanni traditionally calls for a large cast and an extravagant set. The Chautauqua Opera Conservatory is taking a different approach: a pared-down cast, and a minimal set sandwiched between audience members, creating an unprecedented proximity to singers that Chautauquans can experience at 7 p.m. Friday, July 22, in McKnight Hall.
This Mozart masterpiece is classically known for its fantastic music; the decision to draw the audience closer is not to bring them closer to the music, but to create a connection with the characters — a connection that will be uncomfortable at times.
“The piece is so tricky because it opens with an assault,” said stage director and Juilliard faculty member John Giampietro. “How do we continue to watch if that’s the first thing we see, and how are we still invested in all of this?”
One way Giampietro and the cast are approaching this question is changing how Giovanni is typically presented, but still allowing him to possess humanity as a character.
“It’s a very stylized version that we’re presenting, it’s not a realistic aesthetic. We’re looking at Don Giovanni as an elemental force, as an energy that exists in the world,” Giampietro said. “That energy can result in great harm and destruction.”
Since Don Giovanni is a traditional opera and is technically a comedy, companies have taken Giovanni and viewed him in a comedic light, but the Chautauqua Opera Conservatory refuses to continue that portrayal.
“The focus is — not that it’s away from Giovanni — but it’s away from the idea that we’re not going to laugh at a rapist or that ‘lovable’ Don Giovanni,” Giampietro said. “No. But if we look at him as this force, this energy, then we get to look at the other characters around and what that sort of response is to this energy that is unleashed.”
Soprano Georgiana Adams, who plays Donna Anna, the woman Giovanni sexually assaults at the beginning of the opera, appreciates how Giampietro recognizes the violence that Giovanni has done to her character. The production embraces this narrative and because of this, it shows the full depth of Donna Anna.
“I have recently been looking at (Donna Anna) as a really wonderful symbol of feminism in the opera world,” Adams said. “… Unfortunately, I think a lot of times in opera, women are painted as these damsels in distress, and they really, we as women — we’re not. And I think it’s this beautiful depiction of feminism, the fact that she doesn’t let this, she doesn’t let anyone stop her.”
Having Donna Anna represented in this way has larger cultural implications, she said.
“It’s especially prevalent with everything going on with Roe v. Wade, as well. It’s so important for us as women to be depicted in this art form as not just to be saved by a man or that we all care about finding our love — while that is a wonderful thing,” Adams said.
Giampietro works to create a space so that Adams and the other cast members can have these revelations about their characters and explore them deeply.
“I told them at the very beginning, we’re building this piece together,” Giampietro said. “I’m going to establish the conditions for you to create, and we get to see each one of them — their personalities — in it. They all have ownership in this, in the creation of this production, which is really exciting. We feel like a company.”