Mozart in New Orleans
by Stephen Eddins
It's not unusual for modern opera directors to take liberties with an opera's story, changing the locale or period to a place or time the composer and librettist never dreamed of. Some controversial productions that come to mind include Peter Sellars' staging of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte set in a modern American diner and Patrice Chereau's reimagining of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen as a critique of nineteenth-century capitalism and industrialization. (I think those are both terrific, insightful stagings, but there are plenty of traditional opera lovers who disagree.)
The production of Mozart's Don Giovanni by the U-M School of Music, Theatre, & Dance departs from the opera's original setting in a sixteenth-century Spanish town, but the new locale and time period mesh so naturally with the libretto that even purists are likely to be at ease with the transition. There are enough differences in details, though, that the staging should offer fresh insights into the richly complex characters with which Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte populate the familiar story of Don Juan.
Opera studio program director Robert Swedberg moves the period to the late eighteenth century (Mozart's era) and the action to New Orleans--not as big a jump as it might seem, since the city was then under Spanish rule. The aria that numbers Giovanni's sexual conquests by country, ranging through Italy (640), Germany (231), France (100), Turkey (91), and Spain (1,003), now explains why the libertine feels he has exhausted his European possibilities and needs to explore the New World. The jilted Donna Elvira is given an unusually urgent reason (attend to find what!) for her long journey from Spain to Louisiana to confront Don Giovanni.
The theme of class distinctions is prominent in the opera, and the Louisiana setting provides ample opportunities for contrasting the aristocratic Spanish emigres with Cajun and Creole cultures. The pervasiveness and mystery of voodoo beliefs makes New Orleans an even more plausible setting for the opera's supernatural elements than Spain. Mardi Gras (carnevale during Spanish rule) provides a perfect context for characters to adopt disguises in their attempts at deception.
Don Giovanni is psychologically probing and sometimes darkly unsettling, but it's also deliriously funny. Swedberg has said that his goal is to capture both its high drama and wild humor. Gary Decker designed the sets, using prominent Spanish New Orleans architectural landmarks as models. Christopher Lees conducts the performances at Power Center November 8-11.
[Originally published in October, 2012.]