A seducer gets his compeuppance in music

Ma Yue
Shanghai Opera House is premiering the complete version of "Don Giovanni" at the Shanghai Grand Theater. The lack of stagecraft doesn't diminish the power of the glorious music.
Ma Yue
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Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” which premiered in Prague in 1787, has a plot that would delight contemporary TV drama audiences. It’s gothic thriller about an unscrupulous libertine who seduces women shamelessly, kills without conscience and finally is swallowed by the flames of hell. There’s even a ghost.

Shanghai Opera House is premiering the complete version of “Don Giovanni” at the Shanghai Grand Theater this weekend. It is being presented as a “concert opera,” which means no scenery, no props, no costumes.

The lack of stagecraft, however, doesn’t diminish the power of some of the most glorious music ever written for the stage.

Xu Zhong, director of the Shanghai Opera House, is conducting this weekend’s performances.

“The conductor, singers, orchestra and chorus appear on the same stage, which is a distinguished feature of our version,” Xu told Shanghai Daily. “The singers are not stitched to their positions on stage. We have designed movements for them so that the performance is more vivid than a pure concert.”

A seducer gets his compeuppance in music
Cao Jiamiao / Ti Gong

Xu Zhong (center), director of the Shanghai Opera House, is conducting the performance. Dou Qianming (right) sings in the title roles of "Don Giovanni."

Why choose a concert format when a stage production has so many dramatic elements to exploit? Blame coronavirus

“We would have needed support from foreign partners to create a stage version,” Xu said, referring to global transport complications. “The scenery and stage setting manufacturers could not give us guarantees of timely delivery under the current circumstances.”

He added, “We are using a relatively simple stage setting, and have made some adjustments to show the shifts in scenes.”

Mozart and Italian librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte based the opera on the rakish character Don Juan, created by Spanish writer Tirso de Molina.

The opera starts with Don Giovanni attempting to rape Donna Anna, daughter of the commendatore, a local commander. The two men duel and the commendatore is killed. Anna asks her fiancé Don Ottavio to help her avenge his death.

There follows the appearance of Donna Elvira, a former lover now spurned by Don Giovanni. She, too, is out for revenge. At a village marriage ceremony Don Giovanni attempts to seduce the bride. He later beats up the bridegroom, who joins the growing list of those seeking revenge.

In last act, Don Giovanni comes upon a statue of the commendatore in a graveyard. The voice of the statue warns him that his immoral ways won’t last beyond sunrise. Don Giovanni invites the ghost to dinner. At that banquet, the commendatore gives the don one last chance to repent his sins. When he laughs and scorns the entreaty, the ghost disappears and Don Giovanni is engulfed by the eternal flames of hell.

One of the lighter moments and most famous arias of the opera is the so-called “catalogue aria” sung by Don Giovanni’s long-suffering manservant Leporello as he rattles off the list of thousands of the don’s female conquests, country by country.

A seducer gets his compeuppance in music
Cao Jiamiao / Ti Gong

The conductor, singers, orchestra and chorus appear on the same stage in Shanghai Opera House's "Don Giovanni."

According to Xu, “Don Giovanni” is a touchstone for opera conductors.

“Mozart’s orchestration and the pureness and colors in his music make the work very demanding for all singers and performers, including conductors,” said Xu. “It is a three-and-a -half-hour piece, with lots of recitatives and fast-paced music.”

He added, “There are so many details that need attention and precision, including stressed syllables, modifying syllables and inhalation. That’s why not all troupes are capable of performing ‘Don Giovanni.’ For conductors, a concert version is even more difficult to present.”

This version, however, puts the Shanghai Opera House’s symphony orchestra in more intimate contact with audiences.

“The musicians usually stay in the orchestra pit during an opera,” Xu said. “However, I think it hurts their confidence to be hidden away in the pit all the time. In this version, the orchestra members share the stage with the singers, which makes them feel more involved.”

Xu said the Italian recitatives, or words sung as if they were spoken, were the biggest challenge for singers.

“One has to be familiar with the Italian language to present the recitatives accurately in rhythm and pronunciation,” said Xu. “We have spent a lot of time practicing them. We hope audiences will appreciate this extra effort.”

Xu invited artistic directors from the Vienna State Opera and the Sydney Opera House to give the Chinese performers daily online coaching in language, music and stage performance.

“We have been working very hard in the past two months,” said baritone Dou Qianming, who plays the title role and is performing in a Mozart opera for the first time. “Despite all his faults, Don Giovanni has his qualities as a nobleman. For him, winning affection from women is his way to prove his power and status.”

A seducer gets his compeuppance in music
Cao Jiamiao / Ti Gong

The performance lineup includes young tenor Cai Chengyu (second right), who sings the role of Don Ottavio.

After studying the many different versions of “Don Giovanni,” Xu decided to focus on the immorality of the don, while also bringing out some of his more charming personality expressed in “brighter and lighter” musical elements.

Xu said the evolution of how the opera’s presentation is interesting. It was given a more dramatic, heavier style by conductors like Wilhelm Furtwangler in the 1950-60s. In the 1970-80s, it came under the influence of a new wave of Baroque style. Then, beginning in the 1990s, conductors like Italian Claudio Abbado started to explore more modern ways of expressing the opera’s themes.

“I borrowed elements from these different styles and had them combined in our concert version,” said Xu.

Apart from Shanghai Opera House artists, the performance lineup includes young tenor Cai Chengyu, who sings the role of Don Ottavio.

Cai, 22, currently a student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, first gained public attention in 2017 after taking part in a singing variety show, winning applause for the purity of his high Cs. He now has 1.3 million followers on the online social media site Weibo.

“I’m impressed by the opera singers’ devotion and the strictness of director Xu,” Cai said. “Sometimes I become nervous in front of Xu because I am afraid of making mistakes.”

Xu said it was Cai’s voice rather than his online popularity that helped him win the role.

“His voice suits the role of Don Ottavio well,” said Xu. “I’m in charge of rhythm and pace, so I have to point out every tiny flaw to him. Only strictness can help a promising young singer grow.”

According to Xu, the opera house is working on an online version of “Don Giovanni,” which will be presented on streaming platforms soon.

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