There is an odd moment in Mozart’s Don Giovanni that perplexes directors and audiences alike, near the end of Act I.  The Don is giving a party, deliberately taunting his enemies, and as he welcomes them he seemingly out of nowhere cries, “Viva la libertà!”— “Hurray for Liberty!”  The others take up the cry, often coming downstage to deliver themselves of this stirring sentiment.  Trumpets and drums, which we have not heard since the Overture, make it a rousing, if confusing, moment, which vanishes as quickly as it appeared.

I was reminded of this as I tootled across the back roads of Georgia on my GHP RESA World Tour recently: my iPhone was set to play my 7500 tracks of music randomly, and that scene popped up somewhere between Statesboro and Waycross.  And that in turn reminded me of my experience at Atlanta Opera last season with their execrable production of Don Giovanni.

Costumes were fine, set was fine, the orchestra was good, and most of the singers were acceptable, although the Don himself was very shaky.  But none of them could act, and it looked as they didn’t have a director at all, because whoever directed it simply didn’t.  I am not exaggerating when I say that I could have blocked that entire three-and-a-half hour show in one rehearsal, one short rehearsal.  Everyone just came on, walked to their spot, faced downstage, and sang. It was excruciating.

Giovanni is a tough nut to crack.  Our main character is an abusive, self-gratifying, self-justifying sleazeball.  His servant Leporello is a codependent toady.  His opponents, the “good guys,” are both hapless and feckless, especially Don Ottavio, the fiancé of Donna Anna, whose father Giovanni kills in the opening scene while trying to escape from Anna’s bedroom.  Ottavio spends the entire opera dithering about who the killer is (Giovanni was masked) and whether or not it might not be maybe Don Giovanni and what he might maybe do about that if he could only be sure.  Maybe.  More about that in a moment.

I’ve never been sure how Mozart means us to take Giovanni.  He’s clearly a not-nice person, but he’s the main character, and the non-evil people are just tools in his hands (besides being simply tools like Ottavio and Masetto, the peasant lout whose fiancée Zerlina Giovanni tries to seduce.)  In the end, he is dragged to hell by the statue of the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s dead father, and it’s extremely unclear whether we’re supposed to be smug in our righteous condemnation of the brute, or overcome with admiration at our boy’s proud refusal to repent and to become “other than he is.”

So anyway, Atlanta Opera’s director failed to crack the nut, and the audience’s tolerance of the stage action got increasingly thinner until the final scene, when Don Ottavio rushes onstage, finally ready to punish the vile seducer, only to find that his dead father-in-law has beat him to it.  The audience howled with derisive laughter.

It got worse.  That climactic scene is followed by the lamest ending ever: Donna Anna & Ottavio, Leporello, Zerlina & Masetto, and Donna Elvira (Giovanni’s deluded stalker) all stand and sing what they’ll do next:

  • Let’s get married. (Ottavio)
  • Sure, but we have to wait a year. (Anna)
  • I’ll enter a convent. (Elvira, who has spent the entire opera essentially begging Giovanni to do her one more time.)
  • I guess I’ll find a new master. (Leporello)
  • We’ll go get breakfast. (Zerlina & Masetto)

Mercy.  Then there’s the rousing final sextet, where they all sing how good is rewarded and evil punished.

Sure.  Whatever.  Curtain.

As fate would have it, the next day after this performance I received an email from Atlanta Opera asking me to rate my experience.  With raised eyebrows and pursed lips, I set to it.

After a series of questions asking whether I thought it was appropriate for the Bank of America to be a corporate sponsor—sure, I said, just like a Mexican drug cartel: money is money—they asked what the most enjoyable part of the evening was for me.

I was able to reply truthfully that it was during the curtain call, when I had a vision: wouldn’t it be a blast if while our idiot good guys are singing their platitudes about good always winning out, we see behind them the devils from the finale climbing out of the floor and dusting themselves off; followed by the Commendatore, whose statue costume we noted looked a little ratty when we first saw it; followed by Don Giovanni himself, who pulls out a roll of bills and pays them all off.  He makes his escape while his enemies congratulate themselves on their virtue.

He is the 1%: throughout, he uses his position and his wealth to abuse everyone around him for his own pleasure, and even when they think they’ve got him cornered, he buys his way out of it.  We’ve seen it happen the entire opera, and so when he fakes his own death, we are not surprised.

Why Atlanta Opera doesn’t hire me, I’ll never know.

Anyway, back to libertà.  I hadn’t really given my epiphany a second thought since typing it into the email survey form with such grim pleasure, but when that scene played out on GA-121, it all made sense.  Giovanni, after inviting his worst enemies to a party where he intends to seduce Zerlina right in front of them, distracts them with cries of Liberty! Freedom!  And like the pitiful sheep they are, they sing right along while he moves in on the peasant girl (who never gives in, by the way).

What else are they going to do? He’s the 1%.  Suckers.

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