“Juan” may upset opera purists who prefer their favorites staged with no jarring alterations to the basic material. But this raunchy, modernized “Don Giovanni” — music intact, but libretto and action profanely updated — will strike the more open-minded as a bold but satisfying interpretation channeling what Mozart and Da Ponte might have created today, with free access to explicit sexuality and language. Theatrical placements are likely to be spotty but above average within the range of opera’s tepid screen track record, with European sales leading in all media. Pic opens April 7 in Denmark, with other territories to follow.
Royal Danish Opera artistic director Kasper Holten’s first feature first introduces us to its shaven-headed, glint-eyed Juan (English baritone Christopher Maltman) in the audience for a traditional “Don Giovanni.” He finds it amusing enough but far less compelling than he finds Anna (Maria Bengtsson), a regal blonde who happens to be engaged to his friend Ottavio (Peter Lodahl). That connection doesn’t stop him from shooting her significant glances during and after the first intermission; by the second, she’s faked an excuse to rendezvous with the rake at home. Their coitus is interrupted, however, by the arrival of her police-chief father (Eric F. Halfvarson), who is fatally shot in the ensuing scuffle.
Juan is now a fugitive in his own city, especially once panic-stricken Anna tells bewildered Ottavio and a skeptical detective (Peter Linka) that Juan attempted to rape her before committing murder. This is just the latest mess for Juan’s long-suffering servant Leporello (Mikhail Petrenko), who must hide from the law with his oblivious master, who continues chasing skirt as usual.
The two at one point crash an engagement party, where Juan plucks bride-to-be Zerlina (Katija Dragojevic) from the arms of furious betrothed Masetto (Ludvig Lindstrom). Meanwhile, he dodges accusatory ambushes from Elvira (Elizabeth Futral), one of the myriad past conquests he’s seduced, promised the moon and then promptly abandoned.
In contrast with the majestic elegance of Joseph Losey’s 1979 “Don Giovanni,” this adaptation is modern not just in setting but in jittery cinematic language, with heavy use of handheld lensing, especially early on. Later, as Juan’s downfall grows more hallucinatory, visual and editorial strategies run a wider stylistic gamut.
The inevitable international nature of the major-league operatic casting means that the new script/libretto’s coarser and cheekier lines (“Musetto is losing it bigtime” and “I am a wanker who should never be trusted” being among the more printable) suffer from a certain ESL awkwardness. (English subtitling throughout clarifies any accent-muddied text.) But the vocally first-rate performers — who, remarkably, sang and were recorded live on set to pre-recorded orchestral accompaniment — do an otherwise fine job with this interpretation’s demands, which include a fair amount of bared skin. Maltman’s saturnine Juan projects a keen intelligence overwhelmed by relentless hunger and contempt; Petrenko’s alternately admiring and appalled flunky is a delight.
Apart from the cold gallery-style futurism of Juan’s studio environs, pic makes excellent use of Budapest’s old-world ambiance, providing a link to the original 18th-century Spanish setting. Design and tech contributions are all thoughtfully accomplished. Those who’d still prefer “Don Giovanni” stay in the era in which it was created can always close their eyes and enjoy those many moments when the music, played by Concerto Copenhagen under Lars Ulrik Mortensen’s baton, is so heavenly that nothing else matters.