2020 May Kirsten Flagstad -1206
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Mozart’s Don Giovanni (Juan)—a film by Kasper Holten

Maria Bengtsson (Anna), Elizabeth Futral (Elvira), Katija Dragojevic (Zerlina), Peter Lodahl (Ottavio), Christopher Maltman (Juan), Ludvig Lindstrom (Masetto), Mikhail Petrenko (Leporello), Eric Halfvarson (Chief of Police), director Kasper Holten, screenwriter Holten and Mogens Rukov, director of photography András Nagy, Concerto Copenhagen, c. Lars Ulrik Mortensen. Axiom Films DVD AXM 644 (102 minutes).


Hugo Shirley


The title of this new film of Don Giovanni immediately tells us what a slippery operatic object it is: it’s Mozart’s, it’s a film by Kasper Holten, it’s Don Giovanni, it’s Juan. Clearly we’re supposed to leave any preconceptions about Don Giovanni as Mozart’s (or, indeed, Da Ponte’s), sit back and just take this film on its own terms. This is confirmed by Holten in an accompanying interview. This is not a version for purists, he explains; his aim was to explore the possibility of producing a film version of an opera that was, above all, a film, rooted in that medium rather than the operatic one. Not only that, the director admits that this is self-conscious, post-modern film-making, with knowing references to the vernacular of cinema: car chases, night-time rushes to hospital in the back of an ambulance, confrontations in deserted railway stations. It’s all shot stylishly (and with edgy jerkiness) on location in Budapest, and, with a photogenic bunch of singers (Eva Wagner-Pasquier is credited for the casting), the results do a pretty good impression of edgier Hollywood and Scandinavian cinema.

Don Giovanni becomes Juan, a hyper-trendy artist living in a vast converted warehouse and engaged in a vaguely-defined project based around his numerous conquests—diligently filmed and catalogued in HD by Leporello. The supernatural is banished, and Juan’s final confrontation is not with the Commendatore (or Police Chief, as he becomes here), taking on a psychological dimension instead.

As befits film, the status of the music is constantly uncertain, shifting in and out of focus for the viewer and the characters, and between being ‘background music’ and music actually heard by the characters (between being non-diagetic and diagetic, to use the preferred scholarly parlance). This status is playfully questioned during the ‘overture’, during which Juan sits in the theatre watching a performance of Don Giovanni. As we hear Mozart’s overture, Juan’s own evening at the opera house progresses at an independent pace—with him drifting in and out of what we hear and what we assume he’s hearing in the theatre—so that his illicit meeting with Anna afterwards can coincide with the arrival of the first number.

It’s all rather ingenious, and will no doubt launch a thousand undergraduate musicology essays. But what goes on in the overture also shows a tension at the heart of the enterprise between the narrative rhythm Holten wants his film to have and the tempo of Mozart’s score, which stubbornly sticks to its own pace. Some arias seem, therefore, rather incidental—and strangely redundant—in a medium that is a great deal more reluctant to take its time, and there’s more than the usual amount of strangeness in the fact that these very modern characters sing, let alone deliver their spiced-up recitative to the genteel tinklings of a harpsichord.

There should be no surprise, given the 102-minute running time, that Mozart’s score comes out rather badly, ruthlessly cut, particularly in what would be Act 2, to focus on Juan’s story (Peter Lodahl’s Ottavio does particularly badly, losing both his arias). Da Ponte’s libretto is more or less re-written (by Christopher Maltman and Henrik Engelbrecht) into expletive-ridden English, which takes into account the cast’s different nationalities (and accents): Mikhail Petrenko’s Leporello, abbreviated to the more Slavonic-sounding Lep, has his Russian accent matched by appropriately awkward formulations.

But ultimately there’s something strangely ephemeral about the whole enterprise, which seems more experimental than anything else. In the circumstances the cast do an excellent job, with Maltman’s Juan obligingly displaying his barihunkiness on several occasions (the Champagne Aria is delivered in the shower). Elizabeth Futral is a complex Elvira, less jealous than complicatedly convinced of her ability to save Juan from himself. The rest of the cast are all convincing on screen.

Maltman, in his interview, suggests the film was designed to be ‘reverently irreverent’, while Holten suggests a certain disrespect is perhaps something that Mozart would have approved of. He also more or less admits that many opera-lovers will hate the result—and he’s no doubt right. But I can’t quite see many film-lovers particularly liking it either. There’s a lot to admire in the technical achievement the film represents, and, as an exploration of the possibilities of opera as film, it’s undoubtedly fascinating; but it is so, one feels, precisely because it demonstrates the limits of that hybrid genre.

Cabbells April 2020 rectangle
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