Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov's production of the Mozart opera Don Giovanni, currently being performed by the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, is a controversial one. It places the 18th-century tale of a licentious nobleman into a contemporary context and eliminates the deep class divisions between peasants and aristocrats that enable its titular villain to act as freely as he does.
This creates some plot difficulties that have annoyed a few critics (including The Globe's Robert Harris). But the contemporary setting – the elegant mansion of an ultra-wealthy extended family, the fashionable clothes of club-going jet-setters – makes it aesthetically thrilling and adds complexity to characters who, in conventional productions, risk being humorous clichés.
There is something else that's contemporary about Don Giovanni, though, and it's not the clothes. The story of a callous and relentless womanizer, fatally punished, is appearing against the backdrop of current news stories involving powerful men accused of violent sexual acts, and a new evaluation of men's sexual tactics generally. What fascinates me about this opera (and this complicated interpretation specifically) is how its archaic Catholic sternness actually echoes our new, post-sexual-revolution vision of how men's behaviour must be judged.
Don Juan is often described as a seducer – and a charismatic one at that – but that word in modern usage hardly conveys the disapprobation it carried in Mozart's era. A seducer was not merely a cool guy with a lot of sexual success, not just a silver-tongued charmer who won sexual favours by persuasion. A seducer was also a sinner, a corrupter. Persuading a woman to lose her honour to you, no matter how cunningly achieved, was a form of theft. Enticing someone to sin and risk damnation, not to mention the ruination of her social standing, was serious stuff. Italian sometimes makes these nuances more clear than English does: When Donna Anna sings of the man who wanted "to rob her of her honour," she uses the verb rapire, abduct – not quite our verb "to rape," but close.
In Molière's play Don Juan, the womanizer is devilish but intriguingly clever, an atheist philosopher type, and his rejection of Christian morality is dangerously attractive – indeed, so attractive it got the play immediately banned in France. Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, creates a much less attractive character. His Don is not greatly charismatic; he is mostly just aggressive and self-serving. His methods of seduction are frankly scary. He breaks into women's houses at night, then abandons them.
He is not afraid to use violence against those who thwart him. When the goofy Masetto stands up for his girlfriend, he has the crap beaten out of him. The manservant Leporello's famous warning to Donna Elvira, the "catalogue" aria, in which he lists the number of women his master has undone in each country, is usually played as comedy, but it, too, has dark implications. ("His greatest favourite is the young beginner.") In Tcherniakov's version especially, the Don is depicted as depressed, lonely and dissipated, spending a great deal of time onstage in an undershirt clasping a bottle of booze.
Don Giovanni uses means both seductive and coercive on various women. He may have charmed Donna Elvira, but he is pure deviousness with the unwilling Zerlina, tricking her into being alone with him. In recent thinking, those have been different categories of offence. Let's compare the 18th-century morality with that of the 20th-century sexual revolution, just to confront extremes. Let's imagine 1970, say – the age of great glorification of the player, the pickup artist, a time when racking up bedpost notches would make a man a cultural hero (James Bond). Using all persuasive means available was fair game. If a macho man were to seduce a hesitant woman by being insistent and wily (maybe even by singing her a beautiful aria), he was thought to have convinced her, not coerced her. It's clear that in Da Ponte's imagination – and I think in the imaginations of Mozart's audiences – those distinctions were trivial. Both courses of action were literally damnable.
And lo and behold, in 2015 we are starting to think the same way again. Our idea of consent has morphed since 1970, as multiple new university policies have shown: Hesitation about sexual congress is not an obstacle to stickhandle around, but something to be respected – or face criminal prosecution. Consent must be enthusiastic, not wheedled. The pickup artist is no longer a cultural hero, but a creepy loser – his obsession with sexual conquest is not evidence of virility but, instead, a sign of insecurity or even hostility.
Hence the strange, pleasurable shock of watching an 18th-century opera with people dressed as hipsters from our own streets, playing out the painful dramas of front-page news and the arguments of our social-media feeds, and, incredibly, matching our own most contemporary moral values. What is most poignant about this production is the palpable sense that its anti-hero is not happy, or even particularly desirable: He is that past-his-prime rich man sitting alone in an expensive restaurant, dying to buy drinks for young women. He is showing his age and putting on weight and getting a little belligerent. And his sentence is harsh.