Beating the Villain is Half the Fun in “Domme and Giovanni”

Stefanos Koroneos, Stage Director & Projections Designer.

Presented by White Snake Projects
Composed by Ryan Oldham
Libretto by Liz Abram-Oldham and Cerise Lim Jacobs
Stage Directed by Stefanos Koroneos
Music Directed by Tianhui Ng
Donna Anna: Carami Hilaire (soprano)
Don Giovanni: Andrew Simpson (bass-baritone)
Donna Elivira: Pascale Spinney (mezzo-soprano)
Leporello: Kyle Oliver (baritone)
Jazz/Rock Band: David McGrory (keyboard/accordion), Dan J. Pelletier (percussion), 
Gillian Dana (bass), and John Tyler Ken (guitar)

May 5 -6, 2024
La Voile
1627 Beacon Street
Brookline, MA, 02445

Review by Gillian Daniels

BROOKLINE, Mass. – White Snake Projects, as part of their Opera Through the Looking Glass series, reframes Mozart’s Don Giovanni as an opera of cathartic, female-driven revenge. Donna Anna (Carami Hilaire, soprano), a professional dominatrix with a vendetta, and Donna Elvira (Pascale Spinney, mezzo-soprano), a self-serious FBI agent convinced she’s starring in an ‘80’s cop show, are working to bring down the titular Don Giovanni (Andrew Simpson, bass-baritone) from the beginning. 

There is no suggestion that Giovanni is supernaturally charming, just manipulative and cruel. He’s a mafia don, a crime boss who spills blood as gleefully as he demands a whipping from a hired sex worker. Not so much titillating as a campy, though there is indeed a striptease courtesy of Simpson, his relationship with Donna Anna is enthusiastic and more complex than even he realizes.

Opera Through the Looking Glass is marketed as, “A fresh, non-European, non-white and non-male perspective on revered works,” but at the end of consensual beatings and mysterious plans of vengeance, Giovanni is still the star of the show. The story’s surface has been updated to a glistening, contemporary shine, but what about the libretto’s core? 

In contrast to Giovanni, Anna feels underdeveloped. Hilaire brings charm to her grim character, but I was left with a number of questions. A road of vengeance is a long and lonely one. Is seeking revenge for her father something he would have wanted for Anna? Did she become a dominatrix to survive or simply in order to beat Giovanni senseless? There are hints her feelings for him have become more complicated, but the show’s brevity lets these layers fall by the wayside in what I think is a wasted opportunity to dig deeper into Anna’s motivations and ambitions.

While I think Opera Through the Looking Glass has admirable goals, I’m skeptical of productions that advertise their shows as “non-male” because feminism and female power, for me, is ultimately a matter of critical interpretation. A story that appears to affirm the power of womanhood and gender equity can, on a subtextual level, have some pretty gnarly misogyny within its messaging. Likewise, a story that seemingly depicts imperialist and racist attitudes can have radical layers to it. Part of being an artist is accepting the vulnerability of others interpreting your work and that your intentions may not be received as you expect. 

For me, the show’s potential radical reading comes through in its casting choices. Leporello (Kyle Oliver, baritone), Giovanni’s second in command who has decided to go legitimate and leave a life of crime behind, like Anna, is played by a Black performer. We have the distinct portrait of Giovanni as a white man who both builds and uses his wealth with marginalized people in his service. It’s also interesting that the woman positioned to best take down this criminal is Elvira, a white FBI agent with power from the state. The power dynamics feel layered and fascinating even in an hour-long show.

As a humorous romp where we see a sleazy bastard get his comeuppance, this show is satisfying. It certainly stands in contrast with the 2019 production of Don Giovanni I saw that was in more direct conversation with the #MeToo movement. The tone there was much more difficult. Here, revenge is fun and stylish, at least before the tragic finale. It gives me hope for the future that classic opera can be reinterpreted with such grace and thoughtfulness by diverse companies.

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