Written in my freshman undergraduate year, this is a brief response paper to Joseph Losey’s film treat of the opera Don Giovanni. The paper is not very good, stilted sentences and overly apparent high-school structure, but the film criticism is fairly solid.
Joseph Losey’s film version of Don Giovanni can be considered one of the most insightful interpretations of classical opera that can be experienced today. Losey’s choices regarding character development, setting, and mood show his genius as a director as well as the opportunities offered by Mozart’s legendary opera.
The advantage of a film production as opposed to a stage production lies in the technology that is available to filmmakers. Only in productions like Losey’s can certain ideas and moods be communicated through the use of camera angles and lighting enhancements, which Losey uses to their fullest extent. At key moments during the action, the camera catches a character’s face, and offers an insight into what that character might be thinking. Filming on location (in this case, the Palladio in Italy) offers much of the original spirit of Italy which Mozart must have craved. The natural lighting and atmospheric conditions give this film charm and beauty that could not be achieved in any other setting.
Since much of the action and singing takes place over large areas, Losey was careful to show the changing acoustics as the singers move through different rooms and spaces. The attention given to the details of the act of singing in this film provides it with a third dimension, and thus a more realistic diegesis in which the characters sing and interact with their environment as well as each other. Not often do audiences expect to find believability in operatic performances, mostly because the act of continuous singing throughout an episode of life is meant to be taken more symbolically than literally. But Losey is so meticulous in his stage direction and dramatic environment that the viewer feels a much closer real-life connection to the characters in the film that one anticipates in any given treatment of Don Giovanni.
This film makes several dramatic choices that, while not entirely unique to the medium of film, do give the film an interesting air. When the Commendatore is killed, there is a lot of involvement with the body by Donna Anna and Don Ottavio. Their vows of love and vengeance are sung over the corpse of Donna Anna’s father, and in this way, the body becomes a very important prop, as well as a dramatically significant character. It serves as a reminder of Don Giovanni’s treachery towards these lovers as they dwell upon this misfortune. The body also stands in contrast to their poetic and melodic words of love.
In Losey’s film, Don Giovanni himself does not appear to be a jocular or opera buffa character at all. The humor in this film depends largely on Leporello’s layman contrast with Don Giovanni’s stern, bourgeois attitude. In fact, Don Giovanni does not find humor or happiness in his never-ending quest for the mastery of the lesser sex. He seems so stern and irritated throughout this movie that one cannot help but wonder whether he is happy with his addiction to women. Another interpretation of this character’s attitude is to assume that the Don is evil, through and through, and that he doesn't smile because he takes quite seriously he quest to spread his reign of lust over the females of his territory. Both interpretations provide new insights into the much discussed character of Don Giovanni by nearly ignoring the opera buffa possibilities and only seeing what Losey has chosen to show: a dark, troubled, determined character, always depicted in opulent, extravagant clothes, lustful to a fault and unable to change or even regret his lifestyle.
Losey’s treatment of Leporello’s Catalog Aria serves to be both humorous and intelligently constructed. A large part of this aria’s visual appeal lies in the setting of the action. Losey’s choice to have this aria take place at Don Giovanni’s palace, with its enormous set of steps and group of peasants not far away. One of the scene’s most memorable shots is that of Leporello and Elvira slowly walking down the gargantuan front steps trailing one of Don Giovanni’s three lists of conquests. When the servants start to unravel the other two lists, the viewer is confronted with a visual representation of the enormous scope of Don Giovanni’s quest. Leporello also makes use of the serfs living nearby to show examples of the women that he sings about. The aria’s most memorable scene is at the very end when Don Giovanni is shown gazing very attentively at the young, nude bathing girl, and we are treated to a close shot of Don Giovanni’s dark eyes and enigmatic smile. It is at this moment that the viewer fully understands the comment that Losey is attempting to make about the character of Don Giovanni: the Don is not a man to be laughed at, as so many centuries have, for his dark soul and his deeply set determination stoke an evil fire within him, the same fire that the Commendatore finally succeeds in eliminating from the earth.
In this way, the character of Don Giovanni may be seen as a scourge placed on Earth to test women's loyalty, but it may also seem that Don Giovanni is the ultimate example of what happens when mortal humans succumb to the temptation of sin.