I have to confess that I have generally been rather dismissive of filmed opera (as opposed to filming of live opera events), finding the results often a little stagey and the playback rather unsuccessful. But I was immensely curious about Kasper Holten's new film Juan, which is based on Mozart's Don Giovanni. First of all it was clearly billed as an adaptation rather than simple transcription, and secondly it featured Christopher Maltman in a nude shower scene, so there was really no question. We went along to the first UK public screening on Wednesday 9 January at the Royal College of Music. The event was followed by an informative Q & A with Kasper Holten.
The opera is heavily cut, the films last 104 minutes with Act 1 around an hour and Act 2 34 minutes. The cuts partly accelerate the plot, so that the final scenes hurtle to the conclusion. The piece is sung in English in a modern adaptation of the text (the original script is credited to Kasper Holten and Mogens Rukov). The text is very modern and casual, lots of f-words. Though there are occasional spoken interjections, they stick admirably to the fact that this is an opera, with everything sung. Apart from plot tweaks, of which more later, the main adaptation is the way the opera has been translated into film.
Holten said at the Q & A that he was most definite that he wanted to make a film, a modern film and translate the opera into this. So the visual language is that of film, with various references to other iconic films even to a car chase. And Holten keeps it filmic by intercutting scenes; though everything is sung, not everything is sung on-screen. Holten and his cast move flexibly between singing live and voice over, which enables Holten to both use the music as interior thought process, and intercut other images. His most notable effect is during the scene where Anna (Maria Bengtsson) is accusing Juan (Christopher Maltman), Holten intercuts this with scenes of their original encounter using footage we did not see at the opening of the opera, making it clear that they did have sex, and she was willing.
His other distinctive filmic use is to have ensembles taking place in multiple locations, so that we do not have Anna, Elvira and Ottavio in the same room for their ensemble before the party scene at the end of Act 1. This makes for a very striking device and effectively neutralises one of the most distinctive operatic aspects of the score, the operatic ensemble.
Holten tweaks, rather than alters the plot. But Anna (Maria Bengtsson) is always willing; in the overture we see her meeting Juan (Christopher Maltman) for the first time and then seeking him out. The rape is just a story that she invents for Ottavio and the police. At the end of Act 2 Bengtsson gives the ring back to Ottavio (Peter Lodahl) and he walks off into the rain; no question here of her asking him for time. Elvira (Elizabeth Futral) kills herself by walking into the Danube during the final aria.
The Act 1 party is dissociated from the entertainment put on for Zerlina (Katija Dragojevic) and Masetto (Ludvig Lindström) and their friends (which we never actually see). Instead Act 1 finishes with a grand party in Juan's studio. This is very, very effective but does mean that we lose the sense of the different musics for different cast members. In a grand flourish, Juan sets fire to the studio before making his escape.
There is no role swapping in Act 2, Maltman does the scene with Futral's Elvira by telephone before singing the serenade (to a street-walker who rejects him). A scene which starts off amusing and turns rather moving.
During the whole of the opera, there are moments when Maltman gets flashes, and he feels himself alone (we see him in the same situation, but without anyone else there), he also keeps seeing a young man in a hoodie whom we take as a messenger of death. Holten runs the cemetery scene straight into the final scene, and turns the whole finale into a frantic car chase. But simultaneously we are inside Juan's head and see him meeting the Commendatore, except it is not the Commendatore (here the Police Chief, played by Eric Halfvarson). Who appears at the end is the character in the hoodie, which is Juan himself, Maltman singing both Don Giovanni and the Commendatore. Intercut with the the final chase and crash, this is a very effective end.
In the Q & A Holten said that whereas in the original opera, it was fear of God and Divine Retribution which drove the plot, he wanted to reflect the restlessness of modern day living and Juan was trying to escape, not God, but himself.
The whole piece was recorded live, so that when the singers were singing what you heard on the sound-track was the sounds they were making. Holten was concerned that, though the piece be a film, it reflected the physicality of making an opera; that when a singer has to reach a high note, it really looked like it. This of course, was taxing for the singers. Maltman had to record the champagne aria whilst in the shower, and for the cemetery scene, Maltman and Mikhail Petrenko as Leporello were in the pouring rain.
For the recit, a portable electronic keyboard was used live and the harpsichord put in later; even when they were in a moving car, the set up included a keyboard!
There was no buffo element. Inevitable really, because a lot of comedy comes from the way Leporello interacts with the audience and here there could be none of that. Petrenko sang in English, but his dialogue was adjusted so that it really did sound as if he was a Russian who spoke English (definite and indefinite articles missed off etc). His relationship with Maltman was quite dark, but thankfully omitted some of the violence that can creep in when the buffo element is removed.
Holten explained that it was a very different way of working for the singers; only Maltman had ever been involved in a film project before. The film Juan just like an ordinary film, so that bits were done here and there. Instead of going out and giving a performance, the singers had to do bits of it and had to trust the director far more.
The result is quite simply riveting. There are many moments when you forget that it is an opera. Granted, some of the recitative comes out a little clunky, and there was one section where it sounded as if the accompanist had been told to vamp until ready, whilst the singers got through all the text. But the big set pieces worked well and it was truly involving. Musically, the piece does not seem to have suffered from having the singers recorded live, which is an immense credit to the entire cast. Mozart's arias are not easy, and singing them to a pre-recorded orchestral accompaniment with click-track whilst sitting semi-naked in a hotel room is a great achievement. And the whole thing seems to arise out of a great love for, and knowledge of, Mozart's opera, re-creating it rather than attempting to subvert it.
Maltman was a consummate and fascinating Juan, endlessly attractive but with a real interior life. Bengtsson was a slightly more fragile Anna than I am used to, but she captured the role as needed by the film. Holten makes Anna less off a harpy than she can be. Futral was wonderfully nuanced as Elvira. Ottavio got no arias, so all Lodahl could do was react. Dragojevic was quite a strong Zerlina, with less of the slapper element. I am not certain that Bati, bati worked terribly well in dramatic context, thought she sang it well enough. Masetto was another character who missed out, but Lindström did well with what was given him.
The locations, in Budapest, were stunning and the cinematography quite dramatic, capturing the real look of a modern film. This didn't look like an opera and didn't behave like one, but was unashamedly sung like one.
The excellent orchestra was Concerto Copenhagen conducted by Lars Ulrik Mortensen.
Juan isn't for someone expecting a thoroughgoing film of Mozart's Don Giovanni as it might be staged. Instead, we have the opera re-thought for film. Highly recommended and quite, quite riveting.