Playboy in Alexandria: On Mozart's Don Giovanni at Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Ati Metwaly , Tuesday 30 May 2023

Opera Don Giovanni was staged at the main hall of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina for three evenings between 18 and 20 May

 latest Egyptian production of Don Giovanni
(Photos: Goethe-Institut Alexandria / Butheina Shalan)


Don Juan, perhaps the world’s best known womaniser, is a very major figure in Western literature and art. The legend of the ruthless Spanish seducer of women whose charms no one could escape has been a goldmine for artists for centuries. It was first put together by the Spanish Roman-Catholic monk Tirso de Molina, who penned a play entitled The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest (c. 1630). From there, Don Juan made his way to Moliere’s Don Juan or The Feast of Stone (1665), Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, and Lord Byron’s epic poem Don Juan (1819-1824) in which the English poet gives the story a rather unconventional twist. In fact, in English and many other languages the name Don Juan is a basic synonym for “womaniser,” while psychiatry coined the term Don Juanism for an observed syndrome.

There is no end of texts that have drawn on the old legend, whose origins of course predate Tirso’s play. Like other legends and myths, it can be traced back to archetypes that have been present since the time of the Olympian gods. Like Casanova, the real-life figure, Don Juan, who for the present purposes will go by the Italian version of his name, is the seducer archetype: a man who deceives women, a philanderer and manipulator who procures love through lies, but also clearly an irresistible even if evil gallant.  

For Mozart, reaching out to an archetype guaranteed half a success. The danger would be in the execution of an opera whose protagonist is already well established in popular consciousness. But since this is Mozart, we really need not worry. The epitome of music’s Classical Period joined forces with Lorenzo Da Ponte, an Italian librettist and, not surprisingly, a close friend of Casanova’s who was no doubt influenced by conversations with him, gathering subtle but strong inspiration as he sought to complement the lightness of Mozart’s genius. There was no better time than the Enlightenment to tackle this ruthless archetype, and no better duo than Mozart and Da Ponte to dissect it. Some historians claim that Casanova stayed in close touch with Mozart and Da Ponte throughout the opera’s creation but we know that he did not attend the opera’s premiere in Prague in 1787.

A literary archetype brings along a predictabe cast. In this case he drags behind him any number of naive lovers and angry victims seeking vengeance. This classical character map is the easy part for the director, actor or singer; the hard part is how to present an archetype and make it fresh and valuable many centuries later.

Alexandria's Don Juan

The Don Giovanni staged at the main hall of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina for three evenings between 18 and 20 May was a multilayered creative and educational experience. Part of a broader cooperation that involves the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the Goethe Institut-Alexandria collaborating with the Siemens Arts Programme, and the Czech Cultural Institute, Don Giovanni was a unique experience for the local artists, and a significant one for Egyptian audiences.

The work included German artists: director Manuel Schmitt and set designer Bernhard Siegl. The first and last evening featured Czech baritone Boris Prýgl (Don Giovanni), Serbian-Bulgarian soprano Isidora Moles (Donna Anna), France-based Egyptian tenor Joseph Kauzman (Don Ottavio), US-based Egyptian bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam (Commendatore), Mexican bass-baritone Antonio Azpiri (Leporello), Egyptian soprano Dina Iskander (Donna Elvira), joined by up-and-coming Egyptian talents Christine Magdy (Zerlina), and bass Bassim Mohamed (Masetto).

The 19 May show was reserved for young singing students: Khaled Samir (Don Giovanni), Donia Deghedy (Donna Anna), Moustafa Medhat (Don Ottavio), Mohannad Moustafa (Commendatore), Maryam Gamaleldin (Donna Elvira), Marwan Diab (Leporello), Moustafa El-Herazy (Masetto), and Malak Shafei (Zerlina). The student cast was part of the educational component of the project. Each time the opera was accompanied by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Orchestra and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Choir conducted by the orchestra’s principal conductor Nayer Nagui.

Both the director and designer took a minimalist approach with the stage design including mostly wooden tables, chairs and gauze-like sheets of linen hanging through a rigging system centrestage and upstage. Simplicity is definitely the number-one choice for the limited-budget productions. At the same time, the highly popular choice of sheets allowed the artists to create effects with lighting, and as such transporting the action from one location to another with tables serving as a piece of furniture but also elevations, graves, hiding spots, and other elements.

The minimalism also extended to costume design with the characters wearing simple costumes in mostly plain colors referencing their social background. While all the actors benefited from the regular straightforward make-up highlighting their features, the characterisation of Commendatore was remarkable. The highly artistic presentation of Commendatore as a statue in the last scene, standing behind the blood-stained cloth, was breathtaking.

We finally reach the final scene which includes a very direct message: Viva la libertà (Long Live Freedom) is written on a big cloth. This procedure carries a dual meaning: one that is strongly linked with the times of the opera's composition when the growing socio-political discontentment led towards the French Revolution (1789), and the incapsulation of those emotions in the opera's theme. After all, the protagonist is yet another incorporation of Don Juan - an opressor and a manipulator - and it's Commendatore who restores the long-awaited justice and freedom. 

To infuse the production with both dynamism and intimacy, Manuel Schmitt broke the fourth wall on several occasions. Even if this technique has become routine in international performances, its implementation requires a solid vision and a sense of purpose well communicated by the director. Most importantly however was the use of choir on stage. The group singers were also actors portraying the people dressed in black: the women making up the long list of Don Giovanni’s amorous conquests.

In fact it is with the choir that Schmitt opens the opera, presenting one black mass of angry humans, their hands pointing to the perpetrator against the backdrop of the overture played by the orchestra. This foreshadowing boosts our need to unravel the story, as the director takes through a full circle with the same women closing the opera.

Don Juan and his victims

Don Giovanni is based on only eight characters but that is enough to create many complex human relations and draw out the interaction between them. We have a charismatic womaniser, Don Giovanni; his sarcastic and down to earth servant, Leporello; Donna Anna, the innocent-but-guilty victim of Don Giovanni’s assaults; her deeply concerned and noble fiance Don Ottavio; Donna Anna’s father, Commendatore, who, wishing to protect his daughter’s honour, loses a duel with Don Giovanni only to restore order in the final scene; and Donna Elvira, a typical donna abbandonata (abandoned woman) and a very rich Mozartian character: she loves Don Giovanni, she is hurt, trapped between rage and compassion, sensibility and hatred. There is also an upbeat pair of peasants: Masetto and his flirtatious and delusional fiancee Zerlina.

In the hands of Czech baritone Boris Prýgl, Don Giovanni becomes a charming man with no morals. Not only does Prýgl control and manipulate all his victims on stage, with his powerful theatrical presence, he is equally in control of the whole auditorium. As the conductor Nayer Nagui revealed, Prýgl embodied the role in more than 20 stagings of Don Giovanni worldwide, and it is obvious that he lives deep in the villain’s skin. As he moves on the many tightropes of his manipulations and toys with his compatriots, he also plays with the audience: while we secretly fall in love with Prýgl’s vocals and acting skills, we begin to be guilty of sympathy for the character.

Equally strong is Egyptian bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam as Commendatore. His short appearance at the beginning of the opera makes an overwhelming impact. He too owns the stage with Sewailam’s vocals and theatrical powers infusing the tiniest droplets of sound running across the Bibliotheca’s auditorium with artistic beauty and rich operatic experience; if only Mozart had allowed Commendatore to remain on stage for longer, but there can be no room for two kings. Nevertheless, Sewailam returns by the end of the opera as Commendatore’s ghost, only to restore justice and his powers.

The power of the production was also evident in the performance of Isidora Moles as Donna Anna. The clarity of her voice is accompanied by her impeccable control which never fails in the challenging movement. In short, the Serbian-Bulgarian soprano provided a splendid showcase of talent: her not so perfectly innocent Anna is a very round and convincing character. We almost feel pity for Don Ottavio, her fiance, portrayed by the France-based Egyptian tenor Joseph Kauzman. It was a pleasure to note the sheer correctness of sound in this Egyptian singer, whose visits to Egypt are rare. For his part, Antonio Azpiri as Leporello captured the sarcastic component of the character in terms of both vocals and acting, while Dina Iskander chose to present Donna Elvira as a justice-seeking woman.

Acting on stage is no easy feat, but singing and acting is even harder. The beauty of the minimalist scenography puts the singers under a stronger spotlight, cutting deep into their confidence. The emotions that are internalised by the performers reach the spectators only through their obvious externalisation and vocal perfection.

This process was extremely obvious in the case of Prýgl, Sewailam and Moles, whose stage presence and delivery – aptly supported by the other characters – were truly powerful. The pleasant surprise came with the duo of Christine Magdy (Zerlina) and bass Bassim Mohamed (Masetto). Though still developing vocally, they already have what it takes to make their way in Egypt’s operatic scene. On stage, the artistically honest Magdy and Zerlina’s strong presence coupled with externalised emotions, creating a lively image.

Educational thread

One article is too short to cover all that can be said of Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s Don Giovanni. The music is as interesting as the mise-en-scene and the singing. There was definitely room for improvement, yet everyone who took part in this production and the students in particular clearly drew lessons from it. This is the core of success.

Apart from being a truly interesting production with its purely musical and theatrical values, Don Giovanni has a strong educational component. On the one hand, the young singers had the opportunity to witness and participate in the making of a serious opera, created by refined professionals. On the other hand they took the stage themselves for one evening (19 May).

As Nagui explained prior to the show, this opera follows the staging of Carmen last year. Also directed by Manuel Schmitt with set designs by Bernhard Siegl, Carmen was the step aimed at “bringing opera back to Alexandria, a city that was once cosmopolitan, filled with all art genres and especially great opera.” In 2022, the choice of Carmen was triggered mainly by its sheer popularity with the Egyptian audience, and its size embraced a bigger cast, featuring numerous students.

Following a great success and more than 2000 tickets sold this year, “the Goethe Institute-Alexandria suggested a repeat of this experience, and the Bibliotheca Director Dr Ahmed Zayed welcomed the idea. However, my main challenge was to choose the opera… After all, once you stage Carmen, it is hard to do anything else,” Nagui clarified in my interview with him prior to the staging of Don Giovanni.

He decided to go to operatic basics and Don Giovanni is widely thought to be the closest to perfection. The small cast however made it a challenge to accommodate young singers, and so the 19 May performance gave them the whole stage. Their presence as actors/choir also shed light on their skills.

Unfortunately, it is very rare to witness a stage production of such quality in Egypt, let alone one that brings together high-calibre artists and the emerging singers. The educational component aside, Don Giovanni proved that Egypt does have a lot of talent, that lacks only opportunities. It is no surprise that homegrown talents such as Ashraf Sewailam or Joseph Kauzman and many others who did not participate in Don Giovanni have brilliant international careers.

The Don Govanni project’s benefits are multilayered: it is an opportunity to feature those talents and introduce a new generation of singers, neither of which happens very often. It’s been too long since the same operatic works have been brought to the Cairo Opera House with the same roles given to the same singers of the Cairo Opera Company, year after year. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina performances led by Nayer Nagui in cooperation with other parties open the door to a new era that will hopefully alter the status quo.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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