It was Milos Foreman’s “Amadeus” that introduced me to classical music. The film is like an appetizer platter, offering its audience a small taste of Mozart’s operas–a sliver of music and costumed spectacle that leaves you hungry for more. The last third of Foreman’s film is deeply intertwined with the opera “Don Giovanni” and its final moments: the seducer and playboy refusing to repent and dropping into a chasm of flames for his defiance. It is a dramatic and powerful last scene for an opera in which the hero and heroines of the story do absolutely nothing. The villain Giovanni gets his comeuppance through supernatural means, while the rest of the characters get to add a couple of last thoughts before the curtain falls. This is the way “Don Giovanni” always ended…or so I thought.
Recently, the Royal Opera House has staged a radically different version of “Don Giovanni” that has found its way into movie theaters (and available on television to lucky BBC viewers). Kasper Holten’s production completely upends every expectation one may have of the story and alters the motivations and personalities of the major characters. It adds one crucial, nearly wordless scene to the beginning of the opera that changes everything that follows. A woman who is traditionally played as a victim becomes tainted with guilt herself, the evidence of her wrongdoing staining the very fabric of her clothes. The glorious tenor arias of the opera are almost unrecognizable. These swoon-worthy declarations of love and devotion are transformed into self-deluded groveling–the dashing “hero” now reduced to a cuckolded fool. Don Giovanni himself becomes much more complicated. He lingers in the shadows and haunts a number of scenes in which he did not originally appear. Even the famous death scene has been stripped down and repurposed, leaving the audience face to face with a flawed man rather than a monster.
The most amazing thing about these changes is that all of them arise from the acting and staging. Not a line of dialogue is changed, and almost every word in the libretto remains intact. A singer’s facial expression might betray a guilty lie; arms reach out for an embrace that is shunned. This is not a unique feature of this particular production–any director can put his or her own stamp on Mozart’s work, making every performance feel fresh. Years ago I saw a version of “Cosi Fan Tutti” on stage that will always be the definitive interpretation in my mind. The fact that the exact same story can be told in so many ways brought a single thought to my mind: Why isn’t it this way with movies?
Whenever there is a remake of a much loved film, fans gather to bemoan the industry’s sacrilege. How dare they remake “Psycho” or “Ben Hur”! The outrage extends to even mainstream comic book fare: note the polarized reaction to “Man of Steel”. Yet opera is basically the same story served up by different directors–and they have the additional challenge of keeping the same “script”. What if this same principle were applied to cinema? I began to imagine a world in which the exact same script for films were given to completely different directors. What shots would they choose? What staging, what lighting, what props? Whom would they cast, and how would they direct THAT particular line? What would happen to “Citizen Kane” in the hands of Wes Anderson or Terrence Malick or Stanley Kubrick? Movies are not just about style; they are also about storytelling.
I think part of our innate resistance to cinematic remakes lies in the permanence of the medium. It feels as though we are saying why do we NEED another “Psycho” when we can watch Alfred Hitchcock’s version anytime we want? Opera and theatre both spring from the stage, where performance runs end and the only preserved version of a director’s vision lies in the memories of its audience members. Technology has enabled us to record plays and operas and show them as films, but somehow the theatre attitude has remained: it’s more than “acceptable” to stage classics in modern dress, or have an entire cast of nothing but women, or change your heroes into villains. Such artistic liberties are celebrated, and directors are encouraged to take the work we love and make something new. The film-loving part of my brain understands the desire to cling to the original. The opera and theatre-loving part secretly whispers “New version? Bring it on!”