Greek baritone plumbs the depths of ‘Don Giovanni’

Greek baritone plumbs the depths of ‘Don Giovanni’

Tassis Christoyannis’ first real brush with “Don Giovanni” was in 1998 when he performed the title role in Italy, under the direction of Daniele Abbado. Many years earlier, though, the acclaimed Greek baritone had heard Mozart’s “playful drama” in his very musical home, played by his father, a former director of the Greek National Opera.

“I remember how gripping, in sound alone, the scene when the Commendatore disappears and Don Giovanni is dragged down into hell was to my young ears,” he tells Kathimerini.

It is the scene where the libertine Spanish nobleman, unrepentant for his many sins, burns in the fires of hell, punished by his victim. “This is his terrible punishment,” says Christoyannis.

The opera premiered in Prague in 1787, but the lead character was already familiar to the public from Molière’s “Dom Juan,” whose name to this day signifies a rake and womanizer. Yet Mozart endowed his Don Giovanni with another, less apparent but equally important quality.

“Don Giovanni would not budge from his beliefs. His conviction is such that you can almost respect him for it. He does not back down even when staring into the fires of hell, and this is something that makes me wonder whether he is in fact a bad person. He is gripped by passion, lustful and greedy; He’s a killer and an adulterer, but he is also, perhaps, the most honest person in the opera, because he is consistent in a manner of behavior that somehow challenges the phony conventions of society. He doesn’t go after people like a raging bull. He enters their lives, charms them, and they respond,” says the baritone.

Sure, but Mozart’s Don Giovanni is not just a seducer. He tries to rape Donna Anna right at the start of the opera and then kills her father, the Commendatore. Making the connection to the recent revelations in Greek show business is anachronistic only if we believe that sexual abuse means different things at different times.

“In this production, in particular, where the action is set in a modern hotel, I often think about Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Harvey Weinstein,” says Christoyannis, referring to two high-profile sexual abuse cases.

“So much power combined with sexual rapture can make a person mad, cloud their judgment. Apart from the fact that such acts are absolutely deplorable, I believe that these people are also sick and need to be treated, as well as condemned. Their passion distorts them. As for Don Giovanni, the easy interpretation is that he’s a sadist who cares only for his own pleasure. But all great work has many different levels of interpretation. What makes Don Giovanni attractive today? That we can project all this deplorable behavior on him, condemn him, feel glad that he’s the one going to hell, not us. That we can say, ‘He’s evil, I’m not.’ Don Giovanni exposed the hypocrisy in society, the rules people put in place and then circumvent as soon as the opportunity arises. And this is something that society cannot tolerate.”

The idea of setting the action in a hotel belongs to John Fulljames, director of the “Don Giovanni” production that is being streamed by the Greek National Opera on its GNO TV service as of February 14 and for the rest of the season. The show is a co-production of the GNI with the Göteborg Opera and the Royal Danish Opera and, apart from Christoyannis, features Vassiliki Karagianni, Yannis Christopoulos, Petros Magoulas and Anna Stylianaki, among others.

It is conducted by Daniel Smith and boasts sets by Dick Bird and costumes by Annemarie Woods, while the video was recorded on a state-of-the-art eight-camera system and directed using special filmmaking techniques.

“The technical possibilities of filming a show are fascinating and I am curious to see the result,” says Christoyannis, speaking ahead of the launch. “It’s a different genre, of course, with close-ups and retakes that are selected by the director. So, what you see is something completely different and we are part of the communication defined by the camera. In a live show, nothing comes between us. When we sing we do it for you out there, so you can hear us and we can hear you. I am not a singer if I haven’t got someone to sing to and, as we say in theology, man acquires substance in a relationship. If I’m not addressing someone, I don’t exist.”

The theological reference is no fluke. Christoyannis is a multifaceted artist and scholar, not because he’s trying to enrich himself artistically, but because this is what he feels compelled to do.

“Pavarotti did not play an instrument or read music. Does that make him less of a complete musical being? What matters is the relationship to music, that it fulfills both you and the person you are communicating it to. I play the piano, I write music, I did dance, I’ve studied theater and theology, because I believe these are all a part of music and I would feel their absence if I didn’t,” he says.

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