Don Giovanni Lives On

Since opening the Staatsoper in 1869, Mozart’s famous seducer has proved irresistible; but the true drama isn’t only on stage

Ildebrando D'Arcangelo and Michaela Selinger in Don Giovanni

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni & Michaela Selinger as Zerlina in Don Giovanni, performed for the 140th anniversary of the Staatsoper on May 25 | Photo: Staatsoper / Axel Zeininger

Expectations were high as I walked into the Staatsoper. This was my first-ever opera on stage – Don Giovanni, the same work performed at the opening of the opera house 140 years before. That should have been drama enough! I had no idea I was about to watch three dramas simultaneously. But the next few hours would take me on a strange and captivating journey…

The building that houses the Wiener Staatsoper is majestic when you see it for the first time – although this may become almost invisible to the habitué – once the setting for royalty and today, a setting for class in every sense. A luxurious atmosphere within the soaring walls, layers of balconies with space for all, an aristocratic ambiance celebrating elegance in art. Lofty columns as gateways to the outer world, and the lengthy stairs elevating you to a higher status.

Inside, the chandelier floated overhead, a ring of tiny lights like a glittering puff pastry suspended invisibly below the domed ceiling in a glow of crystal radiance. The light reflected on the golden paneling sliding over the inner layer of the walls, like a flow of liquid gold pouring down onto the room, washing over the faces, the tailored shoulders and sweeping gowns milling about below. I was left speechless by this magnificence: Everywhere, red velour covered floor, railing and seats, as gold leaf shimmered from ornamented balconies and musical instruments glistened in the orchestra pit below. This was where the imagination of Hollywood was born.

The spectacle had already started for me.

Everyone took their seat, and all eyes turned toward the stage, as the conductor acknowledged the applause and the music began: Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the story of the libertine lover defeated by death in heavenly language.

Two operas were in fact taking place simultaneously: One on stage and another one in the orchestra. And later, at the end of Act I, a third opera was to begin:  As soon as the red curtains dropped, applause rang out in the hall, the end of one show and the beginning of another.

This was the audience opera. Here, there were different Dons, with various conflicts and amusements. There were the dedicated Dons fully who remained in the hall and waited patiently for the curtains to go up again. There were the Dons who took to the lobby, where they gathered around small tables, voices and manners refined, practiced smiles and chic conversations, feasting on small “bouchées” and sparkling champagne. Outside, on the marble terrace, other Dons enjoyed a smoke or two, or simply the beautiful view of the city lights, in the gentle breeze of a fresh May night.

Then the bells announced the ending of this brief vignette and the crowd filed back into the hall, like little children going back into class after recess.

And as the play went the applause grew, except of course, for one or two who had perhaps had a glass too many and were unable to keep from falling asleep. Later they would say they had just closed their eyes to meditate further on the harmonies of sound.

To our immense satisfaction, Don Giovanni met his fate, as was for-ordained, which deeply moved us. We applauded more and more, as the conductor and the characters bowed in front of us. The golden light kept pouring down upon us, until finally it was time to go, back to our own worlds, in simpler settings, and more quotidian color to meet fates of our own.

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