Don Giovanni breaks hearts (and tradition) at NYCO

dongIt's refreshing (and embarrassing) to "discover" a director who has been on the scene for 35 years, but it happens. Such is the case with Christopher Alden and me. The opera director has been staging new and repertory works for years across America and in Europe, but somehow I missed his previous visits to New York City Opera. (In truth, I've only been attending opera in earnest for the last five years.) Now I can say: I'm an instant convert. This week I caught Alden's severe, conceptually rich Don Giovanni. Here is a boldly reconceived staging that is impossible to imagine at the Met. If that institution's conservative fans lustily booed Bondy's Tosca, they would have torn down the Chagall canvases and shredded the lobby's red carpeting—had Alden's production opened in the House of Gelb. That's as it should be. Newly appointed head George Steel's New York City Opera ought to be the place where risks are taken.

Alden comes from the same school and roughly the same generation as opera iconoclasts Peter Sellars and Robert Wilson, but more than either of those directors, I believe, he protects the story. Sure, he eschews representational sets in favor of minimalist, sleek spaces. And he may encourage a performer to play the subtext, or against the text. He treats singers like pieces of sculpture, or part of the scenery. Don Giovanni (Daniel Okulitch) drags the prostrate Leporello (Jason Hardy) around by the hand, as if he were a particularly unwieldy piece of luggage, or a recalcitrant child. In Act I's finale, our antihero sits in a chair while the rest of the singers gather around him, pawing his body and running their hands down his shirt. You wonder if they want to lynch the lothario or start an orgy.

For all his stylish, modern imagery and horror-film flourishes (slo-mo processions! unsmiling kids! people in creepy animal masks!), Alden is not messing with the essentials of the Mozart-Da Ponte classic: Here's a grimly funny morality tale about sex, death, revenge and damnation. Early on, Don Giovanni kills the Commendatore by smashing his skull against a gray-white wall. Blood and brains explode against against the surface and drip down. That grisly stain remains throughout the action. Meanwhile, high up on the wall, a crucifix made of fluorescent tubes flickers. God is always present, and he is cold, technological, and tacky. Oh, and Alden's actors are unabashedly sexual: The fornicating and groping is simulated but graphic and there's plenty of beefcake on display from both servant and master.

So go already. There are three more performances through November 22. Both for the novice and the hardcore operagoer, there are bound to be surprises. You can be sure there will be more bravos than boos.