Tonight’s performance of Don Giovanni, possibly Mozart’s most brilliant and eccentric opera and one of the most distinguished pieces in the repertoire of all operatic performances, was undertaken by the orchestra and performers of the Lviv Opera House in a beautiful and world-beating fashion. The entire opera was sung in impeccable Italian; the orchestra was note-perfect; the performers were exceptional in every way; but there was one peculiarity: it was strangely modern.
Don Giovanni, while remaining faithful to the original script and music, had been adapted to reflect the hardships and corruption and filth and sad nonsense reflecting contemporary Ukrainian cultural life under decades of Russian domination since ostensible Ukrainian independence. So the main prop on the opera theatre was a red British telephone box, that the opera house had acquired from somewhere or other, that sat like a sore thumb in the middle of the stage as if to represent some sort of brothel or a locus for prostitutes’ cards blue-tacked to the window frames like twenty years ago. Don Giovanni was a drunk, stumbling around with a bottle of vodka in his hand as the theatre lighting progressed from gloomy to dark to piercing to miserable and then round and round in turns. Various women came on and off the stages, searing in their arias, in beautiful Italian, while faintly nonsensical Ukrainian surtitles appeared above purporting to translate what they were saying.
The theme was gangster. The girls were dressed as prostitutes: quite a feat for skilled and educated, civilised opera singers. The male performers were dressed as Russian gangsters from the 1990’s. At one point an opera singer dressed in the style of a Russian gangster emerged on the stage, to give Don Giovanni a good hard beatdown for no particular reason while singing in Italian.
But this was not as ludicrous as it got. The British red out-of-date telephone box swivelled round to reveal its rear, which was the projection of an iPhone showing sexting photographs typical of teenagers using mobile telephone dating Apps in contemporary Ukraine, with different muscular men having sex with all sorts of different women. The operatic singers on stage found this increasingly indecent and offensive, and their arias became proportionately screeching as a result.
We all laughed. We all cried. It was an extraordinary performance, and I was addicted to every moment of it no matter how ludicrous the props appeared to be because this is undoubtedly one of the best operatic orchestras and set of performers in the world. And they keep up these amazing performances even in the midst of war, with Lviv being struck by hypersonic missiles and Kinzhal Mach 10 things and drones with this and that sort of crazy thing going on virtually on a nightly basis but it doesn’t matter because these heroic performers just keep on going. I am humbled and honoured to have the privilege of watching performances before such heroic and skilled operatic performers and this keeps the culture and morale of Ukraine going amidst this brutal onslaught upon Ukraine by the evil Russian Empire.
After Don Giovanni and his various morally defunct male and female friends and lovers had rushed in and out of the telephone box, we moved to the dark scene of the opera’s final movements, in which the true corruption and decadence of both Italian society in the late Eighteenth Century and in contemporary Ukraine were revealed. The Devil himself appeared in the red British telephone box, imagined to be associated with licentiousness and prostitution, after all the vodka bottles from which Don Giovanni and his friends had been swigging with their Russian criminal friends, had been cast aside. “Don Giovanni!”, called the Devil from his ‘phone box. Don Giovanni, an emblem for everything that is wrong with Ukrainian society in terms of its sexualisation of women and its domestic violence and its mistreatment of people, would finally be held accountable for his crimes.
Like a drunken sinner staggering the streets of frozen Saigon, Don Giovanni was struck down by the Devil Incarnate, every word being spoken causing him to be driven down onto the floor in agony, and the opera ended with Don Giovanni being pulled by the Devil into the telephone box whereupon he was lowered down into Hell amidst deep, dark and moody music of Mozart’s genius that was played without a note out of place. This was opera at its best, and I was amongst the first on my feet as I granted the impeccable cast and orchestra a standing ovation. This sort of performance cements Lviv Opera House as amongst the very best opera houses not just in Europe, but in the world. It is nothing short of extraordinary that in the middle of a war zone this level of music is not just possible but truly realised. These musicians are heroes of their times, and Lviv is one of the world’s capitals of culture. War will not suppress us; we will keep on going and fighting and struggling for the common good against this anti-cultural Russian imperialist aggression which has no time for this sort of thing but is jus all about murder and FSB and KGB and all these ridiculous intimidatory things. Russia is a mess; she has a cultural past but under its sinister James Bond evil mastermind parody of a leader, Vladimir Putin, Russia has lost all her culture and now just survives on a diet of paranoia, murder and intimidation.
I left the opera, enthused, uplifted by the Ukrainian heroic resistance and how Ukraine’s cultural institutions had evolved to face down the Russian cultural tyranny that Moscow wishes to impose upon them. This is not a battle for territory; it is a war over mentalities, between western liberal culture and Russian state-sponsored barbarism. The performers and the opera of the Lviv Opera House are heroes of our times, standing strong in the face of totalitarian aggression, maintaining artistic freedom and adapting historical artistic paradigms to gird our loins in resisting Russian militarism. It is a wonderful thing to behold.