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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #337

The Lviv Opera House delivered possibly their finest performance to date last night, their edgy, modernist remaking of Mozart’s classic Don Giovanni about lust, sin, exuberance and the tragedy that befalls those who cannot control their passions: all themes that plagued Mozart throughout his short life. The opera was originally a transcendental and mystical take upon the influences of the divine upon the corrupt and licentious court life in Vienna to which Mozart was exposed, full of sex, adultery, alcohol and excessive eating, and this modernised version of the opera for Ukrainian audiences - still faithful to the original Italian script and sung by the very best of Lviv’s opera singers - reflected those same themes in modern Ukrainian society. This was not the first time I have seen the Lviv Opera House’s contemporary rendition of Don Giovanni, but it was quite the best. After the superlatively played national anthem, and the haunting opening overture, the curtain opened to two characters having sex in a ubiquitous old-fashioned British red telephone box, a symbol throughout Russia and Ukraine for prostitution by virtue of the escorts’ calling cards traditionally left in such boxes on the streets of London (or so it was imagined by the Soviet authorities).

There was the usual spate of exchanges of girlfriends, fighting, drinking and wayward behaviour on stage as the opera’s famous arias were sung, and the telephone box remained on stage throughout as the symbol of decadence and decay in modern Ukraine in which men routinely cheat on their girlfriends, sex is casualised over traditional family values and alcohol is over-consumed. One felt a lingering sense of disgust with all the characters, and then Mozart’s surreality kicked in as an unknown character, assumed to be the devil, would walk up and down behind the cast dressed in black, on and off the stage, as they sung. I think the directors of the Lviv Opera House have been reading my operatic reviews, because now half the orchestra smile at me when I walk in to sit on the front row and they had changed the theme slightly from the prior time I watched them perform Don Giovanni. I had written to them after the prior performance explaining how impressed I was and explaining that in my view the final character in the opera, Il Commendatore, traditionally conceived as being Mozart’s father and a disciplining, moral figure, was in truth better construed as the Devil and this was precisely how the Opera House direction played it. After the final round of decadence and debauchery, apparently played out in a cinema in which pop corn was thrown around the stage in giant buckets (including over the orchestra in the pits!), piles of cash were wantonly tossed around and the performers drank whisky out of the bottle and chewed on plastic fruits, the character emerging from the telephone box, there on the stage throughout, was indeed the Devil. The surtitles announced him as Mephistopheles, and he announced that he had come to take Mozart down to Hell: a variation on Mozart’s original theme but compelling nonetheless.

And then the coup-de-grâce: the empty seats in the audience had been quietly filled with ghouls, ghastly faces with anonymous masks and black robes who sat amongst us and chanted hysterically as Mozart was repeatedly struck down by Mephistopheles with a wave of his hand and dragged relentlessly towards the telephone box. Then the lights shone down from the galley and Don Giovanni tore open his shirt to give the impression of an electricity bolt repeatedly ploughing through his heart on the orders of the divine; Don Giovanni was being struck down by a retributive bolt of lightning before the Devil hauled him into the telephone box and down into Hell.

The audience was in raptures as the Ghouls quietly disappeared from their number. If, my dear friends at the Lviv Opera House, I had anything to do with these changes to the plot of my favourite opera by suggesting to you that Il Commendatore is best construed really as the Devil then I am most honoured but in any event the avant-garde creativity of the Lviv Opera House is once again stunning. And then, after the multiple standing ovations, you saw the staff quietly start to disassemble the stunning props and backgrounds and get ready for tonight’s extravaganza which is Bizet’s Carmen: an opera I don’t particularly enjoy (it’s too long and not sufficiently depressing for me) so I’ll be giving it a miss. Those of us in the international volunteer community who attended the performance last night and agreed that we were stunned by what we had seen and amazed that the performers of the Lviv Opera House can keep this sort of high quality performance going again, night after night (and sometimes even twice a day) during wartime conditions. They have three resident conductors, who seem to rotate; a diminished but nonetheless powerful orchestra; and an enormous operatic and ballet cast that perform a small repertoire of modern and traditional opera and ballet virtually flawlessly every time and several times a week.

It is this sort of dedication to high art in the field of entertainment amidst wartime that makes Lviv stand at the forefront of European opera houses and I encourage all opera buffs to travel to Lviv if for no reason whatsoever other than simply to enjoy a series of performances at the opera. If you plan it well, you can go four nights or more in a row and fit in a few performances at the hall of the philharmonic orchestra just next door, which is what I am doing this afternoon. It’s amazing. It’s a wow. There was only one downside last night: a rather Sovietesque old lady tried to tear my coat from me and force me to take it to the cloakroom. I could persuade her to desist only by wearing it, so I sat through the entire performance with my jacket on. This was but a minor aside; I understand that some habits die hard and people don’t like being bossed around over their coats or whether to take photographs. These things will change, and in a year or two those ladies will smile at their customers with some fragments of English, asking whether the customers need anything or can they sell them a glass of champagne in a plastic cup (something that still hasn’t quite caught on in the Lviv classical music establishment), and the experience will be all the more delightful, Lviv Opera House, I am your greatest fan. But I think you already know that, don’t you?


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