Saturday 24 September 2011

From Dusk to Dawn

In 1990 when I was working in youth crime prevention I accompanied a crowd of teenagers from Mountain Ash to see the recently released Ghost, the slushy but popular film starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze. The setting is modern New York and the characters are everyday and naturalistic but when the villains in the story die they are seized by howling demons and dragged screaming into hell, watched over by Swayze's saintly ghost - he was murdered at the start of the action. The contrast of modernity and literalist mediaeval damnation is startling.

Last night I see Welsh National Opera's new blockbuster Don Giovanni at the Millennium Centre. It is a very well done if not quite historic production and I enjoy the witty portrayal of human folly which affects all the characters as the Don (David Kempster) seduces, murders and deceives through two and a half hours until finally this colourful antihero is seized by howling demons and dragged down into hell under the supervision of the saintly ghost of the "Commandatore" whom DG knifed in Act One.

Since its first performance in 1787 people have wondered why Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Del Ponte introduced this massive shift from an "everyday" human story to one of eternal damnation. Wasn't Mozart a man of the Enlightenment, they say, indeed a Freemason; surely he didn't believe all that stuff? Of course not - it just makes a great story with an amazing twist. And unlike the predictable Ghost with its simplistic, black-and-white characterisation (indeed there are casually racist undertones distinguishing the two-dimensional goodies and baddies) the opera has unexpected qualities including Don Giovanni's response to the ghost who offers him the chance to repent at the very gates of hell - no, he says, get lost you old fool. You have to admire his guts! See this version with Bryn Terfel on YouTube which illustrates how unexpected the scene is in a Mozart opera. It looks more like Wagner except of course the music and words aren't rubbish.

The funniest bit about the opera is the anticlimactic final scene (often left out in the past by humourless producers) after the Don has been dragged away and the other characters look at each other and say "What was all that about?" - after a little thought the earthy Masetto opines that it's time for his dinner...

Driving home I realise that this is all more like Quentin Tarantino's From Dusk to Dawn (1996) where a modern and grounded tale of crime and murder with no hint of the supernatural ends in a nightclub full of vampiric demons. But that film is even more amoral than the opera because the lead villain (George Clooney) survives rich and free whereas the decent pastor (Harvey Keitel) whom he had kidnapped is hideously butchered. Very similar humour though.

Incidentally the teenagers (who I naively thought might have found the film disturbing) thought the the supernatural stuff in Ghost a huge hoot just as I'm sure Mozart's audience did in 18C Prague when the opera premiered.