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Director Kasper Holten takes Mozart’s opera to the edge in his 2010 film. Juan is an underworld artist and sexual sadist. He prowls the byways and back alleys of Budapest in search of erotic inspiration, with foul- mouthed accomplice Leporello on hand to video his exploits.

Holten’s Juan tries to break free of all the conventions of a traditional opera film. The live, on-location recording of the singing means that there’s none of the obvious artifice of lip-syncing, it avoids the stylised staginess of Joe Losey’s classic film of Don Giovanni,and the sexual shenanigans aren’t excessively self-conscious. Its gritty realism feels authentic at the outset, though as the story enters the realms of the paranormal, the verité approach feels less in tune with the music, and the protagonists’ behaviour seems more and more implausible.

The updated English libretto is strictly post-watershed, liberally sprinkled with the ‘f’ word. This results in an inevitable friction between the film’s informal, streetwise text and the elegantly wrought score. Mozart’s Don is, after all, an aristocrat with a veneer of good manners, even if he has appalling morals; here, Christopher Maltman’s Juan is a predatory playboy, brimming with visceral sexuality.

The film is convincingly cast. Maltman has an animal charm that mesmerises the camera, and he sings wonderfully. Mikhail Petrenko’s affable Leporello treads a nice line between being complicit and judgemental. The women are more unleashed than you’ll find in most stage productions. Elizabeth Futral’s Elvira is a poignant figure with real vocal class; Katija Dragojevic makes a seductive minx of Zerlina opposite the attractive hulk of Ludvig Lindström’s Masetto; and Maria Bengtsson is a sassy Anna, playing her men offwith cool, calculating sexuality.

Holten’s brash, naturalistic approach can sometimes make the operatic hyperbole of certain scenes fall flat – especially the seduction of Zerlina, and the final encounter with the Commendatore. The overwhelming catharsis of the ending, so powerfully engineered by Mozart, is missing here. Still, Holten’s film is a darkly enjoyable romp – a thriller that explores some of the enduring themes of Mozart’s masterpiece through a boldly contemporary cinematic lens.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica

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