It was five years ago today: Don Giovanni in sex-at-Glyndebourne horror

Maeve Walsh
Saturday 05 June 1999 23:02 BST

In 1994, Glyndebourne celebrated its 60th anniversary and received a unanimous chorus of approval for both its new pounds 33m building and an opera-house-warming production of Eugene Onegin by Graham Vick. A few weeks into the season, a production of Mozart's Don Giovanni opened, by radical theatre director Deborah Warner. Within Glyndebourne's new surroundings, old reactions died hard: on the first night, it was booed from the boxes, but cheered from the cheap seats. The press picked up on it as a cause celebre in the debate about the democratisation of opera.

Warner had transported the tale - lock, stock and rococo - to a 20th- century setting: Giovanni was an Armani-suited yuppie, Elvira a map- toting tourist; the company jived to Mozart at the Don's party. But traditionalists, already uneasy with modern-dress, also saw the Don simulate sex with a statue of the Virgin Mary.

The critics were divided, but not unduly disparaging. The Guardian commended the "surgical accuracy" of Warner's character dissection; the Mail saw "a Don for our time". The Independent on Sunday's Michael White felt a "genuine fascination in watching this familiar story go along unfamiliar paths, stripped of its certainties" until the graveyard scene, which "sank with all hands". The Telegraph said Warner had "undertaken a work ... about which she has no strong or original ideas".

All the reviews mentioned the boos and jeers, most of which were saved for Warner's curtain-call, and the news pages quickly followed up. "The champagne-swilling audience ... wants a certain kind of comfortable opera, not too challengingly presented" (IoS). The Sunday Times suggested that there was an "element of toffee-nosed, conservative old stick-in-the-muds who are terrified that innovation will somehow tarnish the glittery snob- value of the Glyndebourne experience". "The 'Lanson louts' have spoken: [it's] Not What We Dressed Up in Black Tie To See," interpreted the Telegraph. A photo of the Don and the Madonna even appeared on the front page of the Times.

Deborah Warner says now that it must have been a "slow and dreary summer" for the press: "The opening of the new opera house had gone spectacularly smoothly. There were no complaints. It was, and is, perfect. People were looking to rock the boat." A subsequent revival of her production in 1995 was controversy-free.

Warner accepts that a proportion of opera-goers, not just at Glyndebourne, will inevitably react to contemporary-dress productions, but "it was the statue of the Virgin Mary that did it". "The figure was absolutely purposeful," she says. "But it wasn't created to cause a sensation or shock. Opera demands that you look for contemporary parallels. As Mozart's opera has a philanderer who runs riot in a graveyard, you're obliged to look for a serious contemporary parallel which will make people sit up. A production that doesn't do so is a failed production."

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