Don Giovanni


GiovanniWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

Oper Stuttgart, 2012 | Antony Hermus, Andrea Moses, Shigeo Ishino, Simone Schneider, Atalla Ayan, Matthias Hölle, André Morsch, Rebecca von Lipinski, Pumeza Matshikiza, Ronan Collett | Staatsoper Stuttgart, Internet streaming - 25 July 2012

You’ve got quite a few masterpieces to choose from - Die Zauberflöte and Le Nozze di Figaro to name the two most likely candidates - but in Don Giovanni I think you have perhaps Mozart’s richest work of opera. Musically and in terms of the range of characters and the arias composed for them, it’s certainly one of Mozart’s strongest compositions. Added to that, Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto is one of the most brilliant, containing universal sentiments in witty yet incisive writing and strong psychological observations. A ‘dramma giocoso‘, the opera is however much wider in its reach, comedy and tragedy, love and lust, cynicism and romanticism all coexisting in the work without conflicting, expressing so many different and contrasting facets of human nature. This is why Don Giovanni is the one Mozart work most amenable to variations of interpretation and modernisation. The 2012 Stuttgart production - broadcast on television, to outdoor screens and via internet streaming in a new initiative to reach out to a wider audience - isn’t the most consistent of concepts, but it’s strong and ambitious enough to meet that outreach, and it comes through most successfully through some fine singing performances.

By and large, the setting developed by Andrea Moses for the Stuttgart State Opera is modern present-day. The set, designed by Christian Wiehle, is based around a hotel owned by Don Giovanni - one that seems to be going through difficult times in the current economic climate, with a Sale sign stuck up in what appears to be his own personal living room. The hotel proves to be a good all-purpose set for the opera, with its compartmentalised spaces and, crucially, bedrooms. There’s also a bar there where Don Giovanni can pick up Donna Anna during the opera’s overture, leaving Leporello to get her fiancé Don Ottavio drunk while he attempts to have his way with her. The modern touch is used also when the uninvited guests come to Don Giovanni’s party wearing sunglasses instead of masks, but it’s most effective in Leporello’s use of a smartphone to catalogue his master’s conquests, the images projected on a backdrop for Donna Elvira.

For most of the characters, the dress is also fairly generic modern, the wealthier characters of Donna Elvira and Donna Anna wear designer dresses, Don Ottavio is always seen in a smart suit, while the lower classes wear modern casual, Leporello in jeans and a leather cap, Masetto and Zerlina in more glitzy urban street clothes, Masetto in a Puffa body-warmer and with lightning-strike tattoos down his arm. The one exception to the modern-style dress is Don Giovanni, who wears a white suit with panama hat and fur coat and carries a gun, looking like a gangster from the 1930s, and with his unreconstructed attitudes, it is perhaps intentional that he appears to be an anachronism in this world. The distinction between the class of the characters is a feature in the opera - not an important feature, but it has relevance in a work where the sentiments of love, betrayal and revenge are shown as universal.

Distinctions of class however mean something different to Don Giovanni, who doesn’t care whether he beds a servant or a countess, as long as they are female. It’s his position however as a nobleman - or in this case, a gangster who owns his own hotel - that allows him to abuse his position of authority. There’s that and there’s the actual magnetic charm of his personality itself, which allows him to get away with much more, though perhaps not murder. This production however doesn’t seek to place too much emphasis on a traditional interpretation of Don Giovanni. It neither characterises him as a heartless demon or a misunderstood romantic seeking love and affection but unable to commit to just one woman. What does come through uniquely here, mainly through the performance and the singing, is the idea of Don Giovanni as the complete egotist. He’s not interested in the social class or distinctions of personality in who he beds, he’s only interested in what he can get for himself. As we well know from his behaviour towards his faithful servant Leporello.

It’s the betrayal of this relationship and Don Giovanni’s egotistical self-importance to the exclusion of the feelings of everyone else that play an important part then in how the normal course of events play out in this Stuttgart production. The Commendatore isn’t actually killed here by Don Giovanni in the opening scene then, but wounded and pulled aside by Leporello who uses him to get his own back on his boss after more grievous mistreatment that almost gets him lynched. There’s no talking statue here then either, but rather an attempt to put the fear of God into Don Giovanni for his crimes, Leporello ensures that Don Giovanni is quite drunk when the apparition appears. The complete egotism of the Don is carried through brilliantly. There’s no wavering of doubt, no remorse, no fear of retribution in the afterlife - he’s above it all. What appears to be some regret over his treatment of Donna Elvira, pointing a gun at his head while he uses Leporello to seduce here again, is nothing more than his own self-pity, and it’s appropriate then that his death at the finale is by his own hand. It’s a smart interpretation that works well, with enough ambiguity to leave it open to other interpretations.

It’s the performances however that are crucial to making this work, particularly the principal role of Don Giovanni. Shigeo Ishino is simply terrific, singing marvellously, credibly presenting an air of complete arrogance and self-importance that is based on Don Giovanni’s justifiable sense of self-belief. There’s never a waver in the voice or the characterisation. André Morsch isn’t quite as strong of voice, but fills the role of Leporello appropriately. There are good performances also from Pumeza Matshikiza as Zerlina and Ronan Collett as Masetto, but Matthias Hölle’s Commendatore is rather weaker than he should be, particularly in this context where he is very much alive. Other than the Don, the strengths in the casting are best placed in the roles of the three avenging angels, and all are excellent here. Simone Schneider is an outstanding Donna Anna. She has a lovely tone of voice that is able to push her character’s anger to the limit with strength and conviction yet still retain a melodic quality that reflects the purity of her nature. That’s not something that is always taken for granted with this character (does she lead the Don on in Act I or is her naivety taken advantage of?), but it’s emphasised here in her relationship with Don Ottavio. Atalla Ayan is also strongly characterised and well sung so as not to appear the weak figure that he is often portrayed as being. Rebecca von Lipinski ’s Donna Elvira remains a worthy opponent for Don Giovanni, although she’s not quite as strong a character here as the production’s Donna Anna.

Conducted by Antony Hermus, the Staatsorchester Stuttgart give a fine account of Mozart’s scintillating score that hits all the emotional and virtuosic high points of the work, the pace and tone suiting the production and supporting the singing very well. In every respect, this was a production that rose to the challenges of Mozart’s great work, finding something new to draw from its rich endless source of inspiration, while at the same time making sure that the wider audience it was reaching out towards would find plenty that was memorable and entertaining in its traditional musical and dramatic strengths.

The production reviewed here was viewed via Internet streaming on the ARTE WebLive site but was only made available for viewing for a week after the live broadcast.

GiovanniWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

Royal Opera House, London, 2012 | Constantinos Carydis, Francesca Zambello, Erwin Schrott, Alex Exposito, Carmela Remigio, Ruxandra Donose, Pavol Breslik, Kate Lindsey, Matthew Rose, Reinhard Hagen | Covent Garden, 26 February 2012

It never ceases to amaze me how it is possible to play Don Giovanni in so many different ways, with subtle shifts of emphasis that can change one’s whole view of the work. That’s possible with most great operas in the hands of an imaginative director, but I find that it is particularly the case with Don Giovanni, a work that was brilliantly designed to be open and ambiguous, giving the appearance of moral rectitude where the villain is punished and his misdeeds reflected over in an epilogue, but in reality being much more complicated than that. I didn’t find that Francesca Zambello’s 2002 production, revived here at the Royal Opera House under director Barbara Lluch, had a whole lot to add to the various interpretations that have added different layers to the character of Don Giovanni, but the joy of the opera is that the Count is often defined by the other characters in the work and that leaves a lot of room for reinterpretation.

There was nothing new in the relationship between Don Giovanni and Leporello here then - the Don is a loveable rogue who can’t help himself when it comes to women, and Leporello is his admiring comedy sidekick, enjoying his adventures in seduction across Europe up until the moment that Don Giovanni’s wicked ways start to catch up with him. If there was a lack of imagination in how this is played out, it’s at least an enjoyable way to see the familiar pleasures of opera, and it may even have been an intentional decision on the part of the director Francesco Zambello, in order to place more emphasis on the female characters and allow them to take more of a central role. The women are by no means overlooked or underdeveloped by Mozart and Da Ponte, but they are often seen as secondary foils who are only there to unravel Don Giovanni’s schemes and bring him to justice for his crimes.

Under Francesca Zambello’s direction, the women are often positioned together, forming a kind of bond of sisterhood. In Donna Elvira’s Act II aria ‘Mi tradì quell’ alma ingrata‘, where she laments her inability to give up her unfaithful man, she is joined in silent sympathy by both Donna Anna and Zerlina, who both have their own problems not only with Don Giovanni, but with the other men in their life. Their bonding is celebrated again with hugs in the opera’s epilogue, but it’s not some kind of proto-feminist solidarity at their success in overthrowing the tyranny of male domination represented by the descent into hell of Don Giovanni - that would be inappropriate for the 18th century setting and contrary to the characterisation as it is defined in the libretto. Rather it’s an acknowledgement of the women of their nature - falling for good looks and charms of a man they know is no good for them, whose words can’t be trusted, who will seduce and abandon them, but who nonetheless makes them feel desired and special. Think how that would feel if he really meant it. That’s an irresistible prospect and the women just can’t help themselves and are powerless against their own impulses and these drives that Don Giovanni awakens in them.

Giovanni

I wouldn’t however give too much credit to Francesca Zambello for bring out this aspect of the work - like so many other interpretations it’s all there in the brilliant libretto and the stunning musical arrangements of the original work and just waiting to be explored - particularly as in most other respects the production here is surprisingly lacking. The stage sets may be well designed to fluidly switch between all the complicated location arrangements that take place in two long acts of the opera, but they are ugly and clunky, the huge bulky woodwork not remaining in the background, but swinging out over the whole of the stage, the positioning of the actors within it meaning that depending where you are seated, they can be often hidden from view. At best the set is functional - it didn’t hamper the progression of the drama or detract from the enjoyment of the fine performances - but it’s unwieldy and unattractive.

If there is not a great deal that’s new to be gained from this particular production, the audience at least has the pleasure of seeing a great work well performed. The last time I saw Erwin Schrott in a production of Don Giovanni (a 2008 Salzburg production on Blu-ray), he was a wonderful twitchy Leporello, but he can do the role of the master just as effectively, making it look effortless. Don Giovanni may not have any arias in the opera, but it’s a difficult role to carry off convincingly. It’s not just that Schrott fulfils the necessary bari-hunk credentials that one needs for the role nowadays, rather gratuitously in this production having to strip down to the waist, (although as he demonstrated to a lady in the Stalls Circle Left at the Royal Opera House, he has no shortage of magnetic charm), but his singing was assured and in character. A little comic exaggeration doesn’t go amiss in Don Giovanni, but when required, Schrott could carry the necessary noble contemptuousness for others while giving the impression of being utterly irresistible in his charms. It wasn’t required here as much as in other productions, but I’m sure he could carry off the nasty and cruel streak in Don Giovanni if the emphasis in a production were in that direction.

The fact that it wasn’t a dark and dangerous Don Giovanni however is by no means a flaw, but a matter of interpretation, particularly when one wants to draw on other aspects of the work. In order to shift the balance over to the female perspective however, it needs very strong singers in the more challenging roles of Donna Anna and Donna Elvira. Carmela Remigio and Ruxandra Donose met the necessary criteria as far as the demands of the production required, the two of them together certainly representing a formidable force to challenge Don Giovanni, their singing strong and filled with character, even if they didn’t always hold up to the technical demands of the more difficult arias. Kate Lindsey was a little anonymous in the role of the flighty Zerlina, and her voice wasn’t the most delicate of tones, but her interaction with the excellent Matthew Rose as Masetto was fine.

If you could say there was a weakness in the female make-up that didn’t necessarily compromise their position as far as the aims of this production went, there was in comparison a general solidity to the all the male roles, with Pavol Breslik an earnest Don Ottavio and Reinhard Hagen a commanding Commendatore. Seen recently as Papageno in Die Zauberflöte, Alex Exposito clearly specialises in strong, comic Mozartian character parts and he fully entered into the spirit of Leporello, with all the comic exaggeration that the role often demands, singing well, as ever, with heartfelt passion. There was no lack of commitment or fire in any of the performances - the orchestra also in form under Constantinos Carydis - and if fire is what you like, there was plenty of that in the final scene of Don Giovanni’s descent into hell, where the heat of the flames could be certainly be felt in the front rows. If the stage directions were questionable elsewhere, the orchestration of the final scenes were well-judged for maximum impact, not least in the final postscript where Don Giovanni seems to be quite at home in the underworld.

GiovanniWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

Glyndebourne 2010 | Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Vladimir Jurowski, Jonathan Kent, Gerald Finley, Luca Pisaroni, Brindley Sherratt, Anna Samuil, William Burden, Kate Royal, Anna Virovlansky, Guido Loconsolo | BBC Two

The concept behind Jonathan Kent’s production of Don Giovanni for Glyndebourne 2010 is somewhat tenuous in how its 1950s’ setting relates to the pre-Enlightenment years of the opera’s original period. It’s not that Don Giovanni doesn’t bear up well to modern interpretations – it’s perhaps the Mozart opera most apt and subject to contemporary reworking – it’s just that the production’s supposed “Fellini-esque vision of post-war life” seems a little drab and, even with the free-love of the 1960s just around the corner, it doesn’t really seem to grasp the spirit of the period or present all that convincing a parallel to the Age of Enlightenment.

Mozart and Da Ponte’s treatment of the legend of Don Juan however is still quite shocking and daring right from the outset here, as Don Giovanni rapes Donna Anna and kills her father the Commendatore while trying to escape from her bedroom. Ostensibly a libertine, believing in the pursuit of pleasure above all else – certainly above consideration for other people – the reality is however that the promiscuous nobleman has lost touch with his own humanity and with whatever dubious justifications that could have been made for his beneficent spreading of his love around half of Europe.

The Glyndebourne production at least starts off like it intends to make something of this risqué premise, with a quite brutal enactment of the rape and murder scene, but thereafter, the production settles down to a rather non-committal blandness. The 1950s setting doesn’t really suit the wider European expansive viewpoint of the continental philanderer, but rather closes it down without seeming to bring any exciting or meaningful new ideas to the table in its place. With one of Mozart’s most dynamic scores and Da Ponte’s sparkling, witty libretto that turns at the drop of a hat from comedy to tragedy, that has moments of abject cruelty interspersed with the most exquisite tenderness, there’s no excuse really for a production of Don Giovanni being dull and lifeless.

The drabness and unimaginativeness of the setting (although technically impressive) is unfortunately reflected in the performances, which rather lack commitment. Everyone, but everyone, – particularly Anna Samuil’s Donna Anna – seems to walk around in a trance, scarcely showing any feeling or expression of the predilections and predicaments of their characters. The singing is generally fine throughout, with a delicate touch – the same can be said about the orchestration by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on period instruments under the direction of Vladimir Jurowski – all very nicely and smoothly played, but much too nicely, with no passion, no torment, no raging desire and no agony of betrayal. It’s all performed exceptionally well, but with no real fire.

Giovanni

It’s only towards the end of Act 1 that the purpose of the setting and the Fellini-esque elements come into play, with a wonderfully hedonistic party straight out of La Dolce Vita. For all the lack of fire elsewhere, the close to the first Act quite literally sets the stage alight, as the Don Giovanni’s ambitions are unmasked at the party by his guests, their accusations directed forcefully against the libertine, and with it a condemnation that prefigures the damnation of the nobleman for his crimes against humanity. With his Polaroids of the Don’s conquests, Luca Pisaroni’s Leporello here then is the Paparazzo to the Gerald Finley’s Marcello, the two of them on a search for the ultimate high in the swinging lifestyle of the rich and famous. Like Marcello, Don Giovanni has pushed his hedonistic excesses to their limit, losing his humanity in the process, and his only recourse is towards the spiritual or the supernatural. Don Giovanni’s downfall then lies not so much in any kind of divine or infernal retribution as much as the inevitable result of his hubris for believing himself above mere mortals and worthy of dining with those on an unearthly plane.

While the concept behind the staging comes briefly through at this point and there are one or two other fine moments (a tender scene between Zerlina and Masetto and a blood-spurting finale that is more Night of the Living Dead than La Dolce Vita), the remainder of the production unfortunately seems to rather go through the motions of delivering the story and its moral without adding anything new or challenging to the conventional line. The singers likewise seem to concentrate on delivering their lines and on hitting all the right notes at the right points, but without any real fire or ambition. All in all, it’s a fine production that keeps the story accessible and meaningful, but there’s not much here that can be said to be memorable.

GiovanniWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

Haus für Mozart, Salzburg Festspiele, 2008 | Wiener Philharmoniker, Bertrand de Billy, Claus Guth, Christopher Maltman, Erwin Schrott, Anatoly Kocherga, Annette Dasch, Matthew Polenzani | Euroarts

Of all Mozart’s operas, Don Giovanni seems to be the one with themes that make it more open to modern day re-envisioning and reinterpretation. And it’s not so much the subject of the amorous activities of a philandering nobleman that make the opera so timeless as much as the underlying themes of passion, revenge, power and conquest, or - as in this particular production for the 2008 Salzburg Festval - the question of honour.

Accordingly, there’s something of a Godfather feel to the tempestuous Latin passions of love and revenge here that feels perfectly appropriate, the production approaching the opera from a different angle while remaining perfectly true to the strengths of Mozart’s score and the themes of Da Ponte’s wonderful libretto, full of wit and wisdom. It’s certainly more complex and nuanced on the subject of relationships between male and female than their rather more buffa treatment of the subject in Così Fan Tutte. To cite just one example, look at Donna Elvira’s complex feelings for Don Giovanni, expressing hatred, contempt and frustration for Giovanni, but at the same time her actions are fuelled by a deep love and an irrational but no less sincere hope for his redemption.

The staging here is limited entirely to a dark woods setting, but imaginatively deployed on a revolving stage which gives a wonderful three-dimensional quality to the production (well directed for the screen, as ever, by Brian Large). As well observed as the references and updating are - the staging never compromising the integrity of a truly great opera - the performances here are just as nuanced, powerful and dramatic, Christopher Maltman’s near-deranged, wild-eyed obsessive Don Giovanni brilliantly balanced and vocally matched with Erwin Schrott’s amusingly twitchy Leporello. The score is magnificently interpreted, drawing the full darkness and energy out of the opera, as well as bringing out its underlying tenderness and tragedy. In this respect, in addition to strong singing you would expect from all the major roles, Matthew Polenzani gives one of the most sensitive and sympathetic readings of Don Ottavio that I’ve seen for this opera.

The image quality on the Blu-ray - once it takes its time to actually load-up onto the player - is fine, while the orchestration is given a fine presentation in the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix, centrally located and unshowy on the surrounds, and beautifully toned. The singing initially seems a little echoing in this mix, occasionally overwhelmed by the music, but it’s generally good and seems to improve by the end of the first Act. The PCM Stereo mix gives the singing a better stage, but at the cost of the fine separation of the orchestration.

This is not the most traditional production of Don Giovanni, and it certainly isn’t the best I’ve seen or heard, the limitations of the woods setting losing some of the familiar elements that usually make it work so well as a drama (traditionalists will be disappointed by a bus timetable in place of a Register of the Don’s conquests, no masks on the wedding guests, a Burger King take-away for a dinner-party, twigs for the Commendatore’s statue and certainly no flames at the finale), but that’s balanced with a reasonably fresh take on the themes, some strong singing and fine acting that is more naturalistic than the usual operatic gesturing, and a fascinating visual presentation in terms of its design and conceptualisation.