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Don Not Dusted

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on February 13, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Review – Don Giovanni (Royal Opera House, Wednesday 12 February 2014)

Don Giovanni – Mariusz Kwiecień
Leporello – Alex Esposito
Donna Anna – Malin Byström
Don Ottavio – Antonio Poli
Il Commendatore – Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Donna Elvira – Véronique Gens
Zerlina – Elizabeth Watts
Masetto – David Kimberg

Director – Kasper Holten
Set Design – Es Devlin
Video Designs – Luke Halls
Costume Designs – Anja Van Kragh
Lighting Design – Bruno Poet

Royal Opera House Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Nicola Luisotti (Conductor)

Don Giovanni is quintessential Mozart. Nothing after it surprises – or challenges – as much as this opera does.

Written in 1787, I think that Don Giovanni is the culmination of Mozart’s musical armoury. It finesses the ensemble writing of Le Nozze di Figaro that isn’t bettered in his final three operas; the orchestral writing is truly symphonic and his fusion of counterpoint and baroque idioms is more fluid and integrated here than in later works.

And in Da Ponte he had a librettist – a storyteller – who matched Mozart’s incredible talent with characters of flesh, blood and passion.

At the end of the day, Don Giovanni is a (pre) Gothic novel. It has murder, intrigue, sex, death and revenge. It might be the “graveyard” of opera directors but in a sense it is a very easy story to tell.

And it’s been a long time since I have seen a production of Don Giovanni as confident and coherent as this – perhaps not since Jonathan Miller’s production for ENO in the 1980s in fact. And while there is a great deal to enjoy in Casper Holten’s new production, there were moments when I wish he’d done a little less tinkering.

Above all this production was incredibly strong musically, with some of the singing of a very high standard indeed.

Mariusz Kwiecień is quickly making Don Giovanni a signature role, but I would argue that his Don is still a work in progress but nearing maturity. Vocally he is well suited to the music, with a commanding baritone of great flexibility that shows little strain at either end of his range. He displayed an intuitive sense of ensemble but in the solo numbers I would have preferred a little more colour rather than simple dynamic shading. His acting was very good – he clearly enjoyed and believed in Holten’s direction for the Don – and I would really enjoy seeing him in this production again when it inevitably returns.

I wasn’t so sure about Esposito’s Leporello. His was a one-size-fits-all performance vocally. Most disappointing was Madamina, il catalogo è questo. Almost barked through, it lacked both swagger and the necessary sense of emotional intelligence to make it meaningful in terms of both the characterization of the Don Giovanni and Donna Elvira.

On the other hand Antonio Poli’s Don Ottavio was vocally impressive. Poli’s supple yet confident tenor voice glided through his two arias and again he worked well in the ensembles. But I think – as with other productions – Don Ottavio was almost an after-thought for Holten. Granted he is probably Mozart’s most two-dimensional character, but it really did feel like he had slipped of Holten’s list. Similarly Masetto – well sung by David Kimberg – felt like a cipher rather than a real flesh and blood character.

But the women were magnificent.

Véronique Gens as Donna Elvira was a maelstrom of emotions wrapped in some of the most exciting and dramatic singing and acting I have seen in a very long time. From her first appearance with Ah, chi mi dice mai she inhabited the character and reveled in Mozart’s music. In quali eccessi … Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata was the expected tour de force her ensemble work was equally thrilling. Protegga il giusto cielo is a real jewel moment in this opera and Gens and the Donna Anna of Malin Byström complimented each other perfectly.

And this Swedish Donna Anna was equal to the task. It’s a formidable role but Byström was more than equal to the task. In possession of a solidly grounded soprano in terms of technique, while there was some slight tightness at the top of her range she convincingly and confidently tackled Donna Anna’s music head on and it paid dividends as she turned in a compelling and sensitive performance.

I remember one of Elizabeth Watt’s first major appearances, as Hope in ENO’s L’Orfeo. Since then she has constantly demonstrated that she is developing into a soprano of talent and character. Her Zerlina displayed a rich and even soprano of some maturity as well as a real sense of style and dramatic (and comic) timing. I can’t wait to hear her impending recital disc of Mozart arias.

In the pit, Luisotti tempi was spot on and he drew some attentive and delicate playing from the orchestra. But I wasn’t convinced about the alternation from harpsichord to fortepiano.

I think that Holten’s production has drawn mixed – if not divided – opinion. On the whole I liked it but some elements were not convincing.

Starting with the ending, I can understand the dramatic impact from a directorial point of view but I simply don’t agree with cutting the sextet. Mozart made the cut for the Vienna premiere but he did so because of the Viennese audience. The Emperor Joseph remarked that the opera had “too much teeth” for the Viennese which prompted Da Ponte’s famous retort, “let them chew on it”. They didn’t and it was dropped after fifteen performances until after Mozart’s death.

Cutting that section unbalances the ending, denying the audience and the characters an important sense of closure. Without it Holten’s approach to Donna Anna is undermined. If – as he suggests – she is a willing accomplice in her seduction then that glorious moment when she asks Don Ottavio “Lascia, o caro, un anno ancora allo sfogo del mio cor” needs to be heard. But truth be told, I didn’t buy that supposition.

Throughout the opera, Don Giovanni is the sole instigator and his downfall is predicated on the violence of that initial act. It’s in the music both at the opening of the opera as well as infusing all of Donna Anna’s own music – her horror at seeing her dead father, the demand for Don Ottavio to swear an oath, her horror before Non mi dir. To make her an accomplice undermines her character and belief system.

Similarly his relentless pursuit of Zerlina was undermined by her ‘self-dishevelment’ at the end of Act One.

I also wish Holten had done more with Don Giovanni’s relationship with Donna Elvira. One very smart touch was to have her try to save him at the end of Act One. It could have been developed.

But it was a smart and intelligent production. The use of video worked well in this production. From the projection of the catagolo during the overture set the scene immediately and use of ‘virtual environments’ was stunningly applied and the Escher-inspired set by Es Devlin suggested not only a sense of history constantly repeating itself but also futility. The futility of trying to escape the inevitable no matter what door or passage any of the characters tried. I don’t think we were necessarily in Don Giovanni’s mind per se, but rather in a world he had created but – as it got more complicated and convoluted – became a place he could no longer control.

And while I might have had reservations about the musical ending of Holten’s vision, the idea of the Don alone at the end – rather than the more traditional demons and flames – was very original.

Holten’s Don might have escaped his own maze and his attackers but had paid the ultimate price – solitude.

This Don Giovanni will undoubtedly return regularly at Covent Garden. I sincerely hope so but I do also hope that Holten will reconsider his ending.

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  1. […] in-built comedy and tragedy of the libretto and did not overuse other parts of the venue. But as in Don Giovanni and his other operas that I have seen, Holten has a sensitive eye for detail. The way the lighting […]

  2. […] I am not sure – after such a strong performance most recently as Donna Anna – if Elettra is a suitable role for Malin Byström. Sure enough – and despite some lack of […]

  3. […] I hope that he doesn’t return to Covent Garden until he has learned his trade. Holten’s own Don Giovanni – replacing Francesca Zambello’s lackluster production – was almost perfect. A strong […]

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