No brimstone as Kasper Holten turns Don Giovanni on its head

Mozart: Don Giovanni ****

The Royal Opera, 12th February 2014

Mariusz Kwiecien (Don Giovanni) © Bill Cooper/ROH

Mariusz Kwiecien (Don Giovanni)
© Bill Cooper/ROH

Jean-Paul Sartre closes No Exit with the line, “Hell is other people” (“L’enfer, c’est les autres”), yet in Kasper Holten’s new production of Don Giovanni, Hell is quite the opposite – a lonely vacuum where the Don’s history of his 2065 conquests is wiped from the slate, reducing him to a lonely, cowering shell; no leaping flames and brimstone here. Mozart’s dramma giocoso, composed for Prague in 1787 and revised for the Vienna premiere a year later, is often labelled ‘a director’s graveyard’ but Holten bravely turns the piece on its head with some surprising – and controversial – twists. I attended the second night at the Royal Opera House and was fascinated enough to want to watch it again, this time via the cinema screen.

Es Devlin’s set is a giant house on a revolve, a blank canvas onto which Luke Hall’s video designs are busily projected throughout the opera. During the Overture, the façade is graffitied with the names of Don Giovanni’s conquests, from which point nothing is static; walls rotate slowly, characters ascend and descend staircases, while the projections portray raindrops, blood, roses, cloudscapes… in the House, it was like an over-excitable Powerpoint demonstration. The Escher-on-speed spiral of stairs whirring around the Don during his Champagne aria was dizzying on the verge of nausea. The effect in the cinema (and I don’t doubt that many opera directors have cinemas and DVD releases in mind when they devise productions) was far less distracting. Anja Vang Kragh’s costumes exuded elegance, from Elvira’s baroque gown, to match the style of her music, to the Don’s fur-lined coat, as if he’d stepped in from a set of Eugene Onegin.

© Bill Cooper/ROH

© Bill Cooper/ROH

The controversial point of departure in Holten’s staging is in his treatment of the women, especially Donna Anna and Zerlina. In the opening scene, Donna Anna is very much enjoying her tryst with the Don and doesn’t want to release him until they are disturbed by her father. It’s only when the Commendatore is killed in the confrontation that she suddenly cries rape. Her web of deceit is intriguing. Anna is so deeply attracted to Giovanni that she abandons Don Ottavio during the second verse of “Dalla sua pace” to resume sexual relations with her seducer. But then, Ottavio is one of opera’s great wimps…

The peasant girl Zerlina isn’t painted as charming and naïve, but a social climber, looking for a chance to better herself beyond her station, but playing a dangerous game. At the party, Giovanni never lays so much as a finger on her before she’s screaming for help, ripping her bodice apart, feigning an unwanted advance. Initially, I had wondered if she and Elvira had hatched the plan to ‘frame’ the Don, but seeing it a second time, I concluded that Zerlina’s actions had more ambitious motivation. Holten sets the opera in a Victorian era where a flash of bare flesh is shocking, seducing Zerlina by removing her glove, the merest touch of his fingertips sending her into an ecstatic frenzy. Is Holten’s treatment of the women misogynistic? The set is symbolic of Giovanni’s mind – increasingly haunted by the spectre of the Commendatore – and it’s not too fanciful to suggest that perhaps the reactions of Anna and Zerlina are the Don’s reinterpretation of events. As his mind unravels, he is left with nothing.

© Bill Cooper/ROH

© Bill Cooper/ROH

The Giovanni—Leporello relationship is less master—servant than usual. Holten portrays Leporello as more of a conscience figure, who eventually deserts him through despair to deliver his final lines from the pit, joined in the moralising final verses by the other singers. Holten cuts the first part of the sextet – a brief programme note justification stating that Mozart made a major cut to the final scene for the Viennese premiere. It’s by no means clear how much – if any – music Mozart excised. A more sympathetic portrait of the Don remains very much Holten’s focus. Still, it felt odd. Cutting the entire final scene would have been preferable.

Holten has assembled a good, if not outstanding, cast. Mariusz Kwiecien makes the strongest of Giovannis, honeyed legato in the Serenade and oozing sex appeal through every pore. Where he can occasionally force his baritone too hard in heavier repertoire (Posa, Onegin) he seems ideal for Mozart’s anti-hero, strong voiced and animalistic. Alex Esposito was more subdued as Leporello, less comic in his portrayal, his Catalogue Aria going for few laughs. Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s woolly-voiced Commendatore rarely made the imposing mark it should, while Antonio Poli’s Don Ottavio was mostly cleanly sung, barring a crack in “Dalla sua pace”, but without the grace and beauty of tone ideally required. Dawid Kimberg’s firm-voiced, scowling Masetto benefited most from the big screen – something of a bland presence in the opera house, his facial reactions to Zerlina proved delicious.

Malin Byström (Donna Anna) © Bill Cooper/ROH

Malin Byström (Donna Anna)
© Bill Cooper/ROH

Of the ladies, Malin Byström’s Donna Anna was far less blustery than on second night, making a great impact in “Or sai chi l’onore”, well acted as she spins her deceit. Occasionally, her coloratura in “Non mi dir” was laboured, but otherwise this was an excellent performance. I can’t help thinking that Véronqiue Gens’ Donna Elvira is a touch too late in her career. For all her fine acting, I found her vibrato intrusive in “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrate”. Standout voice of the evening on the distaff side of the cast came from Elizabeth Watts’ creamy-voiced Zerlina, full of wide-eyed character emphasized by the close-up reaction shots, such as the moment in “Batti, batti o bel Masetto” when she notices she’s still missing the glove Giovanni removed from her hand.

Nicola Luisotti conducted a solid performance, sensibly paced, big-band Mozart playing with few concessions to historically-informed practice. The only debatable point arose from his decision to employ two keyboard instruments for recitatives; Paul Wingfield offering harpsichord contributions, whilst Luisotti himself played fortepiano to accompany the Don which bordered on the fussy.

The cinema presentation, complete with warning about high winds and potential loss of the satellite feed, was exemplary, the astute camera direction by Jonathan Haswell meaning we didn’t miss things easily lost in the House. It included an interview with Kasper Holten, responding to questions tweeted in by the audience, and a generous admission from host Bryn Terfel that the role of Don Giovanni was a glove which never quite fitted. The DVD release will surely follow… and this thoughtful, provocative production will continue to divide audiences.

This review originally appeared on Opera Britannia.

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