Saturday, 4 August 2012

Mozart - 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 
ARTE 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 virtuoistic 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.