Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni
Royal Opera House 2014
Kasper Holten, Nicola Luisotti, Mariusz Kwiecień, Alex Esposito, Alexander Tsymbalyuk, Véronique Gens, Malin Byström, Antonio Poli, Elizabeth Watts, David Kimberg
Opus Arte - Blu-ray
Mozart's Don Giovanni is a larger than life character. Not unrealistically larger than life, but truly a highly complex individual. You could write tomes of analysis on the character and still barely scratch the surface. Don Giovanni has been interpreted and psychoanalysed in countless productions, and every production somehow always seems to bring out another facet of his personality. Depending on the director and depending on the singer, Don Giovanni can be a rogue and a playboy; a heartless seducer of innocent women who is evil incarnate; or he can simply be a sensitive man who loves women too much; a charmer who women can't resist; a commitment-phobe who is unable to form attachments to any one woman when there are so many out there; women who fall for the rogue knowing full well that he will use and abandon them. Some might even foolishly believe they can change him.
Kasper Holten is undoubtedly aware of the complex nature of this colossus of the opera world and is certainly not the first to recognise that Don Giovanni is Don Giovanni - the opera is the man. That's not to say that the other characters in the opera aren't well developed. Like all Mozart's mature operas - and even some of the more youthful ones - the music is considered with attention to detail for even the smallest and seemingly most frivolous of secondary roles. Lorenzo da Ponte's development of character and plot meanwhile ensure that there's a dramatic consistency to the human interaction of every personality. Nevertheless, Don Giovanni in Mozart's opera is a huge figure who is unquestionably the centre and the driving force for the behaviour of every other person. His actions and the performance of the person playing the role determines the whole tone of the opera.
Mozart might have had one dominant character in mind when he composed for Don Giovanni - the work according to Mozart's own description of it is primarily a comedy - but his writing and Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto leave a lot of room for interpretation. A whole lot of room is needed for a figure like this, and Kasper Holten consequently uses the whole of the stage of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. In Es Devlin's designs, the stage is Don Giovanni, every detail, every colour, every lighting consideration, every stage prop and backdrop are used to express the magnificent monstrosity of Don Giovanni as he is written by Mozart. The set is a complex revolving arrangement of boxes, compartments, doors and staircases that during the overture fogs over with a black mist and fills up with the name of his conquests. Donna Anna wears a black stained dress, as if carrying the corruption of Giovanni, and the whole background floods with blood as the Commendatore is killed.
It's an effective way to open the opera and it does place us directly in the mind of Don Giovanni. Elsewhere lighting, colour and projections similarly reflect mood and character, from the ice blue calculating coolness of his re-encounter with Donna Elvira, to the warmth of the golden wood panelling - and all the sincerity of wood-panelling - as he attempts to charm and seduce Zerlina. Although there's complicity on the part of Donna Anna here, there's little doubt which side of the fence this Don Giovanni lies on. There's no sympathy for the devil here - he's an opportunist, an egotist, a snake with no care or feeling for anyone but himself, who will even betray his only faithful companion (Leporello's devotion being truly dogged) just to add another name to his list. The Commendatore is killed without a qualm and without a second thought, he seduces Zerlina in front of Masetto and, in this version, he even has Don Ottavio suffer the indignity of Donna Anna submitting to him again, even after all he has done, while he sings 'Dalla sua pace'. That hits home painfully.
The attention to the staging is strong then, as it often is with Kasper Holten and in the capable hands of Es Devlin, but as with other Holten productions I've seen (Die Tote Stadt, Eugene Onegin), while the spectacle is fully expressive of the music, Holten is not so strong directing singers as actors. All of them are a little bit stiff here and tend to feel like they are going through the motions. Fatally however, the lack of drive must primarily be considered to be down to Nicola Luisotti's leaden and uninspired conducting of the orchestra. Everything plods along, or not so much plods as smoothly sails along with no sense of the dynamic or the darkness that underlies Mozart's score. It's as if the conductor wants to downplay the cruder underscoring of Mozart's dramatic flair, and that's a bad decision. The fortepiano recitative doesn't enliven matters at all either, but some of the sense of drama is restored by the conclusion, even if the actual staging lets it down here.
The projections, it has to be said, do a terrific job of conjuring up all kinds of phantom imagery and an abstract sense of Don Giovanni being consumed by his own ego. The Commendatore, as such, appears to be nothing more than a projection of Don Giovanni's descent into madness. The libretto doesn't really support this idea and it makes the staging of it a little awkward. Donna Elvira screams not at the appearance of the stone man, but at a glimpse she catches into Don Giovanni's madness. Leporello sees the statue of the Commendatore and reads the inscription on it, but turns away at the final scene as if he's not part of it. The stage does indeed become deserted by the time of the epilogue, showing a Don Giovanni trapped in a madness of his own creation. Or even perhaps one laid for him by the enemies who deliver their final verdict ('Questo è il fin') off-stage. The problem is that there's not much sense in the direction of a building crisis to what finally drives Don Giovanni over the edge.
The lack of fire (no pun intended on how the finale is delivered) in the performances is also there unfortunately in the singing. There's a good cast here and they are all very capable in the roles, but with perhaps one exception, there's not much that really stands out and impresses. Mariusz Kwiecień has the looks and the voice for Don Giovanni, and the experience (this performance is his 100th in the role he tells us in the BD extra features), but he doesn't have the necessary charm or charisma to fully inhabit or bring something personal to the role. I've seen Alex Esposito play Leporello a few times now, and like his Papageno, these Mozart roles suit his style, voice and personality well - more so I think that his otherwise fine work as a Rossini bass. He has a way of getting to the underlying humanity of the characters beneath their comic exteriors. His key aria, 'Madamina, il catalogo è questo' is good, but it's not particularly well directed and as a consequence lacks impact.
The same can be said of Malin Byström's Donna Anna. She has character and a good voice, but she's not supported elsewhere. Her aria 'Or sai chi l'onore' for example is well sung, but with Luisotti holding the orchestra back from emphasising those emotional high points, it just doesn't hit home the way it should. Véronique Gens is the one notable exception to the casting here. She has a great voice for baroque opera and opera seria and has everything that is required for a substantial role like Donna Elvira. She stands out so far above everyone else here however and is in such a different league that she's almost miscast for this production. I also liked Elizabeth Watts' Zerlina - she's a fine singer and there's plenty of character in her voice and her performance. Antonio Poli's Don Ottavio was a little stiff and characterless, but Alexander Tsymbalyuk's Commendatore was powerfully declaimed.
On Blu-ray, the High Definition presentation of the performance is superb. Although the stage is mostly in darkness to allow the projections to be effective, the image is clear and detailed. The stereo and surround mixes bring out the colour of the music and singing. The Introduction in the extra features gives a good overview of the production, and there's a little more consideration of the nature of Don Giovanni's women and how Mozart writes for them in another featurette. Kasper Holten and Es Devlin also provide a full-length commentary for the opera. The enclosed booklet has a good essay by William Richmond on the changing faces of Don Juan in literature and film over the ages. The Blu-ray is region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.