Sunday, 25 January 2015

Mozart - Don Giovanni (La Monnaie, 2014 - Webcast)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

La Monnaie - De Munt, 2014

Ludovic Morlot, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Jean-Sébastien Bou, Sir Willard White, Barbara Hannigan, Topi Lehtipuu, Rinat Shaham, Andreas Wolf, Jean-Luc Ballestra, Julie Mathevet

La Monnaie Internet Streaming - December 2014


What is both delightful and disappointing about Krzysztof Warlikowski's productions is that they can sometimes take away from a work as much as they give to it. In the case of La Monnaie's Don Giovanni for example, Warlikowski makes it feel fresh, modern and relevant to today rather than being merely a cautionary historical adventure story about a licentious noble. On the other hand, Mozart and Da Ponte's work is already perfect in itself, always giving, always revealing new dimensions and ever open to re-evaluation and reinterpretation. How far should you go in modernising a masterpiece if it risks corrupting what is inherently great about it?

Well, the answer is obvious for many people - leave Don Giovanni well alone and out of the hands of these Regietheater directors - but Warlikowsi is definitely onto something here. Don Giovanni's behaviour should shock a modern audience in the manner that it would have shocked an early 19th century audience, or if shock isn't that easy to come by on stage in the 21st century, it could at least aspire to be as edgy, challenging and contemporary as Steve McQueen's 2011 film 'Shame'. Other directors however have managed to find a way of getting this across the relevance of Mozart's Don Giovanni without having to stretch the credibility of the plot the way Warlkowski's does in attempting to fit it to another work in a different artform with different aims.

Warlikowski however isn't particularly concerned with dramatic naturalism, and since he's working in opera, there's no reason why he should be. He's not concerned that his mise-en-scène doesn't entirely match up with the letter of the libretto or that credibility is damaged when characters act out-of-character. It's not really staged with first-time opera goers in mind, the director, rather like Like Stefan Herheim's productions, assuming that the audience is familiar enough with this work to notice any discrepancies and think about why they are there. It's not entirely high-brow post-modernism either for the audience to be self-aware of the dramatic construct or for the characters to be aware of themselves playing roles. The central question at the heart of Don Giovanni is indeed one of innocence, manipulation and playing of roles, and those themes should still be evident to anyone.

Are the personalities of Don Giovanni really as naive as they seem or are they complicit to a greater or lesser degree in Don Giovanni's deception and self-deception? This isn't entirely a new idea, and it's often established in how Donna Anna behaves during the opening scene - is she raped or has she invited the seducer in? Is she aware of his identity or not? - but Warlikowski's production is indeed shocking in the way he presents it. As usual in a Warlikowski production, the tone is established by a movie prelude that sets out his premise. In this case, with a filmed prelude that almost shot-for-shot replicates the opening scene on the subway in Steve McQueen's 'Shame', the director clearly wants us to relate to Don Giovanni not as a heartless libertine, but in the modern context of an ordinary damaged individual whose only escape from himself is through his self-destructive and all-consuming sex-addiction.

We see another movie when the opera starts, and again, taking a scene from 'Shame], it's a soft-porn movie involving Don Giovanni in an orgy with two women. The film is watched off-stage from a box in the La Monnaie theatre by Don Giovanni and Donna Anna (alongside a glum Leporello), with the Commendatore and a female companion in the box opposite. Don Ottavio's early appearance at one point suggests that even he is not entirely an innocent party, but how much each of those involved know about the identity of Don Giovanni and how much they go along with his activities (which are proudly displayed on the screen for all to see, so they at least can't be unaware of his reputation) isn't entirely clear at this stage. Whether he tries to rape Donna Anna in the theatre box or whether she is willingly taking part in a sex game, the Commendatore thinks he's gone too far and suffers the consequences with a bullet through the head.

Well, if you didn't already know Warlikowski's work by reputation, you very quickly find out from this opening that he's not a director to pull any punches. The same uncompromising position is taken throughout, the settings and locations scarcely resembling those in the original, the lurid colourful lighting, strobing and glitterball lighting effects on shining modern surfaces not even the least bit naturalistic. Strange and sometimes semi-naked figures wander around, some of them part of Don Giovanni's retinue and some of them party-goers, others symbols or apparitions, the killing of the Commendatore evidently biting at his conscience and pushing him over the edge, but there is also a young girl with a skipping rope that it would appear to represent innocence. If La Monnaie's production doesn't quite hit all the necessary points, it seems to me however that it's less to do with Warlikowski's unconventional reading (although I'm sure many would dispute that assessment), and more to do with the musical interpretation.

Using a reduced orchestra but not period instruments, this doesn't sound like a familiar Don Giovanni either. The arrangements and instrumentation as conducted by Ludovic Morlot don't carry the dark tone that is required, but the rhythm that is such a part of Mozart isn't there either. Familiar arias can sound quite different here because of this, but that could also be as much to do with the type of singers cast here. It's not necessarily a bad thing to drop many of the mannerisms and conventions, particularly for a production that wants to cast a fresh eye over the work, but I'm not sure that it even supports Warlikowski's vision for the work. Acting is given prominence and that works to the advantage of the director's intentions, but it means we lose the power of the singing interpretation and delivery to get it across.

Some of the performers can make up for this. Barbara Hannigan, for example, is a little light and high in voice for Donna Anna, but she gives the performance everything (she never does anything less) in a wonderfully unhinged version of her character. Although Don Giovanni obviously remains the central figure of the work, it's Donna Anna who is the key to how he is treated in her pursuit of vengeance. Here, that's less for the murder of her father the Commendatore than from a twisted sex game on her behalf, in which she is just as manipulative and dangerous in her actions and relations with those who come into contact with her. Despite his fate here, Don Ottavio is no fool in this production. He knows that the truth is not so simple "How can I believe that a nobleman could be guilty of so black a crime!" and, as sung by Topi Lehtipuu, his "Dalla sua pace" consequently has an undercurrent of suspicion for Donna Anna's state of mind. He knows what he is dealing with and pays the price, much as Don Giovanni does.

There's a similar commitment to the interpretation from Jean-Sébastien Bou's Don Giovanni, and little of the usual swagger. Although the film 'Shame' is used to suggest a modern response to Don Giovanni's 'condition', it's not over-emphasised elsewhere, but left to Bou to give you pause for thought over culpability and the guilt that drives him to madness, and he does it well. Some of the other performances don't get the balance of acting and singing quite as successfully. Rinat Shaham's Donna Elvira makes a stronger impression than most, and although clearly stretched, she sings the role well, but her character is a little more difficult to fathom. Overall, it's definitely a case of taking with one hand and giving with another in La Monnaie's production, and while you don't take from Mozart lightly, there's still much to admire in Warlikowski's approach that makes you think about the sheer wilful perversity of a work that should indeed inspire such a strong reaction.

La Monnaie's Don Giovanni can be viewed streaming until 27 January from the links below.  The next streaming productions from La Monnaie are Handel's ALCINA and TAMERLANO from 18 Feb to 10 March. 

Links: La Monnaie, RTBF Musiq3