Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Mozart - Don Giovanni (Aix, 2017)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2017

Jérémie Rhorer, Jean-François Sivadier, Philippe Sly, Nahuel di Pierro, Eleonora Buratto, Pavol Breslik, Isabel Leonard, Julie Fuchs, Krzysztof Baczyk, David Leigh

Culturebox - 10th July 2017

Mozart of course is not immune from the trend to re-imagine, re-work and update the themes of classic operas, but it seems to me that he does generally tend to be spared the more extreme interpretations. There may be a good reason for that, and it's undoubtedly something to do with the fact that Mozart's enlightened timeless egalitarian ideals largely (barring a few old-fashioned expressions) still stand up pretty well and don't need to be reinterpreted for a modern audience.

The Aix-en-Provence festival - where Mozart has been a staple over the years - seem to hold to this principle in their productions, but are flexible enough to adopt an approach that meets the specific demands of the variations between the ideas in each of the works. The Marriage of Figaro in 2012, for example, updated the practice of droit de seigneur to sexual harassment in the office place, whereas La Finta Giardiniera the same year was capable of working in its simplest form, using only the natural outdoor environment of the gardens of the Théâtre du Grand Saint-Jean.

Così Fan Tutte is another example of a work where the attitudes expressed can seem a little outdated if it's not played as either a satire or an out-and-out comedy, but Christophe Honoré's 2016 production at Aix successfully demonstrated that the work is capable of dealing with the deeper and more serious issues that the subject raises. Die Zauberflöte, on the other hand, was given a stripped-down demystification of its magical properties in Simon McBurney's 2014 production, but it was the score itself, conducted by Pablo Heras Casado that revealed the benefits of reducing Mozart down to the bare elements of its purest expression.

The one Mozart opera that has been subjected to the most analysis and scrutiny over the years however is probably Don Giovanni. Even though its themes relating to men and women, class and society, love and betrayal are universal and timeless, the actions of Don Giovanni himself are fertile ground for modern psychoanalytical and philosophical exploration. Jean-François Sivadier's production for 2017 Aix-en-Provence festival however seems like an attempt to cut through the accumulation of so many reinterpretations of this complex personality and get right back to basics, and he's supported in that by Jérémie Rhorer's stripped back orchestration with Le Cercle de l'Harmonie.

At first, it looks like there is no real weight or emphasis given on the nature of Don Giovanni or judgement on the nature of his crimes. There are no excuses made for his attempted seduction of Donna Anna or the killing of the Commendatore, he's just an incorrigible womaniser who doesn't take his exploits - or women - seriously. There's only so far you can take a hands-off approach to Don Giovanni however, since there is rather more depth to the other characters - notably Donna Elvira - that needs to respond to Don Giovanni's essential nature. And then there is the more practical matter of presenting the coming to life of a statue, the descent into Hell and the moralistic conclusion of the finale. Sooner or later a director is going to have to take a position, and Sivadier does.

And, true to the intent of the stripped back approach, he takes his lead from Mozart and his music rather than apply any modern reconstructivist or revisionist interpretation. Or rather he takes his lead from Don Giovanni himself. While it might seem that Giovanni doesn't take his affairs with thousands of women seriously, he does actually really believe that he is a great egalitarian - indiscriminate in his seductions of women, young and old, slim or fat, rich or poor - and that his sharing of his love equally among them, without selecting any one of them as special, is the only fair thing to do.

That statement is rarely taken seriously - and Leporello is certainly sceptical of it - and it's seen merely an excuse for his libidinous behaviour; but what if he really believes it? The director Jean-François Sivadier seems to take him at his word, viewing Don Giovanni not objectively, but in his own eyes as a kind of saviour bringing a message of love and liberty to the masses. The word Libertà is indeed painted on the wall at the back of the stage - a wall significantly that is in the process of being broken down - a cross forming the basis to the letter T. Donna Anna even cradles Don Giovanni in a Pietà pose during the "provo ancor per lui pietà' line of her 'Mi tradi quell'alma ingrata' aria.

The bearded and long hair appearance of Philippe Sly also has something Christ-like about it, the reference becoming more apparent - since it's hardly an image one would readily associate with Don Giovanni - only when he strips down to his underpants and adopts a crucifixion pose. Likewise, when it comes to the critical matter of the conclusion of the opera, this Don Giovanni doesn't descend to Hell, but quite the opposite, he remains on the stage during the final ensemble bathed in light. Again, none of this Don Giovanni as a sacrificial saviour would make any sense other than as a projection of his own belief in his superiority, a belief in absolute freedom that enables him even to murder with impunity.

The very minimal sets designs by Alexandre de Dardel strip away anything of a traditional nature or conventional imagery in this opera that might distracts from this unique perspective. The stage is mostly bare with only a shiny curtain to allow for on- and off-stage appearances, with sheets held up now and again for the purposes of hiding. Other than coloured lights dropped down for Zerlina and Masetto's wedding celebrations and Don Giovanni's party and a large cloaked statue of the Commendatore, there is little else used in the way of props.

There's little ornamentation either in Jérémie Rhorer's conducting of the Le Cercle de l'Harmonie, and the lack of distraction allows you to focus on the qualities of Mozart's score. It's quite beautiful of course and does reveal subtle variations of mood, sentiment in the pace and the playing, expressing the inner life of the other characters without it having to be overstated on the stage or in the singing.

The singing, from a mostly young cast that nonetheless has some notable names with some measure of experience. Philippe Sly is not overbearing or sleazy or anything that might be seen as a caricature of Don Giovanni (aside from his Messiah complex!) and he's supported well by Nahuel di Pierro's fine Leporello. Eleonora Buratto continues to impress in a role as challenging as Donna Anna, and you can't fault a Mozart cast that includes such sweet voices as Pavol Breslik as Don Ottavio, Isabel Leonard as Donna Elvira and Julie Fuchs as Zerlina. With Krzysztof Baczyk and David Leigh very capable in the roles of Masetto and Il Commendatore, the singing blends perfectly with the gentle and more subtle arrangements coming from the pit.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Culturebox