L'Opéra National de Paris, 2019
Philippe Jordan, Ivo Van Hove, Étienne Dupuis, Ain Anger, Jacquelyn Wagner, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Nicole Car, Philippe Sly, Mikhail Timoshenko, Elsa Dreisig
Paris Cinema Live - 21 June 2019
It's not as if Mozart's operas works aren't already clearly progressive works, in their musical qualities as well as in their expression of the injustices and inequalities within society, and as such they always seem to be capable of revealing other aspects and changing facets that reflect the times we are living in. The 'droit de seigneur' of Le Nozze di Figaro can certainly be applied to contemporary situations, showing that Mozart was already there with #MeToo long before its time and there's also something about Don Giovanni that takes in all the complexities of male and female relationships on a deeper and more universal level.
If we can recognise what is universal and true in Mozart's Don Giovanni, it doesn't need a director like Ivo van Hove to bring it out or add anything new to it. Not that you have to, since attempting to fit those works to contemporary morals and attitudes can still be problematic. Sometimes the best thing you can do is let a work speak for itself and the sign of a good director is knowing when to step back and where to intervene and what to highlight to bring to the attention of the audience. Van Hove's setting of his Paris Opera production consequently aims for the universal, blending modern and period characteristics, but feels almost respectful of Mozart in terms of the plotting, not daring to mess with it too much.
Of course in Don Giovanni, certain choices have to be made by any director that have considerable influence on the tone of the work. One of the first choices any director has to make is whether Don Giovanni is a seducer and a lover of women or an aggressor and an abuser. Even within that you have to determine whether he is a victim of his own desires, incapable of being anything but his nature (and whether the women who are drawn to him are not more than creatures of nature too) and thus deserving of some sympathy.
Some productions in the past have suggested that Donna Anna was leading him on, that the killing of the Commendatore is just an accident or self-defence, that his only real crime is arrogance in believing that he is above the laws of nature, that he is in control of them, that there is no harm or consequence to his behaviours, that he is exempt (whether through nobility, vanity or just arrogant superiority) from paying any price for his actions. While it's valid to explore the many possibilities that this fascinating character and the other fascinating characters play in the opera (and they all have an important part to play), there's no real doubt about how Mozart saw Don Giovanni. It's in the original title; a dissolute punished.
Ivo van Hove clearly wants to stick with that line of thinking, and I'm minded to consider the previous Paris Opera production directed by the filmmaker Michael Haneke in relation to this, Haneke making the original title explicit, taking a political spin on the work and making the punishment very much a case of earthly justice of the people deposing a cruel, thoughtless and arrogant leader. Van Hove's choices are less imposing on the work and not so politically minded, but his outlook on it means that the production unquestionably has a darker colour that doesn't permit the usual comic interplay with Leporello. Van Hove's contribution, if it adds up to anything, is in holding to this consistent tone, in getting the performers all working together to bring that character to the fore and making it feel as deep and real and meaningful as Mozart scores it.
What is also noticeable about this production - although really you should already be aware of this - is that the women in Don Giovanni are amazing. Mozart's enlightened thinking was genuinely far ahead of his time. Without having to expressly evoke any contemporary application, it's evident enough to anyone currently witnessing the rise of the #MeToo movement that these are women in Don Giovanni who are here prepared to stand up against their aggressor, not let society say that they are complicit, nor let it make them doubt their own nature. The may have been naive perhaps in their expectations of someone like Don Giovanni, but nothing more than that, and he has gravely abused their nature, their trust and their person.
That comes out well, and it's a director's job to ensure that that it does, so whether you recognise Ivo Van Hove's hand in this (as with his theatrical work his directing of actors is a lot more subtle than his bold and experimental scenic touches suggest), his choices and directions unquestionably strike an accurate and consistent tone. And it's not just in the casting and performance of Don Giovanni, although Étienne Dupuis is outstanding as a serious, calculating and manipulative noble here, his singing and performance striking a superb balance between charming and utterly deadly, but how the other characters respond to him is vitally important.
I've pondered before when considering Le Nozze di Figaro how important the secondary roles are in Mozart's operas, and concluding that if you give due attention to the casting and character of all the roles, there are greater dividends to be found. There's no such thing as a secondary or minor role in Mozart's operas - in the Da Ponte trilogy of works at least - and that the operas achieve their true greatness when all of them are given serious consideration. I don't think Don Giovanni can be anything but great, but when you give those superbly detailed characters (in terms of personality, as well as in the incredible pieces of music that Mozart writes for them), the true genius of the complexity of people's behaviour and their relationships is apparent.
In that respect, this is a great Don Giovanni. Director intervention might appear minimal, but the coaching of the performers to find the real people within those roles, to bring out what Mozart and Da Ponte put there is evident here. Of course, it's consideration of the fate of the women that is just as important, if not more important than Don Giovanni (although Don Giovanni and Leporello must also be taken seriously in how they display another side of human nature), and when you do that, not only do you get heartfelt, fiery performances from Jacquelyn Wagner as Donna Anna and Nicole Car as Donna Elvira, but you get the whole richness of women's sentiments and personality when you take that attention down to Elsa Dreisig's sincere Zerlina. Superb singing from Philippe Sly as Leporello, Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Don Ottavio, Ain Anger as the Commendatore, and Mikhail Timoshenko as Masetto kept a strong consistent tone across all the relationships in the production of this work.
How much the production design contributed to the overall impact of the work is difficult to determine, but it clearly worked well. The whole opera takes place here outside Don Giovanni's imposing grey castle with little of the usual film references that you associate with an Ivo Van Hove production and instead more of an Escher quality, or Duke Bluebeard's Castle in the sense of the maze like entrapment of the castle's staircases, alleys and doorways. Modern suits are mixed with medieval attitudes. It's uniformly grey, but there are flashes of colour there when the director wants to draw attention to aspects of the drama and the music.
There is little also of the director's customary use of projections, Van Hove keeping those tricks in the bag until later for maximum impact. The use and wielding of guns give an extra edge of danger, of threatening masculinity and abuse of power. The effects are saved for the finale, as you might expect in the descent to hell scene. What you might not expect is the superb handling of the necessary final sextet, often cut in darker interpretations of the opera. Here it is necessary to give a sense that this dark masculine world can be healed and it's women, Mozart's women - the clue already revealed in the seemingly throwaway scene between Zerlina and Masetto - who are the healing force in the opera. I expected something a little more radical from this director doing Don Giovanni, but no it didn't need it. Van Hove sees what is important in the opera, in Mozart's outlook, and he nails it.
L'Opera de Paris, Culturebox