Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni
Salzburger Festspiele, 2021
Teodor Currentzis, Romeo Castellucci, Davide Luciano, Mika Kares, Nadezhda Pavlova, Michael Spyres, Federica Lombardi, Vito Priante, David Steffens, Anna Lucia Richter
ARTE Concert - 8th August 2021
There are many facets to Mozart and Da Ponte's trilogy of operas, many facets of human behaviour that can be explored in them, universal traits that provide no easy answers to questions that on the surface can appear - and be played - as comedies but which underneath touch on some very disturbing subtexts. Don Giovanni can be depicted as villain or a victim of his own lusts - someone who loves too much, as someone who just isn't used to taking no for an answer, or in today's view, as a sexual predator and abuser of women. Don Giovanni is always worth a fresh perspective, but - perhaps more controversially (and it isn't often you can say that there is something more controversial in a production than the stage direction of Romeo Castellucci) - Mozart's score is also worth looking at in new ways.
Teodor Currentzis has been upsetting those who like their Mozart played in the familiar Classical style for quite a while, but he's certainly not the only conductor finding more interesting facets to Mozart using historically informed direction on period instruments and using reduced ensemble orchestration. With Mozart's opera seria works that might be more palatable - and Salzburg have presented interesting Currentzis directed productions of La Clemenza di Tito in 2017 and Idomeneo in 2019 - but Don Giovanni is a different matter altogether. Rather than simply playing it to a way that has become rote and unadventurous over the years, Currentzis again seeks new ways to explore and express the wealth of character that is within Mozart's music. Forcing the listener to really listen to it. Making it feel fresh, shiny and new again. Like a virgin.
There's a theme that a director like Castellucci would certainly seize upon in a work like Don Giovanni, but there are less obvious ways to approach that. And there's maybe an allusion to stripping away the image of the sanctity of Mozart being forced into accepted conventional interpretations in the opening scene of Salzburg's Don Giovanni. In a white temple like setting, workmen strip away the Christian iconography of a church, leaving the elegant bare white edifice to show its basic underlying structure, ready to be built upon anew. A flame burns away any remaining holiness and indeed, the first person seen on the stage is a naked woman (well, it is Castellucci), one presumably no longer a virgin, since she has evidently been seduced/raped by Don Giovanni.
Rather than keep it simple and minimal, Castellucci then bombards the stage with all manner of effects, symbols and supernumeraries. A car crashes down on to the stage, a wheelchair, basketballs, a broken piano. Don Giovanni, Leporello and the Commendatore are dressed in white, while the avenging Donna Anna comes storming on in black with a retinue of Furies that surround and strive to bring Don Giovanni to justice for his crimes against women. It looks like Don Giovanni has juggled too many basketballs this time. The recitative as Don Giovanni and Leporello make their escape is played out with cartoon eyes on a black screen, Donna Anna mourns the crutch of Commendatore, Don Ottavio pours red powder on his arms and punctures a line of basketballs in his promise of securing revenge.
This is evidently not the Don Giovanni you might be familiar with but neither is it inappropriate to the tone of the work and its treatment by Mozart and da Ponte. It might do something different with the visuals and the pace, the use of instruments and emphasis of the music, but it still engages with the themes and the tone of the work. It's not so much Don Giovanni's debauchery and libidinous lifestyle that are condemned here as much as his failure to accept responsibility for and deal with the consequences of his actions. He leaves death and the destruction of lives behind him (something seized upon with a more political slant in Michael Haneke's version), including a suggestion that he has abandoned a pregnant Donna Elvira (Federica Lombardi doubled with a naked pregnant woman), while a child also pursues Don Giovanni on the stage.
The lightness of the treatment and the heaviness of the underlying implications is borne out in the music. Leporello's 'Madamina, il catalogo è questo' has a lovely lightness, the piano weaving in and out of the musicAeterna arrangement, the beauty of the aria contrasted with the sinister note behind the revelations of conquests. Castellucci provides plenty of contrasting imagery, mixing the absurdity with the comedy, with pointed symbolism and contemporary references that include a photocopier. Likewise he brings Michael Spyres's Don Ottavio on wearing a Danish mountaineer outfit (a familiar inscrutable symbol also used in his Moses und Aron) accompanied by a poodle. It looks ridiculous (several characters have a live animal avatar - Masetto a mouse, Don Giovanni a goat) but takes nothing away from the chilling account of Donna Anna on the recognition of her father's murderer, the scene re-enacted as a Greek tragedy.
Which is something that the legend of Don Giovanni could certainly be said to aspire to, it not being entirely out of place with the opera seria reworkings of mythology that preceded Mozart in the earlier part of the 18th century. Just as Mozart brought a contemporary edge to that genre in his progressive music and Da Ponte in the humanisation of the drama while still retaining the otherworldly elements that elevate it to grand drama - so Castellucci brings a corresponding touch of re-interpretation of an epic myth for a modern age while reflecting and respecting the underlying complexity of the work's blend of surrealism, comedy, tragedy, symbolism and instruction on the consequences of moral dissolution. In an expansive gesture that brings 150 women as extras to the stage, Don Giovanni here is held to account for his crime not by a stone statue, but by the women he has wronged.
Teodor Currentzis seems to be doing his best to submerge as much as possible any of Mozart's familiar melodic embellishments. Whether this is for the sake of upsetting those who like their Mozart played in a conventionally acceptable way, whether it's out of sheer bloody-mindedness to stake out is reputation for being a fearless re-interpreter of Mozart, or whether he finds it appropriate to reevaluate and strip away the varnish of mannerisms that the work has accrued over the years and present a more historically informed account of the score is something the musicologists can argue over. Aligned with the drama an Castellucci's sensibility, the music however doesn't lose a fraction of its distinctive Mozartian qualities of beauty, sensitivity or dramatic flair.
Think what you might also of Romeo Castellucci's contribution, whether it adds any value or provides any new insights but - much like his stunning Die Zauberflöte for La Monnaie - it's certainly original, often spectacular and rarely dull, always surprising with some new idea that puts emphasis on different aspects of the work. It's also not without the occasional bit of flash/bang showmanship, which Mozart wasn't beyond employing himself. Castellucci has become a stylist in white haze, his productions as distinctive now as Robert Wilson's geometric minimalism in blue, and just as visually arresting in their conception, design and execution. This looks simply stunning and impressively choreographed.
It has to be said however, that it's more of an "interesting" production than a great one. Despite the efforts to bring "real people" onto the stage (see Castellucci's rather more successful Die Zauberföte again) and the impressive efforts to pull it all together into a coherent whole, it doesn't always succeed in finding the human warm within the work where it traditionally should. The idea of making Don Giovanni and Leporello look almost identical is another fine idea that makes the identity confusion more realistic, but it also loses something when the two baritones are practically indistinguishable.
Perhaps just as much at fault as the production, the singing didn't quite measure up or compensate for the lack of human warmth in the production. The singing is generally fine, and of a very high standard, as you would expect, but despite good performances from Davide Luciano as Don Giovanni (stripped fully naked at the finale) and Vito Priante as Leporello, and with perhaps the sole exception of a mighty performance from Nadezhda Pavlova as Donna Anna, the production never allowed you to engage with any of the characters of at least sympathise with their dilemma. Overall, this feels like an admirable production with good ideas and visuals, that despite its controversial trappings, plays out nonetheless in a rather run of the mill fashion.