28 Dec 2010

Mozart at Salzburg Festival: Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte

Once a preserve of opulent traditional productions, the summer Salzburg Festival has become a destination for viewing more cutting edge stagings.

Perhaps the best-known of such from recent seasons is the Willy Decker take on Verdi’s La Traviata, a contemporary classic of a production that will soon debut at the Metropolitan Opera. The operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart have a special history for Salzburg (one of these DVDs has a title card that states “From the House of Mozart”). Director Claus Goth brought his updated vision of Don Giovanni to the Festival in 2008, and his Così fan tutte was recorded for performance in 2009. Both productions are in contemporary dress, with grim chuckles in place of any buoyant cheer produced by former Salzburg productions. This is Mozart as misanthrope, pouring out his melodious commentary on the sad and/or despicable characters of Lorenzo da Ponte’s librettos. Well sung, sharply acted, impeccably staged — both DVDs present classy performances. Just be prepared for a distinctly chilly atmosphere.

Christian Schmidt’s stage design for the Così offers the clean white walls, metal railings and glass panels of a cliched contemporary loft home. An ironic intent makes itself felt as the story of the two pairs of young lovers manipulated into deceit by a cynical older man proceeds — the attractive veneer of the set complements the good looks of the younger leads, and an emptiness behind the good looks of both the surroundings and the characters also makes itself felt. That doesn’t take away the culpability of Don Alfonso and even Despina; the Don seems more cruel in his scheming than ever, and that rubs off on the sour comedy of Despina’s antics.

The quartet of young lovers submit themselves almost too well into this scheme, with not much personality in Miah Persson’s Fiordilgi, Isabel Leonard’s Dorabella, Florian Boesch’s Guglielmo, or Topi Lehtipuu’s Ferrando. They sing cleanly, manage the Mozartean line well, and look their parts. Mozart does give each of them at least one major set piece to bring to life, and here is where the director’s clinical vision may have inhibited the singers’ ability to “stand out.” Bo Skovhus, on the other hand, gets to camp it up a bit as Guth choreographs as much as directs the Don and Despina — there’s a lot of mock dancing and posing. Skovhus lets a scratchiness in his production loose a little too often, however, for a character probably intended to be a bit more seductive in his wheedling. Patricia Petibon’s Despina reigns in the cuteness for a sort of hyperactivity, more ominous than charming. In her recorded recital discs she is a more interesting singer than indicated here — Despina offers no real challenges.

One unmitigated strength of the performance comes from Adam Fischer’s muscular, propulsive direction of the Wiener Philharmoniker. The score comes across with a youthful energy appropriate to the characters while suggesting the aggression behind the Don’s gambit. Guth’s direction may not age well — at times it already feels self-conscious — but as one alternate vision of Così, it is effective in context.

Euroarts_2072544.gifThe Don Giovanni Guth stages is stronger overall than the Così, at least partly because it has a more high-powered cast than that of the Così. Set designer Schmidt here provides a very realistic pine forest, the only discernible reason for which seems to your reviewer to center on differentiating Guth’s setting from the famous Calixto Bieto one (preserved on DVD in a performance at Barcelona's Liceu). Bieto used modern dress (as does Guth) and elements of an organized crime mileux to highlight the libretto’s potent and dangerous mixture of violence and sexuality. Guth has the same concern, and most of his “big ideas” come across as vaguely desperate efforts to make his vision distinct from Bieto’s. So in the action under the prologue, we see Christopher Maltman’s Don get shot by the Commendatore, a grievous stomach wound that seems to bother the Don from time to time during the rest of the action, until he finally succumbs with the Commendatore’s reappearance at the end — but propelled into hell by Leporello and a syringe of heroin. To underscore the darkness of his vision, Guth chose an edition of the score without the “happy ending” ensemble, which Bieto memorably used to underlay the victorious “good guys” mutilating the Don’s corpse.

A vocally strong, physically seductive group of singers work hard for Guth. Maltman apparently spent as much time in the gym as in the rehearsal hall, if not more, and if not as muscular as his physique, his voice still ripples with strength. Erwin Schrott’s Leporello is no sad sidekick, but almost as dangerously sexy as his master. Nonetheless, Schrott also has the comic chops to portray the character’s frustration and barely contained resentment. In a wimpy suit and glasses, Matthew Polenzani could have been yet another feckless Don Ottavio, but his expert singing gives his character some needed backbone. In an imaginative touch, Guth has Ottavio dig out his cell phone when the car he and Donna Anna are riding in “breaks down” in the forest.

The women are a bit less distinctive. Annette Dasch in particular lacks the full armory for Donna Anna , a difficult role that requires ample strength and beauty. Dorothea Röeschmann doesn’t portray Donna Elvira as a harpy, thankfully; on the other hand, her interpretation is almost too neutral for a role that should have some edge. Ekaterina Siurina as Zerlina and Alex Espositio as Masetto are modestly effective (the booklet credit list amusingly assigns each of these singers to the other’s role!).

Bertrand de Billy is the conductor here, leading an entirely professional performance. In spots the rather spare piano used for recitatives seems anachronistic.

Salzburg’s tickets have the reputation of being both scarce and expensive, so for those who would like a great view of the stage and to keep their wallets full, these DVDs are to be appreciated. Neither one of these stagings may become classics such as the Dexter Traviata, but they both have much to reward the attentive viewer.

Chris Mullins

W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni: Christopher Maltman; Il Commendatore: Anatoli Kotscherga; Donna Anna: Annette Dasch; Don Ottavio: Matthew Polenzani; Donna Elvira: Dorothea Röschmann; Leporello: Erwin Schrott; Zerlina: Ekaterina Siurina; Masetto: Alex Esposito. Vienna State Opera Chorus(chorus master: Thomas Lang). Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Bertrand de Billy, conductor. Claus Guth, stage director. Christian Schmidt, stage and costume design. Olaf Winter, lighting design. Recorded at the Haus für Mozart, Salzburg Festival, 2008.

Euroarts 2072548 [2DVDs]