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Richard Taruskin entitled his 1988 polemical critique of the notion of ‘authenticity’ in the context of historically informed performance, ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’.
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22 Apr 2006
MOZART: Don Giovanni
Calixto Bieito has made his name as an opera director with productions of unrelenting violence and sex, perhaps exemplified by last year's Abduction from the Seraglio in Berlin with its full nudity and graphic mutilations.
In almost any other area of American
life this reputation would make him a candidate for fame and success, but
opera in the US has other ideas, and so none of Bieito's productions has made
it to our shores.
Now one has — on DVD, a career breakthrough version of Don Giovanni premiered at English National
Opera.This performance comes from December 2002 at the Liceu in Barcelona.
Bieito updates the story to recent times, in some sort of rough,
middle-class, vaguely criminal neighborhood. After an urgent, even explosive
overture under the baton of Bertrand de Billy, Leporello crawls out of a late
model black Mercedes sedan, in the backseat of which the Don is energetically
pounding Donna Anna. Clad in a tacky track-suit, Leporello (the excellent
Kwanchul Youn) sings of his resentment of his "master," who in Bieito's
vision is not of a hereditary nobility, but rather a good-looking, well-built
thug whose sexual power gives him all the power that a title would have in da
Ponte's day. Unsurprisingly, Bieito goes for the "Donna Anna wanted it"
angle, but in the context of the director's misanthropic vision, this makes
sense for once. Regina Schorg, unattractively dressed in a too-tight
leopard-skin skirt and low-cut top, doesn't have a voice of such beauty as to
remind us of the supposed nobility of her character, and so the portrayal
works well. As for Wojtek Drabowicz's Don Giovanni, he has the look, and a
capable voice, but that aura of true sexual charisma eludes him. He is mean
enough, however, as he takes a screwdriver to slash open the
Commendatore,who, in an open shirt and ostentatious gold necklaces, looks
like a character from The Sopranos.
Anatoly Kocherga needs some more heft down low for this role,
especially in the final scene.
Veronique Gens delivers the most brilliant performance, as a truly broken
Donna Elvira, clad in unappealing denim and carrying tacky plastic shopping
bags. Gens manages to make her character deranged and yet still sympathetic,
and her exemplary singing plays a big role in that achievement. The Zerilina
and Masetto (Marisa Martins and Felipe Bou) are less-distinguished vocally,
but strong actors. Probably in no other production has "Batti, batti" not
only made more sense, but been absolutely essential.
Finally, Bieito and costume designer Merce Paloma confront Don Ottavio's
wimpishness with a master stroke — from the end of act one on, he wears
a Superman T-shirt with sculptured muscles, emphasizing his wimpishness.
Since this is the Prague version, Marcel Reijans has no "Dalla sua pace," but
as he is at best a pleasant tenor, the loss doesn't sting.
Alfons Flores's set design consists of a basic black box, with key props (a
long bar, pool table, sofa and TV). Bieito knows how to create vivid stage
pictures with well-coordinated movement and imaginative details (those tiny
dancing dolls!). Some directors barely have one thing happening at a time;
Bieito has several, yet he mostly has the action timed so well that the
distraction element is low.
So Bieito's theatrical skills should not be disregarded. For many, however,
the sex and violence — although milder here than reports of his latest
productions suggests — will be too much to allow for appreciation of
the director's talent. When the Don attempts to rape Zerlina, she winds up
with a bloody nose that drenches her nightgown. The Don, disguised as
Leporello, smashes Masetto's head into the bar, and soon Zerilna's boyfriend
is covered in blood as well. And in a final twist, the Don breaks free of the
Commendatore's grip at the end, takes up a knife and resumes slashing the
poor old man. Finally the "victorious" revenger's tie the Don to a chair and
use the knife on him, each getting his or her turn (though Donna Elvira has
to be manipulated into giving the killing stroke).
As for sex, after that opening hump-a-thon, Bieito mostly lays on the oral
action. Despite the shock value here, it also seems as if Bieito sees oral
sex as an act of self-abasement, and thus a crucial part of his dark, cynical
view of human relations.
Mozart's score works surprisingly well in this setting with so little
"giocoso." Of course the darker textures come to predominate, but even the
lighter moments, such as the aforementioned "Batti, batti," have a contextual
rightness. Conductor de Billy's urgent reading certainly deserves much credit
here, but Bieito has obviously given the music as much thought as he has to
when he can next insert some oral favors into the action. For instance, the
Don sings his second act serenade alone, on the phone, trying for a
"hook-up," and at the end he starts to sob — a lonely man who doesn't
have the courage to change.
Not all viewers will find that moment effective, but the second act defeats
many a director, as the story goes into neutral until the big climax. Several
years on from its premiere, Bieito's Don
Giovanni may not be as shocking as it was at it premiere, but probably
many an unwary viewer of this DVD will end up turning it off in a fury and
using the discs for coasters, while others will find Mozart and da Ponte's
opera more alive and exciting than ever. No matter how many sins Bieito may
commit, he avoids the worst of all — he is not dull.
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy