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Recordings

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni
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.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni

Wojtek Drabowicz, Regina Schorg, Veronique Gens, Kwanchul Youn, Orchestra Academy of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Chamber Choir of the Palau de la Musica Catalana, Bertrand de Billy, conductor

Opus Arte OA 0921 D [DVD]

$41.38  Click to buy

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.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

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