23 Jun 2008
Don Giovanni. No, the other one
No one has ever called Gazzaniga’s Don Giovanni an overlooked masterpiece.
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Kasper Holten’s new production of Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House risks laying the house’s Director of Opera open to charges of antiquated mores and misogyny: for he seems to suggest that the women are just as bad, if not worse, than their seducer — and that a soulful man who seeks genuine love is likely to find his ‘ideal beloved’ forever out of reach.
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No one has ever called Gazzaniga’s Don Giovanni an overlooked masterpiece.
It was composed to a typical buffo libretto by Giovanni Bertati, his collaborator on twenty farces, in Venice in February 1787, where its success inspired someone to send the score to Lorenzo da Ponte in Vienna. He rewrote and expanded the piece, borrowing many of Bertati’s ideas, and gave it to Mozart, who presented his version at Prague’s Tyl Theater on October 29.
One goes to hear Gazzaniga’s Giovanni for foretaste, a prediction, a glimpse of the glory soon to come — a hint of Mozart’s inspiration — but there is little sign of it. The piece opens with an attempted rape and a murder all right, there is a catalogue aria (someone has altered the numbers! Aha!), a peasant wedding, a statue invited to dinner, a ghostly return. There are many moments when you expect to be stunned, enlightened, exalted, shocked, as Mozart’s opera does even on the twentieth hearing — but Gazzaniga keeps missing the chance to startle, to amaze, to create wonder. Donna Anna has the perfect moment for an aria of vengeance when she finds her father’s body (or a duet of vengeance, as in Mozart), but in Gazzaniga … she simply departs, never to return. Don Giovanni has many moments for a seduction duet, but it does not enter his brainless tenor head. Elvira’s last entreaty for Giovanni’s repentance is not an outburst — it’s a full-length aria at a moment when the drama should be snap, snap, snap. The statue’s return sends no cold shivers — the experience of the afterlife has not transformed his vocal manner, as Mozart felt it should. And, having heard Mozart, we know he was right.
It is impossible not to make such comparisons, but it is most unfair to Gazzaniga, and to an evening pleasantly spent. There are lovely tunes in this opera, justifying a long and successful career (51 operas, all but this one forgotten), some elegant ideas, and … a lot that fizzles. With pretty voices, it is a delicious way to pass ninety minutes — ideally by candlelight in a baroque garden theater. (A remodeled warehouse in Toronto’s Distillery District will do in a pinch, and the acoustics are ace.) Gazzaniga was good but ordinary; attending his opera reminds one that Mozart was … extraordinary.
The most effective music, it seemed to me, was the scene of the peasant wedding: the chorus had a Spanish style to it that Mozart did not bother with, and the arias of Biagio (infuriated at his wayward girlfriend) and Maturina (the girl in question, who is falling for the tall, handsome stranger) were very fine and sung by the finest voices in the company, Canadian Opera’s Studio (i.e., their young artists’ program). Justin Welsh, a baritone of energy and smooth production, made the most of Biagio, who has rather more presence in this version — da Ponte and Mozart rightly abbreviated his protest in order not to interrupt the rush of the drama. Gazzaniga gives him a full da capo, and Welsh sang it beautifully — but it interrupts. Maturina was Lisa DiMaria, a sweet, clear, luscious soprano who will mature (no pun intended) into a splendid Susanna and Zerlina in a very short time. I look forward to hearing both of them again.
The other singers, all young, healthy and good actors, did not seem quite so polished, so ready for the major leagues. Jon-Paul Décosse had the most to do as the servant, Pasquariello — he opens the show (just as Leporello does) and sings the catalogue, and serves as his master’s foil in the tomb and dinner scenes. His baritone is strong and supple, but his vigorous antics — sometimes humorous, sometimes menacing — will make him a particular asset to the livelier school of buffo staging. Melinda Delorme, afflicted with a wig that would alienate any lover, made a poignant and energetic Donna Elvira — in this opera the unchallenged prima donna, with two ornamented arias and a comic duet in which she and Maturina fight over “their” man, who of course has set them on each other while he pursues another lady entirely. (That duet’s an idea Bertati might have stolen from Act I of Mozart’s Figaro, but it was probably a buffo staple.) The Commendatore of Andrew Stewart looked gaunt and (as a statue) immobile, but did not succeed in creating shivers where Gazzaniga had neglected to provide them in the score. Michael Barrett (Ottavio) and Adam Luther (Giovanni), the two tenors, sounded uncomfortable with the style of the music, forceful where they should have been graceful, sensuous, ardent. They bit off the ends of notes that should drift into the aether. I suspect both are aiming for nineteenth-century tenor roles, and I applaud that ambition, but precise vocal control always comes in handy.
The production by Tom Diamond was basic and clear, with one annoying, pointless touch: Instead of nobly killing the Commendatore face to face, Don Giovanni sneaked up behind him and stabbed him in the back. This did not suit the story or the personality of our antihero. A consort of nine musicians played the score — undoubtedly it would sound grander with a full orchestra, but the subtle touches of Mozart’s version would still not have been there.
Melinda Delorme as Donna Elvira and Adam Luther as Don Giovanni in the COC’s Ensemble Studio production of Don Giovanni. Photo © 2008 Michael Cooper
The second half of this double bill — for a rather larger band of musicians, tackling a self-consciously brilliant score with aplomb — was Stravinsky’s brief retelling of a couple of farmyard folktales, Renard, composed for the Paris salon of his buddy Princess de Polignac — that’s Winnaretta Singer, the sewing machine heiress, to you. The piece was not meant to be staged, merely sung by a quartet of male singers — but Mr. Diamond could not resist. His production derived from World Wide Wrestling matches (the witty costumes were by Yannik Larivée), and no doubt I missed a lot of in-jokes, but the four hammy singers hurled themselves joyously into it. (No limbs were broken — but it was close.) They sang well, too, in clearly pronounced English — again, I especially enjoyed tiny Mr. Welsh, but the standard was high across the board.