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Reviews

<em>Don Giovanni</em>, ROH, Covent Garden
01 Jul 2018

Mozart: Don Giovanni, Royal Opera House

There is something very Danish about this Don Giovanni. It isn’t just that the director, Kasper Holten is a Dane, it’s also that the existential, moral and psychological questions Holten asks point to Kierkegaard who wrote of the fusion of the erotic and demonic in this opera in his work Either/Or (1843). However, I’ve rarely, if ever, encountered a production of Don Giovanni - even Bieito’s notorious one for ENO - where Mozart comes off as second best.

Don Giovanni, ROH, Covent Garden

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Don Giovanni, at The Royal Opera House

Photo credit: Bill Cooper

 

Holten’s Don Giovanni is entirely about making the most of Es Devlin’s sets - and he does so even before the Overture, as lugubrious as any I’ve heard, has even ended. Devlin’s sets are undeniably imposing - a vast colonnaded front, with balconies and endless doors, balustrades and hallways linked by stairways that disappear into infinity. At times I had difficulty deciding whether I was looking in on a Romanesque temple or the set of Hush… Hush Sweet Charlotte and the Hollis Mansion in its antebellum, southern Louisiana horror. But just as Altman’s 1964 film had been a study in psychological breakdown, of seeing ghosts at the top of staircases, Holten extends his cinematic journey into his Don Giovanni still further by drawing us into Hitchcock’s 1945 study into psychoanalysis and surrealism, Spellbound, with his own Dali-inspired Don Giovanni aria ‘Fin ch’han dal vino’ with the Don as the centre of the eye amid a converging point of infinite distances.

If Holten’s production shares one thing with Bieito’s it is that both are somewhat voyeuristic in their views of the opera, very much comfortable with the objectification of sexuality. From the outset, Luke Halls’s video design (this is very much a production for the digital age) gives us a running count of the Don’s sexual conquests - and there are so many of them, they cover not only every inch of the outside of the walls, but the inside too… from the sides of staircases, the steps themselves, furniture, even objects on tables. Echoing Escher’s stairs, the geometric set reflects a sense of perspective and depth to this endless pornography. This graffiti leaves an almost permanent stain throughout the entire opera, a reminder that Don Giovanni’s existential sexuality is based entirely on deceit and immorality embedded as it is deep within his psyche. It’s no coincidence that his principle lovers are also damaged goods - the cluster of ink blots on their dresses, Rorschach-like, but also reminders of sex itself. When the litany of names are erased it’s to soak the walls in crimson blood, or drench them in the bleakness of Don Giovanni’s mental psychosis.

BC DG image.jpeg Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Musically, this Don Giovanni is a bit of a mess. Textually, it is neither the complete Vienna nor the Prague edition, nor the usual mixture of both - and many will find excising ‘ Questo è il fin di chi fa mal’ from the end troubling, though I think it better meets Holten’s objectives for this production to exclude it. Holten’s Don is so psychologically flawed, so concerned with projecting his pain onto others and using his sexual narcissism to seduce almost everyone he encounters into complicity, that his descent into madness at the end seems a more fitting conclusion. Holten’s Don is morally corrupt, but as Kierkegaard also suggests desire is “victorious, triumphant, irresistible and demonic”. The comparison with Faust is completely unambiguous and, rather as the French novelist Jean Genet was fond of suggesting when describing his own views on sex, this is a Don who is in it for the chase alone.

The casting of Covent Garden’s revival is fairly strong, and, frankly, it needs to be to fight against Marc Minkowski’s interminable and heavy-handed approach he takes with much of the score; I thought Act I was never going to end. This approach to the music doesn’t sit comfortably with the dramatic visual changes that Luke Halls’s video design and Bruno Poet’s lighting is presenting on stage - often what the eye is seeing isn’t corresponding very closely to what the ears are hearing. Minkowski didn’t always generate much enthusiasm from the orchestra either, so it was perhaps all the more surprising that the singing itself was often of a very high standard indeed.

Mariusz Kwiecień as Don Giovanni.jpegMariusz Kwiecień as Don Giovanni. Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

The Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień is the kind of Don Giovanni that seems ideally suited to Kasper Holten’s production. In many ways, I found his assumption of the part quite disturbing - he’s dynamically sexual, a prowler, but the trajectory towards his mania is like watching a breakdown happening in slow motion so deeply does he explore the depths of the character’s underlying psychology. The voice is superb as well, a dark, true baritone - like Eberhard Waechter’s - able to explore the demonic and seductive sides of the Don’s personality. He was nowhere better than in his final confrontation with the Commendatore, imperious of tone, the technique immaculate, with just enough spine-chilling darkness to the voice. Perhaps he was fortunate that his Leporello was Ildebrando D’Arcangelo. Kwiecień and D’Arcangelo often subverted the master/servant equation, so much so that Joseph Losey’s The Servant seemed like a model for their unbalanced relationship, even with its latent hints of an uneasy masculine derived sexuality. Although he sometimes looked as if he had fallen out of a Chicago Sleep Easy, D’Arcangelo moved with breath-taking ease between being a figure capable of easy-going humour one moment, and disturbing violence the next. More so than in many productions, Holten views his Leporello as a tragic shadow of Don Giovanni himself - even the similarities in the voices that both these singers share suggested a much closer alignment to their fates than normal.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen, as Donna Anna, never sounds vocally stretched (as can sometimes happen with this role) and is as lyrical as she luminous. Hrachuhi Bassenz, as Donna Elvira, is done with considerable intensity at times, almost as if she is on the edge of hysteria. As with many of Holten’s characterisations in this production, there is a sense that his women, especially, are being driven into a kind OCD pattern of sexual behaviour - coming back for more of the same, even though it is pushing them into damaging psychological breakdowns. Both Donna Anna and Donna Elvira are more complex women than we usually see in this opera, even if what we see is quite disturbing.

As for the rest of the cast, Willard W. White, as the Commendatore, perhaps lacks the depth of tone he once had to command the stage but was compelling, especially in his showdown with Kwiecień - even if he looked as if he had risen from George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, taking to stalking Don Giovanni around the corridors like a zombie. Pavol Breslik was a beautifully lyrical Don Ottavio, and convincingly handsome, Chen Reiss a somewhat matronly Zerlina, and Anatoli Sivko a sonorous, if ultimately unsympathetic Masetto.

Holten’s Don Giovanni probes deep, and Es Devlin’s sets, dizzying though they are - quite literally - are visually spectacular. The entire opera is a tour de force for its lighting engineers and someone working on a laptop, but the length of time we are asked to engage in looking at the staging borders on the cinematographic rather than operatic. Likewise, the demands that Holten places on his audience and the questions he asks squarely place Mozart the composer second. On opening night, the cast sang well despite the conductor, not because of him - in other circumstances this production might well be not so fortunate.

Further performances 3rd July until 17th July 2018.

Marc Bridle

Mariusz Kwiecień - Don Giovanni, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo - Leporello, Rachel Willis-Sørensen - Donna Anna, Pavol Breslik - Don Ottavio, Hrachuhi Bassenz - Donna Elvira, Chen Reiss - Zerlina, Anatoli Sivko - Masetto, Willard W. White - Commendatore; Kasper Holten - Director, Amy Lane - Revival Director, Marc Minkowski - Conductor, Es Devlin - Set Director, Luke Halls - Video Design, Bruno Poet - Lighting Design, Orchestra of Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Friday 29th June 2018.

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