Sunday 2 February 2014

Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera, or, Is it possible to stage this work successfully?

This was my third staging of Don Giovanni. The two previous efforts were dismal: Tim Albery's Endless Pairs of Gloves version at Scottish Opera and Rufus Norris's confused attempt at ENO. Kasper Holten's new production for the Royal Opera is better than either of these but still left me increasingly unengaged and overall unconvinced.

The central problem with this staging is, it seems to me, that Holten can't quite decide (or at least fails to convey that he's decided) whether all the events and meetings described are really happening or whether they are figments of characters imaginations. This is the closest I can come to explaining why his attempt at the ending which should be chilling falls so flat. Up to that point, mostly, it seemed that Giovanni was really doing all the things he said, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, he appeared to have some kind of psychological breakdown. I just wasn't convinced.

The issue is compounded by typical problems of movement which bedevil so many operatic productions. There were some effective moments (e.g the Don's first attempt to seduce Zerlina) but too often people just seemed to be wandering round the stage and up and down the stairs to no good purpose. In addition there were the usual moments of bafflement: why did Donna Anna not immediately recognise Giovanni when they meet the second time (given the staging of the opening scene she certainly ought to have done)? Was Elvira really that anxious to find him when she first appears (given her strange reluctance to take a look up the staircase at the top of which Don Giovanni was conspicuously (at least from the spectator's point of view) standing? Most of all, why did Donna Anna sing most of her final aria to the smashed bits of the unconvincing statue of the Commendatore, Don Ottavio having long since wandered off stage. People made one or two suggestions about aspects of these issues on twitter last night, and in the abstract I can see the validity of some of those arguments but if Holten intended to make those arguments I can only say the performance did not make that clear.

Holten also makes large use of video projections, designed by Luke Halls. This approach increasingly feels stale to me. Here it works okay in Act One, but in Act Two inspiration seemed to run dry. Holten is reduced to projecting character names onto the walls during arias (presumably for fear we are failing to follow the plot, actually not a problem for once), to bizarre things like the birds during Donna Elvira's Act Two aria, and to various squiggles and colour washes of the walls which sometimes add something but mostly don't.

The revolving house, the remaining aspect of the staging, also overstays its welcome. Again, various people on social media commented, and I can see the point, that there is clearly meant to be an implication of everybody being trapped in this place. As with much else in this production this isn't in itself a bad idea but it becomes very repetitious and doesn't seem to really build to anything.

Musically, I don't feel I'm an expert judge of great Mozart. My benchmark generally for the composer would be Mackerras whom I never heard conduct this work live but who in other Mozart opera brought both drive and depth. I freely concede that many people in the audience on the strength of the applause and cheers clearly felt this was some of the finest Mozart they had heard. But it was not so for me. It wasn't that the playing was bad. Yes, there were minor blemishes, on odd occasions pit and stage did not seem in total harmony, and Luisotti's tempi sometimes felt rushed and faster than singers were always comfortable with, but equally there were fleeting moments of mystery and beautiful solos. My fundamental issue was that the best Mozart, particularly in those places of slow anguish seems to take you to some other place, really movingly grips one emotionally, and this just never really happened for me during the evening. Of the singers I thought the women were generally good, Mariusz Kwiecien's Giovanni was at his best in his little serenade at the beginning of Act Two, Alex Esposito's Leporello was solid, and Alexander Tsymbaluk's ringing Commendatore did his best to bring chill to the final scene. But none of them succeeded vocally, or in the context of the production, in really engaging me emotionally.

It is clear from initial reaction on social media, and indeed the reaction in the house last night that I am in a minority in my feelings about this performance. I'm glad others got so much out of it, but for me it was an evening that just never caught fire.


Lisa Hirsch said...

You know, first time I read this, I read "Luisotti" and thought "Luisi," about whose Mozart I know zip. However, just spotted in someone's tweet that it's Luisotti, music director of SF Opera. My misreading!

He has to be half the problem, in addition to what sounds like poorly-thought-out direction. Luisotti's Cosi fan Tutte last year in SF was the worst-conducted Mozart opera by a pro conductor that I have ever heard.

I think Don Giovanni is something of a muddle and very difficult to get right, tone-wise. The best I have seen - in fact, the only truly convincing production - was done at SF in 2007, by David McVicar and conducted by The Man Himself. Here's my review of that one.

Finn Pollard said...

@Lisa - Thanks for the links. Read with interest. Hadn't realised quite how late I was to the party in terms of wondering if it is possible to stage Don Giovanni effectively!

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