Don Giovanni: Love in a boring climate

The Wiener Staatsoper’s new production of Don Giovanni was begging to be stolen all night.  Had anyone shown a little initiative and done something exciting, they could have walked off with it in their pocket.  But no, we had a balanced ensemble, and a milquetoast evening it remained to the end.  From the scattered mess of a production to the respectable but not quite distinguished singing, it reminds you that there’s no Don worse than a boring Don.  The orchestra was the best thing about it.

This is historically possibly the single most central work in the Staatsoper’s repertoire, and the disappointment among the premiere crowd was palpable.  Watch out, Herr Meyer, the Stehplatz masses are restless.

Mozart-Da Ponte, Don Giovanni. Wiener Staatsoper, 12/11/2010.  New production premiere by Jean-Louis Martinoty, sets by Hans Schavernoch, costumes by Yan Tx, lights by Fabrice Kebour.  Conducted by Franz Welser-Möst with Ildebrando d’Arcangelo (Don Giovanni), Alex Esposito (Leporello), Sally Matthews (Donna Anna), Roxana Constantinescu (Donna Elvira), Sylvia Schwartz (Zerlina), Saimir Pirgu (Don Ottavio), Albert Dohmen (Commendatore), Adam Plachetka (Masetto)

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An article in the Staatsoper magazine trumpets the learned director Martinoty’s consultation of many other Don Giovanni tales (and he name-drops lots of them in the program book interview).  I don’t know whether to suggest he should have spent more time with Mozart and Da Ponte’s text or just to note that he obviously hasn’t found his own version yet.  Because this is a morally confused, interpretive black hole of an opera, and Martinoty does nothing to suggest who Don Giovanni is, or any of the other characters for that matter.  He sticks in some novelties, but there’s no vision or concept to speak of in an opera that demands one.

The production is set in post-war Spain, for no perceptible reason (maybe 1950’s, but I’m not sure! sometimes it looks more recent).  The stage is steeply raked, with a twisted series of proscenium arches.  The sets by Hans Schavernoch consist of a few projected backdrops of Seville, something that looks like a wine cellar to meet Donna Elvira (?), a hotel lobby for Zerlina and Masetto’s wedding, Don Giovanni’s Baroque party room, a rather nice church in lieu of a cemetery, and Don Giovanni’s banquet hall.  In the latter, the statue–a skeleton–confusingly remains from the cemetery, visible for the entire scene, making its dramatic vocal arrival somewhat anticlimactic.  Finally, the Commendatore shows up in person, despite not having appeared except as bones in the previous scene (see the photo at the top of this post).  The curtain frequently comes down for set changes, never for too long, but the interruption in the flow is unfortunate.  So are the cast traffic jams at the too-small exits.

Fun fact: this is the second production of Don Giovanni I have seen in Vienna that is set in a hotel!  But Keith Warner’s Theater an der Wien job was a sleazy, wild masterpiece, which this one isn’t.

The costumes by Yan Tax are blandly 1950’s-ish until everyone dresses up in period finery for the Act 2 finale, some retaining it for Act 2.  The significance of this masquerade is unclear (because glittery suits are fun, and now there are men with ruffles, ARE YOU HAPPY NOW, traditionalists?).  The armies of Mozart lookalikes in the stage bands are amusing, though. Of the lighting, by Fabrice Kebour, welch’ Dunkel hier!  I understand a lot of this opera is supposed to take place in the dark, but, for example, shouldn’t we be able to see Donna Anna’s face for her crucial narration of her abduction by Giovanni?  (Putting her far upstage didn’t help either.)  There are a few scenes of highly designed painterly beauty, but the rest of the opera seems to have been forgotten.  Some illumination is provided by a mysterious bare hanging fluorescent tube, which looks like it was a housewarming gift to Dominique Meyer from Achim Freyer.  But no one took any pictures of it, because it looked weird!

While some of the direction is lively and physical, it doesn’t do a very good job of developing the plot or characters or their relationships.  Sometimes logic fails.  Why doesn’t Leporello react before noting the presence of people in the introduction?  What happens in the confusing duel involving a sword umbrella and a flashlight?  Why does Donna Elvira have a voodoo doll?  Why doesn’t Zerlina look at Don Giovanni during “La cì darem la mano”?  What the hell is going on with that statue?  But in the big picture everyone seems to like Don Giovanni: he and Donna Anna apparently have a consensual S&M thing going on, Donna Elvira just wants him back (despite voodoo), and even Don Ottavio is a good buddy.  And Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s Don seems like a good guy.  He’s friendly, maybe a little aggressive on the romantic side of things, but basically decent.  And that doesn’t make for a very interesting show.

Donna Elvira (Roxana Constantinescu)

In the arias, Martinoty frequently brings in extra characters to give the singers someone to act against–Leporello has a girlfriend in the opening, Donna Elvira gets a priest in “Mi tradi,” and a random servant girl appears repeatedly.  A commenter here already pointed out the concatenation of the Catalog Aria with Zerlina’s wedding, which is nicely done except for shorting out Donna Elvira.  There’s a monk praying through all of the final sextet, who I was expecting to be a reincarnated Don (because the Don dresses up as a monk in the church scene earlier), but nothing so interesting, he was just a monk.  Unfortunately I think this technique ended up being more a crutch than anything else.  And the ending, with its everpresent statue, has none of the crazy intensity that it needs (though Donna Elvira has apparently become a nun), and the descent to hell passes so quickly as to have very little impact. 

Sorry to say so much, but I feel like I had to to describe everything, because this production doesn’t organize itself into easily-summarized coherence.  It doesn’t ever develop any direction or guiding idea.  There’s stuff there, but what’s it all about? AAAHHHH! I DON’T KNOW!!!!

Musically, the highlight was the orchestra, which knows this score inside out and can play it without breaking a sweat.  But there were some conducting issues.  Franz Welser-Möst’s account was more shaped on the orchestral than vocal side, and had coordination issues with the stage.  The tempos tended to be odd, and the pacing lacked drama.  Unfortunately the singing was accomplished without being memorable.  Many of the arias were loud and unsubtle, the ensembles were better.  Appoggiaturas were in oddly short supply.  I prefer baritone Dons to basses, and while D’Arcangelo was perfectly fine, with a darkish lyric tone, he failed to seduce me.  Er, I mean, he’s no Erwin Schrott in the acting department, and didn’t show much in the way of seductive tendencies (and some of us may have found Leporello better-looking, sorry, I’m superficial).  I could have also used more vocal floating in the serenade.  It takes skills to sing the Champagne Aria and take your shirt off at the same time, though.

Donna Anna (Sally Matthews)

Alex Esposito was a vocally solid if not particularly outstanding Leporello, with a very good Catalog Aria and a lighter and higher-sounding tone than his master.  Their relationship didn’t go anywhere, though Esposito was a sparkier presence than D’Arcangelo.  The best of the women was Sally Matthews’s Donna Anna, whose cloudy, sometimes constrained soprano has a vaguely Gheorghiu-esque quality, though more pointed.  She took some time to warm up but gave a committed, grand performance with good coloratura and long phrases.  Roxana Constantinescu’s mezzo Donna Elvira was hindered by a wide vibrato and a lack of contrast and acting detail.  Sylvia Schwartz’s Zerlina was lyric and sweet but understated. Saimir Pirgu sang Don Ottavio with attractive tone but phrasing right out of Puccini, wringing every bit of drama and sentiment out of his two (yes we got both) arias and blasting every “-te” of “morte” in “Dalla sua pace.”   Albert Dohmen disappointed as the Commendatore, not sounding bass-like at all.  Except him, none of the principals were weak, but none really remarkable.

I think a few more tech rehearsals would have done this show good.  I wondered if someone was writing the lighting cues as they were giving them, because they were that bumpy and randomly timed.  Lights would abruptly change in the middle of scenes for no reason, making me suspect a cue was pages late or early.  The trip down to Hell went about three times too quickly and started a good two pages too late, severely screwing up the drama.  If you’re not going to get this kind of thing right at a new production prima, when are you going to?

There was rather a lot of booing at the end, particularly by generally-friendly Vienna standards, though there was also some enthusiastic cheering.  The consensus in the standing room was that it fell short of Wiener Staatsoper standards for both Mozart singing and staging.  “It would be OK for Zurich,” one Stehplatz member said.  “Or Germany.  But in Vienna?”  In my experience Zurich and Germany generally come up with something more interesting than this production-wise, but point taken.

We’re getting a full Da Ponte cycle from this production team.  The Figaro, already seen in Paris and already considered via DVD here, will premiere in February, the Così in two years’ time.

Also, typo in the cast list!  They misspelled “Masetto” as “Masseto”.

Bows–the statue is not THE statue, it is only A statue:

Production photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper, except the first one, copyright APA/Robert Jäger

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  1. Interesting to read your thoughts – I think you've captured the various problems with this production much better that I was able to in my brief comments. I can see I was too nice – reading your reaction I realise it really was that lacklustre. Interesting about the tech issues – lighting adjustments were being made throughout the dress and I just assumed they would get that sorted out, though it doesn't surprise me that they didn't. Sometimes the Viennese really let themselves down with their Schlamperei.

  2. Wow, this sucks – listening to 1st Act now. THIS is the premiere cast of a WSNI Don G. You've got to be kidding. You're comments regarding the singing seem to be generally on point although I'm somewhat disappointed in Matthews – only heard her in Act I and she may worm up – as you promise but – and there is obviously some room for disagreement -based on "Ah Chi Mi Dice" I'd call RC fairly weak, especially in context. Way to wobbly for so young a singer and kinda dry as well.

    I generally tend to agree with your preference for a baritone Don (although dramatically some vocal convergence may be desirable) but it really is CBC depending on the singers. What is more problematic and to me utterly unacceptable is a higher and lighter voiced Don. I wouldn't precisely call Esposito weak per se but the juxtposition with D'Arcangelo is problematic. As for the latter's acting ability, I've actually really liked him as Figaro and Leporello but hard to say about the Don.

    In any case he couldn't have been helped by the production which seems to have been generally judged to be less than a … um … complete success.

    The recent Cosi – I gather you didn't go – seems also to have been rather problematic – plagued by numerous cancellations as it seems to have been (but I'm not exactly gaga over Persson as Fiordiligi either – worst I've ever heard – earlier this year at the Met – although the comparisons are brutal. The kids at the Neue Merker seemed particularly scathing. Die Presse kinda enthusiastic by comparison. I heard it on ORF and lean a bit more to the latter perspective but impressive it was not.

    In any case WM and Meyer's Mozart revival seems to be going less than splendidly. The Figaro cast certainly seems the strongest of the three – assuming everyone makes it – and the production should be not much worse than neutral. In general that promises to be the best of the trio but we'll see.

    BTW, you little flip down performance categories are very convenient.

  3. I also listened to the ORF live broadcast and am with marcillac's view that putting a higher and lighter-voiced Leporello together with a robust bass-baritone DG like D'Arcangelo does not work well. It sometimes creates an impression (unfair, I think)that the lighter-voiced singer is weak or pale.

    The same could be said about the pairing of Lehtipuu and D'Arcangelo in Cosi. I liked the latter's Gugliemo more than his DG, and I think vocally Lehtipuu's Ferrando in Vienna was way better than his Salzburg version, and was more nuanced than his Glyndebourne performance. But Rainer Trost's Ferrando under the baton of Gardiner 15 or so years ago remains unbeatable, IMO. To my ears, Caroline Wenbone's Fiordiligi was well-sung, though not quite Mozartean. I'd love to hear Christiane Karg sing this role some day.

    In any case, I would not take the review at the Neue Merker seriously. Just out of curiosity, I looked up the reviewer's music credentials, and had a good laugh afterwards. Anon.J

  4. Hi folks!

    Indeed I did skip the Così. I could have gone but I listened to the broadcast and I just couldn't motivate myself. This is probably a criminal thing to say, but it's my least favorite big Mozart opera (one of them has to be it!). I'm not feeling any regrets. Wenborne as Fiordiligi sounded decent but not someone I had to run to the opera house to hear. (And I was a little tired from all that Werther waiting.)

    Of the Don, I went back and forth on Matthews, not a gorgeous voice but I thought she was elegant. I agree about the lighter Leporello being a major issue–I think I even said something to that effect in my review. Sorry, this was not one of my more coherent efforts, I was CONFUSED. And probably too distracted by the incoherence of the staging to notice some things about the music.

    Right now I'm just trying not to dread the Figaro. I adore Figaro and deeply want it not to suck. If nothing else, it will provide eye candy for us straight ladies.

    Some of the Neue Merker people are good but some of them are hopeless (and my pet peeve is that everything any of them write about Baroque music is hopelessly misinformed). I can't call them kids, though, I think they're probably ALL at least twice my age. 🙂 I don't include them on my blogroll because their daily commentator often makes comments that I consider sexist or racist, and I don't want to endorse that.