Don Giovanni in the Trees

A forest is a dangerous place: a symbol for the unknown and the unconscious, both the embrace and the threats of nature and a natural state. In fairy tales, characters enter the forest to find themselves, but they inevitably find peril as well.

In this 2008 Salzburg Festival production on DVD (Amazon), Claus Guth stages Don Giovanni in just such a forest, a group of pines that rotate on a turntable to disorienting effect. Is there a world outside of it? Sometimes mist rises threateningly in the background. But despite the presence of a bus stop and Don Ottavio’s car, there’s no exit. Don Giovanni and Leporello are a mortally wounded and drug-addled Vladimir and Estragon who are waiting for… something.

I needed an antidote to the Met’s empty Don Giovanni of a few weeks ago, and this production was perfect. I don’t agree with all of it, but it’s fascinating and very smartly done. The Commendatore seems to escape the duel OK, but Don Giovanni is mortally wounded and spends the rest of the opera dying; it’s never clear whether the rest of the events are actually happening or just his fervid memories or delusions. This twist plus the surreal setting mean there’s a fair amount of the plot that is not staged literally (the Serenade is sung out to the audience as a memory of seductions gone by, almost a mad scene), but this actually makes the episodic second act work unusually smoothly. The characters are modernized: Donna Anna is repressed housewife engaged to the useless yuppie Ottavio (yeah, this problem), Donna Elvira is a repressed businesswoman who is actually sex-crazed (kind of an ugly characterization, but  I can see how it comes out of the text). It’s dark and spooky–literally in terms of darkness–and the sextet at the end gets the axe. (It’s the Vienna version of the score, which means there’s the little Leporello-Zerlina duet but no Il mio tesoro and no final sextet. The cans of Pilsner Urquell may be an allusion to the opera’s Prague premiere, though.)

The main disappointment of the production is Bertrand de Billy’s bland conducting. He goes with HIP fleetness, but the Wiener Philharmoniker plays with so much vibrato that the pitch in the overture actually doesn’t seem quite stable somehow. Fortunately the cast can both sing really well and carry off the complex production convincingly. Christopher Maltman gives an intense performance in the title role, with the kind of magnetism required of a Don Giovanni and a beautiful, fairly light voice. Other vocal highlights are Dorothea Röschmann’s powerhouse Donna Elvira and Ekaterina Siurina’s impeccable Zerlina. Theatrically, Erwin Schrott’s Leporello carries the show. I’ve seen Schrott as the Don in several different productions (I’m not a particular fan but there were a few years when you basically couldn’t see a Don Giovanni without him in the title role), but I wonder if he isn’t actually better as Leporello. It suits his low voice better, and also his wit and comic timing (his Don was sometimes too funny). Anyway, here Leporello is going through some drug issues and it isn’t going well. The cast’s only major weakness is Annette Dasch as Donna Anna, whose squally tone and iffy intonation are tough on the ears, though she acts well. Matthew Polenzani is a well-sung but rather faceless Ottavio.


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  1. You know Zerb, I didn't like it that much when I saw this in 2008 but I did appreciate the purposefulness and specificity of the direction and so much great singing (I essentially agree with everything you say in respect of the music). After seeing the uber bland DG at the Met I thought back on this (among other) productions (even the old Met ones) and with some nostalgia .

    The Met production, though, seems to be especially problematic (though probably better then the mess you saw in Wien). My mom saw it last Monday and the new production in San Francisco this past Sunday. Traditional and in her opinion no theatrical masterpiece she though it was an incomparably better show (which however suffered in comparison with the vastly superior musical performance at the Met – with the exception of Kate Lindsey's superb Zerlina). Still, the excellent musical aspects at the Met only underscore what a terrible lost (and expensive!!!) opportunity this was.

  2. I have the same opinion about Schrott – he is a better Leporello!!! His acting skills are helping him more the role of Leporello so he shouldnt be casted as DG anymore 🙂
    and another thing I dont understand, in 2008 there was a Don giovanni prod at the Met, still with nothing special to say about the whole opera, and they do another bland production in 2011? why not keep the old boring one? now they have 2 boring Dongiovanni…
    And that one in 2008 was also miscast! 🙂 I saw it with Schrott as DG and Ildebrando D'Archangelo as Leporello. Such a mistake 🙂 as Ildebrando is generally better as DG!
    thanks for the dvd review, for me that one is the best DG ever 🙂
    and try Bieito's Carmen as well!

  3. Agh!! This production sounds really interesting. I love Don Giovanni, and I'd really like to see a non-traditional production.