Monday 24 September 2007

Don Giovanni, New York City Opera, 15 September 2007

Don Giovanni: Aaron St Clair Nicholson
Donna Anna: Mardi Byers
Donna Elvira: Julianna DiGiacomo
Zerlina: JiYoung Lee
Don Ottavio: Bruce Sledge
Leporello: Daniel Mobbs
Masetto: Matthew Burns
Commendatore: Daniel Borowski

Orchestra and Chorus of New York City Opera
David Wroe (conductor)
Harold Prince (producer)
Albert Sherman (stage director)

It was interesting, in the light of this Don Giovanni, to reflect upon the profound differences between European and American approaches to staging opera. The New York City Opera has a reputation for being more adventurous, edgier even than its world-renowned sibling, the Metropolitan Opera. Yet this was a production of a kind that has largely vanished from European houses. Were it to have appeared at Covent Garden, let alone in Berlin or Frankfurt, it would seem like an attempt at revival, rather than an unmediated representation. The production was set in the time and place envisaged in the stage directions, which were generally observed and certainly never transgressed. There was no sense of a producer imposing a 'message', let alone a Konzept, upon the work, and the emphasis lay squarely upon telling a recognisable story. The Met's opulent grandeur was absent, but by the same token the staging was in no wise abstract or minimalist, presenting a straightforward representation of various locations in Seville.

I can imagine many European, especially British, readers warming to this description, perhaps even going so far as to wish 'if only...'. Indeed, when one considers some of the horrors inflicted upon stages on this side of the Atlantic - for instance, Jonathan Miller's ugly, unmusical transformation of Così fan tutte into a vulgar farce - relief might seem a justified reaction. And yet, that was just about it. This was a production utterly lacking in insights, let alone justified or even unjustified provocation. What many critics, and not only on the American side of the Atlantic, might sneer at as 'Eurotrash' direction can, even at its worst, spark debate about the meaning or meanings of a work, the production's relationship towards it and its reception history, and so forth. This was opera as a museum piece, and was largely received as such. Perennial bronchial complaints, intrusive applause - on one occasion, it had begun so early that it had finished before the orchestral postlude - and mobile telephones infuriated throughout; but perhaps this is what one should expect if one treats theatre as 'entertainment', there for the benefit of 'customers'.

The musical performance might best be described as 'middle-of-the road'. There was not a sign of any 'period' influence, which is more than fine with me: the last thing we needed was more of the museum. Of all Mozart's operas, Don Giovanni is perhaps the most clearly forward-looking, which is why Furtwängler's Wagnerian approach has in many respects never been equalled. One needs a sense of a world on the edge of something truly catastrophic, never more so than in those terrifying cries of ' ‘Viva la libertà!’, in which society appears upon the edge of dissolution. The energy that runs through the work, in essence that energy so perfectly captured in Giovanni's 'Champagne Aria', is a force of both life and death. Don Giovanni is both celebration and tragedy, as the Overture makes clear, just as its hero is both timely and untimely, indeed almost Nietzschean. This, however, was all rather well-mannered, and often plain lacklustre: the sort of thing one might have expected to hear from a reasonably-sized chamber-orchestral performance a generation ago.

That daemonic drive which should have been present from those extraordinary opening bars was rarely if ever present. In the Overture, a part of the opera that was unambiguously Mozart’s, the composer chose the most undeniably tragic music of all with which to commence Giovanni’s descent into Hell, namely that of the Stone Guest scene, in D minor. It is Mozart at his closest to Gluck: not really in the sense of ‘sounding like’ Gluck, although it is perhaps not wholly removed from the latter's Overture to Alceste, but rather dramatically, in that the music involves itself with the action. And in this, as in so much else, Mozart also prefigures Wagner. If this music needed any assistance to remain the most strongly imprinted upon the listener’s memory, this premonition is it. Whilst there is much to be said for polished performance - and this was, bar a few nasty moments of tuning, generally polished - it is hardly enough, just as a presentation of events in period costume in front of pleasant scenery is not enough.

The singing ran parallel to the production, although perhaps it was better on the whole. There were no absolute disasters, which is far from always the case. It would perhaps be unfair to compare Aaron St Clair Nicholson's Giovanni with that of Erwin Schrott, whose assumption of the role a couple of months previously for the Royal Opera was the most complete I have experienced. Much of this portrayal was musical, although at times it was disturbingly unable to rise above the far from Wagnerian orchestra. Yet once again, there was little sign of what was really at stake: nothing less than a re-dramatisation of the Fall. Daniel Mobbs's Leporello possessed more of the necessary quicksilver reactions to changing circumstances than his master, which seemed an accidental rather than provocative transformation. The tuning of Mardi Byers as Donna Anna was too wayward for comfort, let alone for anything more than that, whilst Bruce Sledge presented a perfectly adequate Ottavio. Julianna DiGioacomo's Elvira was probably the best of the bunch, although once again this was hardly a memorable account.

I should perhaps make it clear that more adventurous productions are not the sole preserve of European houses, although I do think that there is a cultural distinction to be made here. I do not rule out the possibility of a 'traditional'-style production permitting an insightful and challenging performance. Nor do I deny that many 'provocations' remain just that. But musical drama must be dramatic, just as it must be musical. Whether in apparently 'extreme' cases, such as Calixto Bieto's brilliant, if flawed production of this work, or the gentler, more humane approach of a director such as Sir Peter Hall, it would be impossible to exhaust the theatrical opportunities of a towering masterpiece such as Don Giovanni. What is really needed is a fusion of theatrical and musical vision, such as that heard under Joseph Swenson's baton for Bieto's production at the English National Opera. (This was so much of a piece that I very much doubt I should wish to hear the frenetic musical account on its own.) To be sure, there was in New York a consonance, or at least a coincidence, between pit and stage, between what we heard and what we saw. Yet this appeared to be born out of an equal lack of imagination rather than a shared sense of purpose.