Staatsoper Unter den Linden
Don Giovanni – René Pape
Donna Anna – Anna Samuil
Don Ottavio – Pavol Breslik
Commendatore – Christof Fischesser
Donna Elvira – Annette Dasch
Leporello – Hanno Müller-Brachmann
Masetto – Arttu Kataja
Zerlina – Sylvia Schwartz
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)
Peter Mussbach (director)
Don Giovanni was the first opera Daniel Barenboim conducted, with the English Chamber Orchestra at the 1973 Edinburgh Festival. He has lived with the score for more than thirty years, returning to it on several occasions. The results on this occasion were nothing less than magnificent so far as he and the Staatskapelle Berlin were concerned. I have never heard a better orchestral performance in the opera house. The burnished strings played with vigour, with tenderness, with clarity, with a richness of blend, with the occasional delicious and perfectly judged portamento, in short with every quality one could reasonably ask of the section and a few more besides. Even Ingo Kroll’s mandolin playing sounded more beautiful and more perfectly matched with the string section proper than I can recall hearing in any other performance. The beauty of the woodwind would have made Vienna look to its laurels. Woodwind solos were achingly beautiful; the sense of chamber music when section members combined inevitably put one in mind of Mozart’s great wind serenades. Some of the flute playing tempted one to suspect a pact with the Devil. Indeed, do not recall ever hearing such an array of orchestral colours, whether in terms of soli or ensembles, in a performance of Don Giovanni. The brass and timpani too were more impressive than one could ever have hoped. The trombones did not merely thrill, did not merely instill a sense of dread, during the Stone Guest scene; they imparted an almost noumenal presence of another world. They recalled not only the equali for trombone quartet of Habsburg state funerals, not only Handel’s Saul and Israel in Egypt, but above all the ancient – at least in eighteenth-century terms – association of the instrument with death and the supernatural.
Moreover, I was truly unprepared for the grand style of Barenboim’s interpretation, which harked back to Furtwängler without the slightest sense of restoration or preciousness. There was no question here of reductionism, no question of failing to put his great orchestra fully at the service of the drama. In this of all Mozart’s operas, such is not merely a luxury, but an absolute necessity, yet a necessity which in most performances counts for almost nothing. As Julian Rushton, whose Cambridge Opera Handbook is an invaluable if sober study of the work, has nevertheless been moved to write: ‘Mozart is … the catalyst whose influence changed the subject [of Don Juan] from the proper interest of Latin Europe and Catholic morality, and from the status of both vulgar and enlightened entertainment, to the proper interest of Northern Faustian philosophy.’ For at the very time at which Mozart, at the very height of his musico-dramatical powers, faced the task of setting and modifying Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto, was also, far from coincidentally, the time at which the Don Juan myth, more than a century and a half old, was most ripe to look backward and forward, if only it could attract a dramatist or dramatists fit for the task. Worlds old and new are treated in terms social, political, cultural, and æsthetic – and in terms that combine various or all of these headings in different measure. The canvas then is vast, profound, and eclectic, as Barenboim and his orchestra succeeded supremely in bringing to the audience’s realisation. At the same time, and equally importantly, there was in Barenboim’s reading no want of tenderness, of heart-rending pianissimi, of willingness and indeed ability to relax the reins where required. Tempi were flexible, yet never at the expense of an all-encompassing structural control. The leaps of style, for instance Elvira’s neo-Handelian ‘Fuggi il traditor’ were navigated with aplomb, and without making them seem greater leaps than they actually are. Mozart knew precisely what he was doing here.
However, the soloists did not quite live up to the nigh impossible task of matching Barenboim and the Staatskapelle. One who may have done and certainly came very close was Hanno Müller-Brachmann. His Leporello was lively, attentive to the text, and unfailingly musical. Müller-Brachmann was impressively attuned to the social characteristics of his role. For instance, Leporello’s opening music, which immediately follows the Overture, has already been characterised by its rhythm. Upon expressing to his master the wish that he might become a gentleman, a socio-musical ascent occurs, slightly wild and certainly vigorous melodic leaps being replaced by conjunct melodic motion, characteristic of the aristocratic minuet. This was not lost upon Müller-Brachmann, whose quicksilver response was an object lesson in style.
As Don Giovanni, René Pape sang perfectly well, but ultimately seemed a little out of sorts, given the expectations one might have had of him in the role. There were even a couple of brief moments of disjunction with the orchestra, although it was impossible to know who was at fault there. Whilst there was no question of a lack of musicality, nor of depth of tone, the incessant energy lying at the heart of the role, epitomised by the fizz of the Champagne Aria, was not quite as it should be. That said, Pape’s heroic defiance in his final scene, refusing the Commendatore’s entreaties to repent, was breathtaking. Pavol Breslik impressed greatly in the thankless role of Don Ottavio. Breslik’s singing evinced great beauty and nobility, and somehow he avoided seeming unduly impressed by the bizarrely hideous costume and make-up he was compelled to wear. The Masetto and Commendatore despatched their parts without leaving any profound impression. Likewise, the female characters lacked any real sense of star quality. Sylvia Schwartz’s Zerlina came to life for a beautiful ‘Batti, batti, o bel Masetto’, but otherwise remained somewhat anonyomous. Anna Samuil and Annette Dasch did nothing wrong, but again there was little presented that ultimately seared itself upon the memory.
And then, sadly, there was the production. Whatever was Peter Mussbach thinking of? The apparent answer would be very little, since there was almost nothing to the production and ‘designs’ – he is accredited with responsibility for both – other than an endlessly revolving wall and the occasional, irritating appearance of a motorcycle. Costumes, the work of Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, were dreadful and to no particular reason that I could discern. Pavel Breslik had the worst of it, but René Pape was hardly flattered either. The only other aspect worth mentioning (perhaps) is the inability of any of the characters to keep their hands off one another, sometimes at the most inappropriate of times. This was not daring; there was no sense of the terrifying sexual imperative that Calixto Bieto’s direction brought to Don Giovanni; it seemed rather to betoken a desperation from the aimless direction for the characters to ‘do’ something, indeed anything. This Don Giovanni, despite my reservations concerning some of the singing, would almost certainly have been one of my ‘Seen and Heard’ performances of the year, had it not been for the total dearth of theatrical engagement from the production.
However, I should reiterate the undeniable, indeed almost incredible, greatness of the contribution from Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin. For them and for Müller-Brachmann this Don Giovanni demands to be seen, or at least to be heard.