Saturday 15 February 2014

Don Giovanni, Royal Opera, 14 February 2014

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Leporello – Alex Esposito
Donna Anna – Malin Byström
Don Giovanni – Mariusz Kwiecień
Commendatore – Alexander Tsyambalyuk
Don Ottavio – Antonio Poli
Donna Elvira – Véronique Gens
Zerlina – Elizabeth Watts
Masetto – Dawid Kimberg

Kasper Holten (director)
Es Devlin (set designs)
Luke Halls (video)
Anja Vang Kragh (costumes)
Bruon Poet (lighting)
Sine Fabricis (choreography)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Nicola Luisotti (conductor)

When, a fortnight ago, this production of Don Giovanni opened at the Royal Opera House, it seemed to have created uproar. Whilst I should have liked to go without hearing anything about it, that seemed well-nigh impossible in this case. From some of the comments, one would have thought that the love-child of Frank Castorf and Hans Neuenfels had been delivered – not that I should necessarily have minded that at all. I can only assume that half the audience must have been made up of a UKIP convention, having somehow found time to rest its collective eyes from perusing the latest pensées of Jan Moir and Melanie Phillips. What I saw was not only a thoughtful, intelligent, coherent staging, but actually if anything rather a ‘traditional’ one.

The premise of Kasper Holten’s production is interesting, yet hardly ‘difficult’. Don Giovanni is not merely imagining his story, but in a sense writing it. Though not identical, there is perhaps some kinship here with Holten’s Copenhagen Ring, in which Brünnhilde discovers ‘her’ story. In any case, the idea is not thrust in one’s face, and one could probably leave it to one side, should one wish. Was it, then, the projections which so offended? It is difficult to understand how or why. Aside from inscribing the names of some of Giovanni’s conquests upon the walls, they simply offer an elegant solution to the problem of shifting scenes. Doubtless this might have been accomplished through multiple scene changes, but the sense of an unchanging framework – Giovanni’s ego? – transformed according to circumstance, whim, and narrative would thereby have been lost. Perhaps most dramatically – in a true rather than sensationalist sense – this was accomplished through the creation of a labyrinth, not at all inappropriate to Mozart’s second-act music, straining as it is towards the Second Viennese School, Berg in particular. (Doubtless UKIP would not like that, but then it would probably be happier with the collected works of Eric Coates – or perhaps Dame Vera Lynn.) The great sextet works splendidly, characters compartmentalised, confused, attempting yet failing to make their ways out, agency of their own undermined by the central character’s control – but is it control? – of the narrative. The shift of the action to the nineteenth century might worry some, I suppose, but it is hardly Calixto Bieito – his still the best staging I have seen in the theatre of this work – and  added a layer of reminiscence to the conception of narrative, itself perhaps reminiscent of Holten’s Onegin as well as his Ring. These, I hesitate, are my readings; they may well not have been the director’s, but that openness to reading seems to me in itself a virtue of the staging.

I have one major reservation, concerning the ending. Not the Stone Guest Scene and its aftermath as such: they are well handled, leaving Giovanni on stage alone to cope with the existential devastation of his own creation, that issue of ‘creation’, be it of the self, of others, of narrative, an important point throughout. The ‘moral’ is sung from the pit, whilst he breaks down, Hell being the ‘written’ voices in his head. In this context, I can understand why Holten might have considered cutting the first part of the scena ultima; it indeed makes some sense in terms of his concept. It should probably, however, have been reconsidered. Contrary to the nonsense one spectacularly uninformed journalist – I wrote to him to point this out, but he did not dignify me with a response – was spouting, there is absolutely no precedent for this in Mozart’s own practice, such as we know it. For it was not the case that the scene was omitted entirely. (That may have happened in Vienna in 1788; we simply do not know.) Nor did the performance adopt the possibility of a cut within the scene, running from ‘Ah! certo è l’ombra che m’incontrò!’ to ‘Resti dunque quel birbon’, there being four ‘new’ bars, marked Andante, to facilitate that transition. Rather it sounded as if, in recorded music terms, we had simply skipped a track. In a production that often shows itself alert to the score as well as to the text, this was a pity – but a revival will offer occasion to reconsider. There is also the matter of the typical dreadful conflation of Vienna and Prague versions earlier on: regrettable, certainly, but sadly typical of most stagings. It really is time for directors and, still more conductors, to stand up to singers, audiences, whoever else might be longing for extra arias, however heart-rendingly beautiful, and say no; the drama must come first.

I had also been led by many to believe that something outlandish was to be offered by Nicola Luisotti. Now this was not Barenboim or Muti, let alone Klemperer or Furtwängler. But it was for the most part a well conducted, stylish performance. There were occasions when tension sagged, sadly more than a little during the oddly fire-less – and I do not mean to invoke the unlamented Francesca Zambello here! – Stone Guest Scene. But there was a sense of a greater whole, tempi were mostly sensible, and there was the most part a welcome degree of flexibility. Mozart’s music was certainly not harried. The strings played sweetly, the woodwind players often magically euphonious. Even when Luisotti took decisions from which I might have dissented, for instance, in reducing the strings for ‘Ah, fuggi, il traditor!’ there was discernible reason for his choice, likewise for his adding harpsichord to the mix here. It was clearly an attempt to highlight the kinship with Handel, even if some of us think that is better left to speak for itself.

As for the much-exaggerated continuo madness: well, I should prefer a modern piano to a fortepiano, but I can see no particular harm in offering fortepiano and harpsichord. They offered not only variety but also difference of response to situation, and if Luisotti’s fortepiano playing sometimes drew attention to itself a little too much, I have heard far worse. A strange switching between major and minor – yes, I suppose one could say that it is characteristic of the work as a whole – did little for the end of one recitative, and its deployment there seemed oddly arbitrary, but again, I have heard worse.

Mariusz Kwiecień shone in the title role: masculine, effortlessly seductive – it was, after all, his character’s imagination running riot – and unabashedly sexy. It would have been difficult, most likely impossible, for anyone to resist his call. Certainly his womenfolk did not, could not, and that was as much a matter of detailed attention to the libretto as to the musical line, operatic alchemy properly in evidence. Alex Esposito proved an alert, quicksilver Leporello. Malin Byström’s Donna Anna, clearly loving every minute of her seduction, could be somewhat wayward vocally; at its best, however, it was a powerful assumption, which placed the role and its emotional confusion firmly in the Romantic camp of ETA Hoffmann. Véronique Gens seemed to be having something of an off-day as Donna Elvira, one of her recitatives problematical in terms of intonation, though ‘Mi tradì’ itself recovered nicely. Elizabeth Watts was a perky, strong-minded Zerlina, full of her own seductive gifts, as was shown in her interaction with Dawid Kimberg’s contrastingly bluff Masetto. Antonio Poli displayed a sweet-toned tenor as Don Ottavio, though his intonation wandered a little at times. The Commendatore, as sung by Alexander Tsymbalyuk, made his mark well, whilst remaining integrated into the production’s dramatic framework. Choral singing was excellent throughout.

Sadly, the biggest problem lay with the audience. If UKIP moral outrage were less in evidence, boorish behaviour certainly remained. The bar is low, I admit, but this must have been one of the worst-behaved audiences I have yet encountered in the house. Coughing levels suggested a tuberculosis epidemic. Those I could see all around me made no effort to stifle their outbursts; I shall be fortunate indeed if I have not succumbed myself by this evening. Their chattering was, if anything, worse still, likewise the sweet-wrapper opening, and the strange, quite un-erotic groping I was compelled to witness in front of me. But the nadir came when the Catalogue Aria had to pause for a minute whist a gang of morons applauded in the middle.  Luisotti should, admittedly, have pressed ahead, but the fault was not really his. How difficult is it to understand that the first rule of attending a performance, and indeed of social interaction in general, should be to show consideration for others? This is not a matter of some mysterious ‘concert etiquette’, as contrarians would have it; it is what any decent human being would do, whether on a train, in a bus queue, or at the opera. Perhaps we need to move to a Stasi-like system in which behaviour is monitored and miscreants are barred from the premises…