Thursday 21 August 2014

Salzburg Festival (5) - Don Giovanni, 15 August 2014

Images: © Salzburger Festspiele / Michael Pöhn
Haus für Mozart

Donna Anna – Lenneke Ruiten
Donna Elvira – Anett Fritsch
Zerlina – Valentina Nafornita
Don Giovanni – Ildebrando d’Arcangelo
Leporello – Luca Pisaroni
Commendatore – Tomasz Konieczny
Don Ottavio – Andrew Staples
Masetto – Alessio Arduini

Sven-Eric Bechtolf (director)
Rolf Glittenberg (set designs)
Marianne Glittenberg (costumes)
Friedrich Rorn (lighting)

Ronny Dietrich (dramaturgy)

Philharmonia Chorus Vienna (chorus master: Walter Zeh)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach (conductor)

Why, o why, is it apparently so difficult for directors to come up with a vaguely coherent staging of Don Giovanni? Why, moreover, do so many of them seem so uninterested in, even contemptuous of, the work? It is an opera of such overflowing richness that one would have expected directors to be spoilt for choice when it came to options for staging. Instead, we find ourselves almost always faced with an incoherent mess.

Such is certainly what was served up by Sven-Erich Bechtolf. Bechtholf’s production is probably not quite so bad as London’s twin nadirs of Francesca Zambello and Rufus Norris, but it is difficult to say anything much more positive than that. This year’s Salzburg Festival’s Great War theme – are we not all fed up with such commemorations already? – seems to receive a nod in the updating, but to what end beyond that I cannot say. Similarly the bizarre hotel setting, which makes a nonsense of so much in the work. The closest attention to Da Ponte, let alone to Mozart, seems to be in retaining some vestige of class distinction in presenting Zerlina and Masetto as hotel staff. Beyond that, the opera seems of little interest to Bechtolf. Of religion, let alone of sin, there is nothing – unless one counts the occasional and, in context, quite nonsensical reapparances of the Commendatore as a porcine devil. People dart in and out of hotel rooms and occasionally strip to their underwear in the reception area. Whether comedy be intended is unclear; it certainly is not achieved. Still less is anything approaching tragedy. As for the ending, in which Don Giovanni is still there, chasing after another maid, what is supposed to have happened? Nothing, apparently – which actually is not so very far off the mark. An existentialist conception of Don Giovanni, if that be what this is, is fine in principle, if somewhat partial; but, like any other conception, it needs pursuing coherently. It really is not worth saying any more. Bechtolf’s Così fan tutte, whilst far from perfect, was much better than this; we await next year’s Figaro with trepidation.  

Musically, matters were much better. If Christoph Eschenbach did not rise to the heights of Daniel Barenboim in Berlin – by far the best conducted performance of this work I have ever heard – then he nevertheless rose above the rank incompetence and/or sheer perversity we are generally fated to hear. (I really cannot be bothered to compile a list; it would rival Leporello’s in length, if not in excitement.) There was not a single instance in which tempi were objectionable. They were generally well related to one another. And crucially, Eschenbach knew how to draw a fine sound from the Mozart orchestra non pareil, the Vienna Philharmonic, which in turn deigned to play as it can and should. There was not the Furtwänglerian intensity that Barenboim brought to the drama, but there was plenty of light and shade and, that rare thing, an impression that it was being permitted to speak more or less for itself.  Interventionist continuo playing may not be to everyone’s taste, but it did little harm, and indeed livened up a good number of the more hapless moments of stage direction.

Don Giovanni (Ildebrando d'Arcangelo)

Ildebrando d’Arcangelo made for a brilliant Don Giovanni, insofar as he was permitted to do so. (Why, at one point, did he suddenly have to dress up in the guise of a 1970s gameshow host? At any rate, the Jimmy Savile hint, doubtless coincidental, was not pursued.) Characteristically dark and flexible of tone, d’Arcangelo’s was a smouldering portrayal, which captured to an unusual degree his character’s quicksilver changes of mood and circumstance. Luca Pisaroni’s Leporello was an excellent sidekick, possessing agency in his own right, yet subordinate (again, insofar as Bechtolf’s direction permitted, etc., etc.). Both showed great facility with words, music, and their alchemy. Lenneke Ruiten and Anett Fritsch had their moments as Donna Anna and Donna Elvira, though intonational difficulties were not entirely absent. Andrew Staples sounded a little out of sorts as Don Ottavio; perhaps it was simply an off-night. In any case, despite some less than mellifluous sounds, his dramatic intelligence shone through. Valentina Nafornita and Alessio Arduini made for a characterful, indeed sexy, couple as Zerlina and Masetto. Only Tomasz Konieczny’s surprising unsteady Commendatore really disappointed. The cast, then, mostly did what it could, as did Eschenbach and the orchestra; the fault lay squarely with Bechtolf.