Monday 16 November 2015

Don Giovanni, Vienna Volksoper, 14 November 2015

Images: Volksoper, Vienna

(sung in Italian and German)

Don Giovanni – Josef Wagner
Commendatore – Andreas Mitschke
Donna Anna – Kristiane Kaiser
Don Ottavio – Jörg Schneider
Donna Elvira – Esther Lee
Leporello – Mischa Schelomianski
Masetto – Ben Connor
Zerlina – Anita Götz

Achim Freyer (director)
Sebastian Bauer (assistant director)
Petra Weikert (assistance with designs)

Chorus of the Vienna Volksoper (chorus master: Holder Kristen)
Orchestra of the Vienna Volksoper
Jac van Steen (conductor)

Achim Freyer still has it. There were times when I wondered whether he might have lost the plot, in more senses than one, but the final scene of his staging of Don Giovanni pulls things together brilliantly. That is not necessarily always accomplished rationally, but with a felt necessity rendering rationality but one option from the Ristorante Giovanni (®) menu, and not perhaps the most enticing one. Don Giovanni, after all, stands on the threshold of Baroque and Romantic theatre: the whole world a stage in the traditions of Shakespeare and Calderón – too often, we forget Tirso de Molina in the formation of the opera, or relegate him to mere ‘background’ – as well as of ETA Hoffmann and others to come. Herbert Graf – Freud’s ‘little Hans’ – did not forget such broader terms of theatrical reference, in his still wonderful Salzburg staging for Furtwängler, the Felsenreitschule the instantiation of ‘Salzburg World Theatre’. In his very different way, nor does Freyer. Indeed, something of the world of wonder I experienced when first seeing his Salzburg Magic Flute seemed re-born. At any rate, for this audience member, Freyer’s Don Giovanni proved a far more successful a staging than the same director’s Berlin Eugene Onegin (to put it mildly, not for me).

We find ourselves, unsurprisingly, in a world of clowns: different clowns whose visual identity certainly seems to have something in common with their musico-dramatic identity. There is no doubting that Don Giovanni is a dashing cavalier, nor that Masetto is a simpler soul. Donna Elvira, like him, has a wonderful punk look – I could not help but think of Mary Smith from the early days of EastEnders – and Da Ponte’s, less Mozart’s, somewhat misogynistic view of her ‘femininity’ is underlined by persistent recourse to her pink make-up box. Don Ottavio’s pomposity is there for all to see, as is Leporello’s street theatre. Zerlina, like her husband, is clearly of coarser stuff still. Donna Anna: I am less sure. Whereas in many stagings, she, taking after Hoffmann, seems the most central figure after Giovanni himself, here she seems initially undeveloped, then perhaps more of an outsider.


Why? How? The clue perhaps lies in language, which will surely prove this production’s most controversial feature. It has one attempting all sorts of rationalisations, soon disproved. I only noticed on the way to the Volksoper the intriguing claim that the operas was to be performed ‘in the Italian and German languages’. German, perhaps, for the recitatives? Spoken dialogue replacing some of them, as in Hans Neuenfels’s splendidly provocative La finta giardiniera? It soon becomes clear that the distinction will not be so – well, clear. Might it be explained by musical style, to the estate (‘class’ remains anachronistic here, a distinction worth maintaining, I think) of the character, to the level of passion expressed, to anything…? Zerlina moves to Italian, the ‘language of love’, to Don Giovanni’s tongue at that point, in 'Là ci darem la mano'; but whatever conclusion I might have drawn from that was soon confounded. What was I to make of Elvira – not Donna Anna, whom I might have expected to maintain her Italian, seria composure – singing only in Italian? Nothing, it turned out, since she eventually switched to German. What on earth is anyone to make of characters switching tongues within lines, repeating words in translation? I made a great deal of it, only once again to have my hypotheses torn to shreds. After the event, I read Freyer’s explanation, ranging from how he converses on holiday to Anna living ‘in Italian’ and never having learned German; I cannot say that it tallied with my experience, save for his interesting claim that we all speak in multiple languages. That, and the lack of sense at times in our communications, seem to me the key, although it seems the director has his own rationale. Does it confuse and bewilder? Yes. Somehow, however, it contributes to a far-from-bleak comedy of the meaningful and meaningless, mysteriously resolved – not just suspended – at, or after, the last.

For much seems to head towards Giovanni’s Last Supper: nothing heretical, save in the strict Roman Catholic sense, there; so it should. The table is cleared at the beginning by stage-hands who may or may not be part of the ensemble. (Of course they are, if their juggling skills are anything to go by, later on, but blurring of the boundaries is for once a cliché worth reference. I thought more than once of Ludwig Tieck’s Der gestiefelte Kater, or Puss-in-Boots.) It remains for the most part central as other aspects of the staging, helped by brilliantly, deceptively simple lighting, move in and out of our focus. The theatrical unities are all impressively present; indeed, if anything, we are slightly bludgeoned by their representation. (Can one be ‘slightly bludgeoned’? Freyer suggests so.) That of time, for instance, we experience with the moon moving across the stage in childlike, maybe even childish, simplicity. The characters still exist, though; they remain Da Ponte’s, and Mozart’s. And, of course, ours.


There is a great deal going on: more, probably, than one can take in on a single viewing. But is not life like that? Are not our attempts to make sense of life like that? Thinking in such terms, the admittedly bizarre switches between German and Italian make more sense – or, rather, their lack of sense seems increasingly more justified. One does not have to ‘understand’. Do you, after all, ‘understand’ Mozart? I should not dream of claiming that I did. In stagecraft, less is often more, but not always. There is certainly a world of difference between this playing on multiple levels with notions and experiences of meaning and mere ‘pretty action’ of, say, the David McVicar Upstairs Downstairs variety for The Marriage of Figaro. A crowd may be pleased; that, as any fule/clown kno, is not the same as being merely crowd-pleasing. I might be tempted to tone down my opposition to the wretched, customary conflation of Prague and Vienna versions under the rubric of ‘a great deal going on’, but no; it remains, however beautiful the music, a dramatic betrayal. Still, everywhere else does it, so the practice here is no better or worse. (At least we do not endure a horror on the level of the bizarre ‘version’ foisted upon us by the Royal Opera House, which really should know better.)


In his 1797 play, Puss in Boots, mentioned above, Ludwig Tieck resurrected – he was not the first, and would not be the last – the comic figure of Hanswurst, whose coarseness had had him banished time and again from the German stage. (Joseph II had prohibited improvisatory comedy and other such fripperies from Mozart’s Vienna, following the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1790.) The silliness of Freyer’s production, perhaps especially in a Volksoper context, might owe something to that tradition: often a dangerous tradition for authority, be it noted. It also, though, plays on the seriousness and bleakness of clowning. The two mysterious figures in black, fishing at the back of the stage, sometimes there, sometimes not, might have come straight out of Beckett. Tieck is not the only German writer with strong connections to the Theatre of the Absurd; Freyer, for all his Brechtian influence, surely partakes in this too.

In the final scene, the set turns into a restaurant. References to food, including the fish one of Beckett gentlemen had caught, begin to bind together our experience. (A boar's head amused this particular victim of Tory government.) Hospitality, it seems, is now the name of the game: so, perhaps more darkly, is capitalism’s ability to commoditise even the most Hellish of experiences. Apparent members of the audience, following what appears to be the ‘end’, leave the audience, become members of the cast, much to the initial surprise and perhaps bewilderment of those of us remaining on the ‘other side’. Will the ‘performance’ go on forever? It had, after begun, before we arrived. Pasta is served up, reminding me of Papageno in that Salzburg production; and should that not be your thing, a sign pointed to a Würst’l around the corner, an hotel, on stage with a chapel for most of the performance, offering an alternative venue, perhaps for those of a more seria disposition. Maybe this has been, to quote Lessing on the moralistic attempt to banish Hans Wurst from the stage, ‘die größte Harlekinade’. Harlequin and other clowns speak truth more often than many realise. There were a good few boos when Freyer, stood on the table to take his bow, but applause and cheering where louder. Freyer’s response weaved good humour and contempt in just about the right measure. Beaming, he started to dance. Achim Freyer certainly still has it.

I dwell overwhelmingly on the staging, because in this case it is undoubtedly the overwhelming impression one has, or at least I had. That is not meant disrespectfully. All contribute to it; it is certainly no matter simply for Freyer and ‘his’ team. I should, however, say something on the more ‘musical’ side. Jac van Steen led a beautiful, noble, wise performance of the score. Even where tempi did not tally with my inclination, I was won over by his generous musicianship. There was no ideological point-scoring here, but a clearly profound knowledge of the score, communicated with the ease – the apparent lack of any communicative act – that only the finest of Mozartians can command. His partners in crime, the Volksoper Orchestra, played beautifully throughout. Again, there was no silly ‘authenticity’, but there was music-making, whether in solo or ensemble terms, of a high order indeed. Both conductor and orchestra seemed naturally – whatever that might mean – attuned to the shifting colours, harmonies, and pace of Mozart’s miraculous score. Felix Lemke’s fortepiano continuo was certainly at the more ‘imaginative’ end of the spectrum, but wittily, musically so, provoking none of the irritation that overtly exhibitionistic accounts do.

The cast had a difficult job indeed. Imagine having to learn the words with constant switches between German and Italian, especially when you probably know the ‘original’ already. For that alone, they would deserve the warmest of applause. But they threw themselves into Freyer’s concept with enthusiasm, their clowning convincing throughout. At the centre, in the title role, stood an undeniably seductive performance by Josef Wagner, his gliding across stage at one with his silkiness of vocal delivery. I should very much like to see and hear more from him. Jörg Schneider’s beauty of tone almost made me forget my qualms about the inclusion of both of Ottavio’s arias. Kristiane Kaiser occasionally had trouble with Anna’s coloratura, but for the most part performed more than creditably; much the same might be said, albeit with greater stage ‘attitude’, for Esther Lee’s Elvira. (I should certainly never have guessed that the latter was a late stand-in for an indisposed Caroline Melzer.) Mischa Schelomianski seemed very much in his element with Leporello: a figure of fun in the best sense, perhaps a figure ‘for’ fun? Ben Connor and Anita Götz ably delineated the more plebeian roles of Zerlina and Masetto; they stand, rightly, as the heirs to Viennese popular theatre, whilst, perhaps ironically, attaining dramatic seriousness of their own. Andreas Mitschke proved a suitably imposing Commendatore. More than usual, though, the claim of a company performance won out. It had to – and how!