Thursday 23 March 2017

Don Giovanni, Semperoper Dresden, 20 March 2017

Image: David Baltzer


Don Giovanni – Christoph Pohl
Commendatore – Michael Eder
Donna Anna – Maria Bengtsson
Don Ottavio – Edgaras Montvidas
Donna Elvira – Danielle de Niese
Leporello – Evan Hughes
Masetto – Martin-Jan Nijhof
Zerlina – Anke Vondung

Andreas Kriegenburg (director)
Harald Thor (set designs)
Tanja Hofmann (costumes)
Stefan Bolliger (lighting)
Anne Gerber (dramaturgy)

Sachsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden (chorus master: Cornelius Volke)
Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden
Omer Meir Wellber (conductor)

Busoni, great composer that he was, revered Mozart as greatly as any composer – well, any composer other than Bach, of course. Although Busoni came to Mozart through the nineteenth-century, broadly speaking ‘Romantic’ tradition(s), and although he lauded, in the preface to his own edition, Liszt’s Réminiscences de don Juan for possessing ‘an almost symbolic significance as the highest point of pianism’ (quoted by Charles Rosen), he seems not necessarily to have appreciated the darker side to Mozart as strongly as some of those who came after – above all, Wilhelm Furtwängler, whose recorded performances remain as astounding, as symphonic, as daemonic, as ever. It is a truism, perhaps a cliché, that we all make our own Mozart. Up to a point, that is of course the case, yet that does not make every viewpoint, every experiment, equally worthwhile. Our age, by and large, has not done very well, albeit with noble exceptions. Whereas Dresden did Busoni himself fine service indeed, the previous evening, in his Doktor Faust, this (musically) misconceived Don Giovanni did not, alas, mark anything like its finest hour – mostly on account of the conductor.


It has become one of the many clichés to be read in reviews of Don Giovanni performances to call it a director’s graveyard. (Bizarrely, the same seems to have become true of recent stagings of Le nozze di Figaro, a work until recently seemingly imperishable. Così fan tutte rarely does well, either.) Perhaps, but there are certainly exceptions. Most recent of those for me was Stephan Kimmig’s brilliant production for Munich, which I saw last summer. Insofar as one could tell, the fault here did not lie with Andreas Kriegenburg’s production either. It starts promisingly, in a swish fashion or modelling agency, a world of expensive, ruthless vacuity enthroned. (What could be more contemptible than mere ‘fashion’? There are lessons, largely unheeded, for performance there too.) '2064 donne', we read on a wall poster. Such is clearly an environment in which Don Giovanni, aided by Leporello, can have his pick of the depressingly interchangeable ‘girls’. Harald Thor’s set designs and Tanja Hofmann’s costumes work well, adding to what one can discern of the concept. The problem is that it all becomes rather lost. I suspect that tighter revival direction – I do not necessarily mean this as a criticism of the person to whom this was entrusted: there may not have been enough time, enough resources, and so on – would have made everything much clearer. As it is, for an alarming amount of the time, the singers seem to have to make their own drama from the designs, and that is more or less it. They generally did pretty well at that, but there is a limit to what can be expected of them, and, modern(ish) look aside, it all comes a little too close to a repertory night in Vienna.

That said, there was much to enjoy in a number of the vocal performances. Christoph Pohl’s Giovanni was a serious assumption, whose depth crept up upon us. Equal attention was paid to words and line, as with Evan Hughes’s quicksilver Leporello. The occasional intonational slip aside, Maria Bengtsson’s Donna Anna proved very well focused. A pleasingly ‘big’ sound could be made, although likewise the voice could offer laudable intimacy. Coloratura offered few problems to her; nor did it to Danielle de Niese as Donna Elvira. Likeable artist though she may be, however, an intrinsic thinness to her voice shone through in ‘In quali eccessi, o Numi … Mi tradì’. Might she have been better off as Zerlina? I wondered whether Anke Vondung, who sometimes lacked sparkle in that role, in an admittedly dependable performance, might have better suited to the mezzo part. Martin-Jan Nijhof’s Masetto was likewise dependable enough; perhaps with stronger direction, more might have been made of both peasant characters. Edgaras Montvidas, however, offered a beautifully sung, thoughtfully assertive Don Ottavio. One longed to hear more from him, if not from Michael Eder’s weak Commendatore (strange, given how strongly cast that role tends to be). With the Staatskapelle Dresden on fine form, strings and woodwind equally beguiling, the stage should have been set for a very good evening. And yet…

For all the chatter, most of it uninformed, we hear concerning so-called Regietheater, an opera worth its salt – many, indeed a bewildering proportion of those in the benighted repertory, are not – will fail if it is not also a piece of Dirigententheater. What Omer Weir Welber did to Don Giovanni genuinely shocked me, although it angered and, worst of all, bored me still more. I say this not because I am hostile a priori to performances that play with the work concept. Far from it, even in Mozart: one of the most enlightening performances I have seen of a ‘version’ of Don Giovanni was heavily cut and reversed the genders of all but the (anti-)hero himself. To mess about, glibly, crassly with the score to no apparent end other than to massage the ego of the conductor is, however, something upon which it is difficult to look with anything other than horror. The Overture should have alerted me, but conductors sometimes do strange things there, taking it as ‘their’ moment. Regrettable though the new alla breve orthodoxy for the opening may be – there are good reasons to follow the practice, but mere fashion is not one of them – one can live with it. A Rossini-like breakneck speed to what followed was more disturbing. The sudden appearance, and disappearance after a few bars, of a harpsichord bewildered. Not half as much, though, as did the turn at the end towards what has long been known, somewhat problematically, as its ‘concert ending’, which may – or may not – have been written for Vienna. One can only wish that it had not, for it remains unconvincing in the extreme, whatever view one takes of where the ‘alternative conclusion’ should start. (If one wants a concert ending, one is better off with the serviceable, if uninspired, solution offered in most recordings – and concert performances.)

There was worse to come, though, much worse. Exhibitionistic continuo playing is another curse of our age, it seems, but I have never heard anything quite on this level, before. Quite why we had harpsichord and what sounded like (I presume it was a trick of the acoustic, but who knows?) some sort of amplified early-ish, but not that early piano, I have no idea. There did not seem to be any obvious, or even elusive, point being made, and the lion’s share was reserved for the latter. Not being able to see the pit, it took me a while to realise that it was Welber playing whatever that strange-sounding instrument may have been. Whereas some more interventionist accounts seem to offer a commentary on the action – one can argue about whether that is what a continuo player ought to be doing, but that is another matter – this seemed to be simply a case of ‘look at me’, or rather ‘listen to me’. One tires quickly of formulaic figures, but they would have been preferable to the lounge pianist meandering we heard here, replete with all manner of very strange harmonies, endless sequences of Scotch snaps, keyboard crashes and clashes, changes of metre, and so on and so on. (It was the sort of thing that certain undergraduates find hilarious after a few bottles of wine, whilst everyone else looks on, baffled and not a little irritated.) One recitative, at least, seemed to end in entirely the wrong key, rendering its non-transition to the ensuing aria both painful and inexplicable. A mismatch of tuning between the instrument and orchestra did not help, either.

That, however, was almost as nothing, compared with Welber’s tampering – again, to no discernible end – with the orchestral score. This was not some Mahlerian retouching, nor indeed was it something more artistically adventurous. It sounded utterly arbitrary, and involved the apparent deletion – to begin with, I thought it must be a matter of strange balance, but then realised better, or worse – of certain lines, leaving either nothing, or an opportunity for one of the continuo instruments to play instead. The orchestral introduction to one second-act aria – I cannot remember which: perhaps a blessing... – was removed entirely, the music played instead by the harpsichord. In another number, during the first act, the other continuo instrument loudly banged out the orchestral line an octave higher, doing its best to obliterate the orchestra. Another orchestral ending was close to drowned out by crashing, clashing keyboard chords. Unmotivated tempo variations – sometimes quite at odds with what was being sung onstage – only compounded the mess. When Welber settled down, he seemed perfectly capable of delivering a reasonable enough performance; the problem was that he rarely did.

The unholy conflation we generally endure of Prague and Vienna versions is perfectly understandable as a sop to singers, and their fans, although it remains dramatically quite unjustifiable. One might make a case, if one were so minded, for Vienna, if only out of difference, but frankly, it would be misguided at best. Nevertheless, that was pretty much what we heard here – with the important proviso, rarely heard, that there is much we simply do not know about Mozart’s Vienna performances, and we should almost certainly do better to speak about them in the plural. It was mildly interesting to hear the duet for Zerlina and Leporello: the first time, I think, that I have done so in the theatre. It is unworthy of Mozart, though, especially unworthy of the Mozart of Don Giovanni; it might perhaps be rescued by imaginative staging – the libretto surely cries out for something truly sado-masochistic – but such was not the case here. Given the ‘liberties’ taken elsewhere, it was difficult not to feel sorry for Montvidas, losing Ottavio’s second-act aria. In context, though, anything that would hasten the end was no bad thing. Except, of course, the end did not come. The increasingly fashionable practice – it should be stressed that we do not know that Mozart did this, and/or how often he did so, in Vienna, and people should stop claiming that we do – of omitting the scena ultima was practised here, and so the work, such as it remained, simply stopped rather than closed. The proto-Brechtian alienation effect of the ‘moral’ was thus entirely lost, as in Claus Guth’s over-praised production (Salzburg, La Scala, Berlin), in which the uncomprehending director arrogantly accused Mozart of having bowed to convention. Let me put it this way: if you want to do what Mahler did, you really need to be of Mahler’s stature.

I shall close with words from Julian Rushton’s review, in Eighteenth-Century Music, of Ian Woodfield’s book on the Vienna Don Giovanni:

Some versions of Don Giovanni acted in the composer’s and librettist’s lifetimes were outside their control (most obviously the singspiel versions), and knowledge of these richly informs reception history. Probably undertaken with no intention to slight the original, they document what seemed theatrically presentable in an irrecoverable time and place; this does not afford them status as a template for later interpretations. The modern theatre is not the eighteenth-century theatre; layers of meaning have accumulated that require access to a text we can ascribe to definite, even if multiple, authorship. … Woodfield … points to the irony of performances today going ‘authentic’ just as ‘the academy’ is beginning to take a more flexible view of such texts. We are indebted to him for presenting the ingredients that make up the early forms of Don Giovanni but we should not regard it as intrinsically wrong to adopt a version of nearly identifiable authorship rather than remixing the Don Giovanni soup for every modern production; we can safely leave that to the stage director.

That seems about right – or does it? Is it a little too prescriptive? In theory, perhaps; in practice, when one suffers – well, you know the rest… At any rate, let us not disdain a thoughtfulness, a respect for Mozart and Da Ponte, that goes beyond a juvenile ‘look at or ‘listen to’ me. Two great Mozart conductors, duly honoured in the Semperoper foyers, would surely have nodded wise assent. Colin Davis and Karl Böhm, however, knew very well that it was ‘not all about them’.