Friday 9 July 2021

Don Giovanni, Royal Opera, 5 July 2021

Royal Opera House

Images: (C) ROH 2021, by Bill Cooper

Don Giovanni (Erwin Schrott),
Donna Anna (Adela Zaharia)
Don Giovanni – Erwin Schrott
Leporello – Gerald Finley
Donna Anna – Adela Zaharia
Don Ottavio – Frédéric Antoun
Donna Elvira – Nicole Chevalier
Zerlina – Zuzana Marková
Masetto – Michael Mofidian
Commendatore – Adam Palka
Donna Elvira’s maid – Josephine Arden

Kasper Holten (director)
Jack Furness (revival director)
Es Devlin (set design)
Luke Halls (video design)
Anja Vang Kragh (costumes)
Bruno Poet (lighting)
Signe Fabricius, Anna-Marie Sullivan (choreography)
Kate Waters, Simon Johns (fight direction)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Constantin Trinks (conductor)

This was the real thing, a return to Covent Garden that reminded one what opera can, should, even must be. We had made allowances for La clemenza di Tito, with which the ‘first reopening’ took place; there were admirable things, not least the return of some sort of hope for the art form in a hostile country, but we were making allowances—and rightly so. This Don Giovanni, however, was the real thing.
Masetto (Michael Mofidian), Zerlina (Zuzana Marková)

Such was clear from the opening bars. What a relief it was not to have them fashionably rushed. Indeed, Constantin Trinks led the finest Mozart I have heard at Covent Garden since we lost Colin Davis. It is a truism, but a truism worth repeating, that performing Mozart is the most difficult task in the musical world. Such complexity, especially in his later music, lies beneath the surface, yet it must sound the easiest, simplest of things. There is nowhere to hide. Like, say, Daniel Barenboim, but unlike most contemporary conductors, Trinks understands that Mozart’s music is ultimately founded on harmony—and knows how to communicate that. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House sounded rejuvenated, responding in style and with seeming relish to a vision of the work both attentive to detail and cognisant of tonal-dramatic architecture. Tempi were well chosen, not in isolation—‘Mme X will sing it like this’—but as part of what seemed to be a genuine company sense of a shared whole. For once, I could forget my objections to the all-too-familiar conflation of Prague and Vienna versions, enjoying a feast of music for what it was, if not the mutilation of the scena ultima (alas, the production’s doing, about which the conductor will have had no say). Trinks’s handling of recitative, both secco (from the fortepiano) and accompagnato, proved crucial both to musical and dramatic success, welding them together with that necessarily lightest of touches. If a conductor of the past occasionally came to mind, it was not so much Furtwängler (as it might have been with Barenboim) as a Carlo Maria Giulini of earlier vintage: less overtly ‘Romantic’, for want of a better word, though quietly, comprehendingly aristocratic. For this alone, it would have been Mozart worth making every effort to hear.

Don Giovanni

It was not, of course, alone, conductor and orchestra joined by a fine cast of singers. At its head was the ever-astonishing Don Giovanni of Erwin Schrott. Here was a role inhabited rather than portrayed, primarily animateur yet also, in chameleon-like reaction—how he slithers between, adapts, insinuates himself into all social-musical settings— animé. In keeping with and, in new circumstances, extending Kasper Holten’s production, here ably revived and similarly extended by Jack Furness, this Giovanni was dangerously seductive, disconcertingly (yet, in both musical and dramatic terms, brilliantly) spontaneous, and, at the last, or rather just before the last, thrillingly heroic. Holten’s undercutting of that heroism, having the final scene, albeit shorn (why?) of its opening, play out as the mental collapse of the hero signals, as so often, an unwillingness to take this most deeply Catholic of operas ultimately on its own terms, though less so than many others, which refuse or simply do not understand its premise in the first place.

Gerald Finley’s Leporello was just as excellent. One sensed a servant’s desire to become his master—as Schrott is a noted Leporello, so too is Finley a noted Giovanni—in musicotheatrical and metatheatrical terms. The particular mix of, and on occasion tension between, Mozart and Da Ponte that make the work what it is, galvanised by conscientious and charismatic performance was seen and heard not only in Finley and Schrott, but throughout the cast: Adela Zaharia and Frédéric Antoun a noble seria pair, their fundamental dignity both corroded and, especially in Donna Anna’s case, transformed by Giovanni’s combination of Casanova and Faust. Their arias, beautifully prepared and contextualised by recitative that told us just as much, proved moments of beauty yet, insofar as possible—that Prague-Vienna conflation really does not help—crucial dramatic reflections too. Zaharia’s coloratura was properly expressive, no mere decoration, as was that of Nicole Chevalier’s yearning Donna Elvira. Zuzana Marková and Michael Mofidian offered sweetly expressive and disarmingly bluff personifications of Zerlina and Masetto, studies in ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ that always offered more than the stock buffo characters they can sometimes seem. Adam Palka’s dark, direct Commendatore rightly put the fear of God—or Something Else—into the hearts of all but our atheist hero.

Zerlina, Donna Anna, Don Giovanni

In Holten’s staging, dramatic tension is generated by, on the one hand, through projected writing and rewriting of names upon the set, a sense of écriture poised somewhere between Barthes and Derrida; and on the other, that set’s labyrinthine video-propelled reinvention as it revolves, by dint of projected colour, new walls and passageways, phantom characters from past, present, and perhaps future. Such productive tension felt all the stronger in Furness’s revival, which seemed to mirror Trinks’s careful balance between detail and the whole. There is a strong sense of something Venetian, as so often in a work haunted by Da Ponte’s friend Casanova, in the masquerades, intrigues, and ultimately human passions that propel the drama. There is no question here that Donna Anna is attracted to Don Giovanni, doubtless a (post-)Romantic view, yet frankly far more faithful to the score and its spirit than the puritanical ‘reservations’ levelled by some at production and work alike. (There are many reasons unimaginative twenty-first century spectators might recoil at this drama. If they dislike it so much, why not do something else instead? No one is obliged to attend.) That does not, though, preclude her, nor indeed any female character, of agency. They know what they are doing and must also face the consequences of their actions; they are not dolls, but living, breathing women—and all the more involving for it. The male gaze, here at least, can be reversed if one wishes. Each character here has his or her own texts to write, to bring into dramatic reality; so should we all. Dramma giocoso indeed.