Holten’s Don Giovanni

Kasper Holten’s production of Don Giovanni, which opened at Covent Garden last night, would appear to have one eye set on its DVD recording or HD transmission. Equally, it seemed an exercise in bringing some HD clarity to the stage visuals. Whether, ultimately, it functions as an insightful production of the opera is a matter of some debate, but it seems hard to deny that the projected visuals, matched with remarkable technical facility to the moving set, were a tour de force of their kind.

It’s thanks to the Twitter debate that I can identify that there was a significant cut to the music: the scene that follows Don Giovanni’s descent to hell (or lack thereof in this case) and precedes the epilogue in which we are encouraged to reflect on this tale of il dissoluto punito. I did have a sense something wasn’t quite right, but lack of contact with the work for a long time (despite some fantastic numbers, it isn’t a great favourite I have to say) meant I couldn’t put my finger on it. I dare say this was probably coupled with the shock and slight disappointment that the descent-to-hell scene was nothing of the kind.

It is a bold move to rob Don Giovanni of its famous, dramatic, hopefully pyrotechnic conclusion. Zambello’s production, which this replaced, was rather dull for most of its length, but at least it had a bit of fire and brimstone to crown the evening (although that swinging, flaming ‘finger of fate’ was a constant embarrassment!)  In its place, Holten (if I am reading this aright) has identified that a raging Libertine’s concept of hell is a deserted, flatly lit, featureless, solitary existence. Giovanni is left alone, his mind seized by shivers and fire, curled up in a doorway on the set that has, for the duration of the evening, fizzed, flamed and swirled with his excesses. It is a neat idea, really, and gives much to think about, but in the moment I’m afraid it didn’t quite come off. The text and music (the Commendatore in particular) simply don’t map out the approach to that end-result. A valiant attempt at rethinking the conclusion – sort of Don Giovanni-meets-Tom Rakewell -but it felt like something that needs more work if it is to be brought off in the future.

The other major character ‘intervention’ was the rather conflicted portrayal of Donna Anna as a woman who was complicit in the sexual act that she later very clearly describes as rape (at least attempted) in the recitative that precedes Or sai chi l’onore. Later, she was nipping into a room with Giovanni for a quickie. This is a very uncomfortable change in the character – for which, again, the text leaves no ambiguity to be explored. It means we’re left wondering what the first scene (the rape and murder) were about, not to mention the now absurd ‘sudden realisation’ that Giovanni’s voice is that of her attacker.

If there is a pervasive criticism of the production, it is that the characters didn’t fully develop their relationships with each other. That they were often speaking to each other up and down the two-storey set is one ‘distancing’ problem; in common with Holten’s Eugene Onegin and, in fact, the Met’s Ring Cycle (another opera to make big use of projections), they were also often left a bit awash around the forestage. The personenregie wasn’t particularly detailed (witness Ottavio’s rather diffuse, flailing response to Anna being mired in grief and vengeance). One reason Don Giovanni is not an opera at the top of my favourites list is that I find parts of it quite static, descending for too much of its runtime into a showcase for one singer after another to ‘have a go’, without the dramatic integration seen in Figaro. This production didn’t inject the connection between the characters that can soften that experience.

And yet, paradoxically, as an evening in the theatre, it was musically and visually very engaging indeed. Projections of women’s names, presumed to be the book of conquests through which Don Giovanni lives, mingled with a whole host of other imagery: blood splashes at the point of the murder, dripping liquid to symbolise a sort of melting disintegration, whirling geometry to accompany the Champagne aria. It doesn’t sound anything particularly special, but it was achieved with such style and technical accuracy that it carried us away: the projections rotated with the set; they timed perfectly with the action and the music. Take a look on the ROH Flickr site for an insight. Of particular wonder was the scene when all of the principals were ‘trapped’ in moving corridors at various angles, as they sang the Sextet. It really was an achievement. And, actually, I do think that the video work added a layer to the drama, even if it didn’t quite compensate for the undeveloped characters. It made it the most immediately and easily engaging Don Giovanni I can recall ever seeing, and as I think back I don’t think any production I’ve ever seen has been significantly ‘deeper’ about these characters really. It feels like something that could be relatively easily fixed.

Without good musical values, of course, it would have been a trying 3½hrs. Nicola Luisotti led an unhurried reading that was big on tonal colouring and detail, with rich continuo provided by fortepiano, harpsichord and cello. All of the principals sang strongly, with a first night sense of hesitancy about the earlier passages giving way to something more confident in the second act.

Mariusz Kwiecień threw himself at the role of the Don, using his vocal heft for the flashes of anger that highlight the frightening volatility of a character that should be some way removed from the ‘loveable old rogue’ of some other assumptions. Elsewhere he drew out some fine, soft singing, most notably a beautiful Deh vieni alla finestra. A truly great portrayal of the role. Alex Esposito cantered around the set, despatching quick asides as the comic foil Leporello. House debutant Alexander Tsymbalyuk struck a steady and baleful tone for the Commendatore.

As Donna Anna, Malin Byström brought a Verdian scale to the role, but captured the anguish of Non mi dir well, despite Ottavio having walked off after the first few bars, and her singing the conclusion to Giovanni – another muddying of the characters. On the other hand, that she discovered the shattered (by Giovanni) plaster bust of her dead father during the aria added a poignancy to her grief-laden singing. Don Ottavio was sung by Antonio Poli, who really stilled a fidgety Saturday audience with his second verse of Dalla sua pace, even though in other parts the voice could have been a little more focused.

Elvira was sing by Véronique Gens, again a voice that I recalled being rather crisper and more focused than it appeared to me here: nonetheless, this was a vivid assumption of the role, convincingly oscillating between vengefulness and adoration, encapsulated in a fine account of Mi tradì. As the younger lovers, Masetto and Zerlina, Dawid Kimberg and Elizabeth Watts worked very well together, he sullen and angry, she a beautiful portrayal of a flighty but ultimately loyal young woman, sung with a luscious and silvery soprano which made Vedrai carino a particularly melting moment.

So some musical treats, some visual treats, but still not a production which really ‘pins down’ Don Giovanni, even though it’s far from being a work that permits a single ‘pinning down’, if any indeed does.  However, this is a sparkling piece of theatre that has clearly been much thought about, even if different conclusions have been drawn. There is therefore much to like in the new production; for me, on balance, this outweighs the things that could do with some work. I would be interested to see how it ‘settles down’ over the course of the run – though it is largely sold out, so I won’t! – and in any revival. It is very rare that I come out of Don Giovanni wanting to see it again straight away.

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