Don Giovanni, ossia la vendetta dell’uomo puerile (Don Giovanni, or the revenge of the puerile man)
06/01/2018 - & June 3, 8, 11, 13, 15, 17*, 2018
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart : Don Giovanni, ossia il disoluto punito, K. 527
Simon Keenlyside (Don Giovanni), David Stout (Leporello), Patrizia Ciofi (Donna Anna), Myrtò Papatanasiu (Donna Elvira), Ramón Vargas (Don Ottavio), Thorsten Grümbel (Commendatore), Michael Adams (Masetto), Mary Feminear (Zerlina)
Chœur du Grand Théâtre, Alan Woodbridge (Chorus Master), Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Stefan Soltesz (Conductor)
David Bösch (Stage Director), Falko Herold (Sets), Bettina Walter (Costumes), Michael Bauer (Lighting)
(© GTG/Carole Parodi)
An opportunity for a memorable Don Giovanni was missed in Geneva. A brilliant cast was wasted on a hideous and vulgar production. The period was changed from 17th century Seville to the Southwestern USA, circa 1955 or thereabouts. This change could have worked in the hands of a more imaginative stage director, but here it was sadly not the case. Instead of having the noble Donna Anna’s home as the opening scene where she is raped and her father, the Commendatore, murdered by Don Giovanni, we are in a squalid night club, presumably owned by the master seducer. It’s hard to justify why the characters assemble in this shabby place when they do; it’s never made clear. More troubling is the use of the same drab sets for the entire opera. In opera and theatre, set changes help set to the mood, to enhance dramatic moments and to advance the narrative. The seedy night club is such a shoddy mess that it prevents the audience, and quite likely the singers, from concentrating on the emotion being expressed. An oft-used device, a stage within a stage, was used in the nightclub, but little was made of it, except for an imaginary procession of battered women during Leporello’s catalogue aria. Other visually effective devices to better evoke the period and place could have been used: perhaps a Cadillac limousine for the wedding scene or a Jukebox for the offstage music of the dinner scene, but sadly there were no such props. Without an on-stage orchestra, the musical quotations played during the second act’s dinner scene sounded absurd. What were Leporello and Don Giovanni talking about when they referred to Soler’s Una cosa rara, Sarti’s I litigantand “Non più andrai” from Le nozze di Figaro? An anachronistic Polaroid camera, commercialized in the late sixties and seventies, was used throughout the opera as a method for the Don to immortalize his conquests. Despite the ugliness of the sets, costume designer Bettina Walter’s wardrobe choices for Donna Anna and Donna Elvira were astute and glamorously appropriate, as unlikely as that may have been for the chosen setting. Likewise, her disguises for Anna, Elvira and Ottavio in the finale of Act I were highly original and eye-pleasing.
The dinner scene, which is interrupted by the dead Commentatore’s statue that ultimately takes Don Giovanni to Hell, takes place in the same squalid night club. The stage director seems unaware of Da Ponte’s text. Don Giovanni sings: “Giacché spendo i miei danari, io mi voglio divertir”. This is an absurdity, considering that Leporello is the only servant as well as the cook at a sad barbecue, strangely and perilously held indoors. In such a scene, it seems Don Giovanni was also a miser and a fool to consider this horror an extravagant expense! Furthermore, if Leporello is the cook, it would be normal that he would taste what he’s cooking, rendering superfluous the comic exchange between the master and the servant: “Questo pezzo di fagiano... Mentr’io mangio, fischia un poco... Sì eccellente è il vostro cuoco.” Indeed, few in the audience laughed during that scene or throughout the entire opera for that matter. Again, director Bösch may have not noticed that the opera was described by Mozart and Da Ponte as a dramma giocoso, a comic drama. As there is a chiaroscuro quality to the music, there is also an alternation between drama and comic relief in the text. Yet in this staging, little of the comedy was permitted to appear, thus neutering this, one of the greatest of operas. The most absurd modification was the elimination of the cemetery scene, where Don Giovanni forces Leporello to taunt the Commendatore’s statue and to invite the murdered man to dinner. Here, Leporello sings “O statua gentilissima” to an urn, somehow found in the nightclub. No statue appears to answer back: “Si.” Instead, an amplified offstage voice and lighting effects indicated a ghost’s presence. For those familiar with the opera, this provided unwarranted laughter.
With such messy staging, it’s miraculous the mostly excellent cast managed to do as well as they did. Simon Keenlyside, the best Don Giovanni of the last quarter century, was not as brilliant as one would have expected. For his greatest asset, other than his suave baritone, is his stage presence, brilliant acting and impeccable phrasing. But under these chaotic conditions, not even Maria Callas could have had adequate stage presence. The unpleasant sets marred the production and upstaged its singers. Nonetheless, Keenlyside managed to delight in some passages, such as “È un’impostura della gente plebea”, “Chi a una sola è fedele, verso l’altra è crudele” and “Tu ch’hai la bocca dolce più del miele”. His champagne aria, “Fin ch’han dal vino”, was hurried. His Act II “Deh! vieni alla finestra”, sung inside the club facing a drunken customer, could not inspire seduction, despite Keenlyside’s best efforts.
Le Grand Théâtre opted for a purist Prague version, meaning Don Ottavio’s Act I aria “Dalla sua pace” was omitted. The tessiture of this aria is too high for Ramón Vargas’ voice, at this stage of his career. He sang the Act II aria “Il mio tesoro” brilliantly, despite unease with his upper register. David Stout was an effective Leporello, whose baritone voice was quite different from his master’s. For some stage directors, he is Don Giovanni’s alter ego and similar voices are preferred. He is a natural comic, who didn’t need to resort to buffoonery or vocal antics. His aria, “Madamina, il catalogo è questo,” was poised, and his Italian diction excellent. His emphasis on “la grassotta”, “la magrotta”, “la grande maestosa”, “la giovin principiante” in that aria was deliciously wicked. Under better circumstances, Keenlyside and Stout would have dazzled onstage in these roles. Michael Adams portrayed a convincing Masetto. His bass-baritone conveyed virility and his deportment on stage was perfect as the naive but recalcitrant peasant. His exaggeratedly open vowels were amusing. Hopefully, it was just a trick for this rustic role. Thorsten Grümbel was a reliable Commendatore. His deep basso profundo was pleasant, but his diction wanting. Indeed, between the staging and the unclear diction, there was nothing terrifying when he brought Don Giovanni to Hell.
There was a problem in the casting of the three leading ladies. Ideally, the roles of Donna Anna, Donna Elvira and Zerlina require, respectively, a dramatic soprano, a lyric soprano and a coloratura soprano. Occasionally, Donna Anna is cast as a dramatic coloratura and Zerlina, a light mezzo; the contrast is necessary to create balance. By casting Patrizia Ciofi, a lyric coloratura, Mary Feminear, a lyric soprano, and Myrto Papatansiu, also a lyric soprano albeit of a darker more robust shade, the balance was not achieved. Patrizia Ciofi is a veteran Donna Anna, though she hasn’t performed the role in years, except in Monte-Carlo in 2015, having concentrated instead on bel canto roles. Though her timbre is still appealing, her voice may have suffered from some heavier roles such as Norma, Elettra in Idomeneo and Marguerite de Valois in Les Huguenots. She conveyed emotion in her arias “Ora sai che l’onor” and “Non mi dir”, though some high notes were tentative. It did not help that the stage director chose to have her attempt to shoot herself during the toughest vocalise of the latter aria. Myrtò Papatansiu’s Elvira was unusual. One could not deduce whether she was a vulnerable victim, an exulted avenger or a rabid sex monster. Vocally, her “Chi mi dice mai quel barbaro dov’è?” and “Ah! fuggi il traditore!” were beautifully interpreted, with the necessary pathos and a secure technique. Due to the production’s fidelity to the Prague premiere’s Urtext, we were deprived of Elvira’s “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrate”, possibly Mozart’s most moving aria. Given that Myrtò Papatansiu was Elvira, it was a real pity. Mary Feminear was a radiant Zerlina, whose light lyric soprano inspired innocence, despite the stage director’s attempts to frame her as a harlot. Her Act II “Vedrai, carino” was better interpreted than the Act I “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto” possibly due the stage director’s distracting antics, such as her hitting the battered Masetto and offering to perform oral sex. How exactly is this lewdness, certainly out of place in 1950s small town America, compatible with Masetto’s jealousy and Zerlina being the awed ingénue duped by Don Giovanni? It is to be noted that Feminear is a member of the Grand Théâtre’s apprenticeship program, Troupe des jeunes solistes en residence. A budding talent to watch out for. Stefan Soltesz led the impeccable Orchestre de la Suisse Romande with aplomb. The Overture had the needed chiaroscuro quality that sadly did not continue afterwards. Some arias were rushed. It was obvious that the many ensembles were well-rehearsed. They were among the evening’s strongest musical moments.
Lost on stage director David Bösch was an essential driving force found in Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto: the class difference between the noble Don Giovanni and the peasants Zerlina and her bridegroom Masetto. By rendering the Don the owner of a squalid nightclub, he was no longer the idle nobleman, free to devote himself to his conquests. By equalizing the classes, Don Giovanni is no longer the intimidating feudal lord, easily able to beguile Zerlina. Most significantly, this removes the revolutionary element in Mozart’s opera, which, like his Le nozze di Figaro, augurs the soon-to-come French Revolution. Furthermore, by purging the comedy out of the opera, it’s hard to depict a charming Don Giovanni. Bösch’s anti-hero is a rapist rather than a seducer, preventing any compassion for the character. Such a black and white portrayal kills the work: we have no mitigated feelings about Don Giovanni, who knives the Commendatore rather than kill him in a duel, and needlessly spits on his hapless body. Underplaying his wickedness and giving him a degree of humanity would have gone a long way to bring the work to life.
Don Giovanni is probably the theme that most aroused the great minds of western literature. From the 17th century’s Tirso de Molina to Molière, Byron, Pushkin, Tolstoy, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Camus, Kierkegaard, Shaw, Michael Haneke, as well as film director Ingmar Bergman, all have created great works based on the Don Juan myth. A study of some of these versions often inspires a stage director to see an original angle. However, David Bösch seems to have ignored this plethora of works and opted for a dull interpretation. Imagination and inspiration are essential to any new production, to provoke the public into understanding the rake’s mindset. What is his motivation? Is he sexually ambiguous? Did he suffer from a domineering mother? Was his mother a loose woman? Is he impotent? The only hint offered by the stage director was a very sad one. In Bösch’s vision, the three women, Donna Anna, Donna Elvira and Zerlina, take joy in physically hurting men: be it all three slapping Leporello when he is unmasked in Act II; Anna gratuitously slapping Ottavio before singing “Non mi dir!”; or Zerlina perversely hitting the battered Masetto during “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto.” This inverted violence is disturbing, especially when contrasted with the interesting procession of battered women during Leporello’s catalogue aria. Was Don Giovanni physically abused by his mother as a child? Does he view his conquest of a woman as a subjugation and a revenge? If so, this idea ought to have been adequately explored.
Ossama el Naggar