A Don Giovanni with a Difference in Dresden

GermanyGermany Mozart, Don Giovanni (1787): Soloists, Sächsischer Staatsopernchor, Staatskapelle Dresden/Mihkel Kütson (conductor). Semper Opera House, Dresden, Germany 19.5.2012. (MC)

Don Giovanni: Markus Butter (baritone)
Don Pedro, Il Commendatore: Michael Eder (bass)
Donna Anna: Marjorie Owens (soprano)
Don Ottavio: Rainer Trost (tenor)
Don Giovanni: Markus Butter (baritone)
Leporello: José Fardilha (baritone)
Donna Elvira: Ute Selbig (soprano)
Zerlina: Carolina Ullrich (soprano)
Masetto: Allen Boxer (bass-baritone)

Production team:
Director: Willy Decker
Stage designer: Wolfgang Gussman
Costume design: Frauke Schernau
Lighting design: Friedewalt Degen
Chorus: Christof Bauer
Dramatisation: Hella Bartnig

A full Semper Opera House saw Willy Decker’s production of Don Giovanni swap a picturesque town in 17th century Spain for one of the most nondescript sets one could imagine. Consisting of a starlit night sky as the backdrop a giant sheet of folded writing paper was tilted at an acute angle with the lowest corner facing the audience. The black calligraphy on the white paper was a long list of female names; the names of Don Giovanni’s sexual conquests. Both uninspiring and unremarkable the sparse staging by Wolfgang Gussman soon became wearisome. Another tiresome addition was the inclusion on the set of large building blocks in primary colours which reminded me of television programmes aimed at pre-school children such as the BBC’s long running Play School. The costumes were pretty much of the period of the time of composition which seemed rather pointless in view of the liberties taken with the staging.

Disappointingly I found a wide variation in the performance quality of the cast, starting with baritone Markus Butter, the dark-bearded and white-suited Don Giovanni, one of the most unappealing characters in the whole of opera. With Butter in the role I never felt totally convinced of the evil and sheer self-centredness of the Don’s personality. He had insufficient stage presence to do real justice to a role that seemed too big for him. Everything to do with Butter’s performance felt workaday, his reasonably attractive voice required an infusion of drama; although it carried relatively well. His diction wasn’t the best either, as demonstrated in the serenade Deh, vieni alla finestra (O come to the window) and his aria Metà di voi qua vadano (Let half of you go this way). One of the most successful members of the cast was Leporello, Don Giovanni’s manservant played by José Fardilha. With his deep and nicely rounded voice Fardilha allowed his likeable personality to shine through. The pistol carrying noblewoman Donna Elvira played by soprano Ute Selbig had been abandoned by Don Giovanni who broke his promise to marry her. Flame-haired, wearing a bright red gown Selbig excelled in the role as the feisty, scorned temptress and can certainly act well too. Her expressive voice has significant amplitude, able to carry her bright high register through the opera house. Marjorie Owens sang Donna Anna revealing a smooth mellow tone with an impressive coloratura and convincing emotion. I felt her large penetrating voice could overlap into the mezzo range. Donna Anna’s fiancé, Don Ottavio, sung competently by Rainer Trost displayed a bright if brittle tenor. Try as he might Trost couldn’t bring any real personality to the role. In her vividly striped skirt Carolina Ullrich as peasant girl Zerlina was in pure voice revealing good diction and a bright and colourful tone. Zerlina’s husband Masetto played by bass-baritone Allen Boxer sang his aria Ho capito, signor, si with fine expression and I look forward to hearing him in a more prominent role.

I was especially impressed by the moving first scene where after Don Giovanni murders  the Commendatore, his daughter Donna Anna calls her fiancé, Don Ottavio, for assistance. As both see him lying dead, they swear to avenge his death. The dancing on the slanted stage to music provided by four musicians was a shambles, and the attack by the armed gang on Don Giovanni disguised as Leporello with a long red, soft looking spear all seemed rather Keystone Kops. Within the white cemetery walls the giant black wobbly silhouette of the Commendatore illuminated from behind looked quite ridiculous and was greeted by more than a few giggles. The concluding scene was quite effective when Don Giovanni was struggling to clamber up the increasingly inclining angle of the giant notepaper only to slip down it dramatically to his death.

With the impeccable Staatskapelle Dresden in the pit it felt as if the conductor Mihkel Kütson was driving a top of the range Mercedes and being limited to second gear such was the consummate ease with which they coped with Mozart’s demands. It is one of the most enduringly popular operas in the repertoire, but this staging of Don Giovanni proved to be more like an endurance test. Full marks to the production team for trying something different, but it certainly didn’t work for me.

Michael Cookson