Don Giovanni: Lifeless Even Before Going to Hell

W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni, Teatro Real Orchestra and Chorus, Alejo Pérez (conductor), Madrid Teatro Real, 12.4.2013 (JMI)

New Production Teatro Real in coproduction with Festival Aix en Provence, Moscow Bolshoi Theater and Toronto Canadian Opera.


Don Giovanni: Russel Braun
Leporello: Kyle Ketelsen
Donna Anna: Christine Schäfer
Donna Elvira: Ainhoa Arteta
Don Ottavio: Paul Groves
Zerlina: Mojca Erdmann
Masetto: David Bizic
Comendatore: Anatoli Kotscherga

Direction: Dmitri Tcherniakov
Sets and Costumes: Dmitri Tcherniakov
Lighting: Gleb Filshtinsky


These performances of Don Giovanni will surely enter into the history of the Teatro Real, with one of the biggest scandals in the long history of the theater. In the previous performances – this one is is the fourth of the run – there was widespread booing, which led Gerard Mortier to declare that this was mostly organized and orchestrated by his detractors.

I make no more comment.

My overall assessment of this Don Giovanni is not positive. I found the stage production pretentious and boring, it had a lifeless musical reading and a mostly inadequate cast.

As far as I’m concerned, I have to admit that I do not share the admiration that some theaters seem to have for Dmitri Tcherniakov, who directs this production. It had its premiere at the Aix en Provence Festival in 2010, and was then poorly received both by critics and audience. This is the fourth Tcherniakov production I have seen in the last few years and I must say that again I don’t like his work. As happened in Onegin, Trovatore and Macbeth, he gives his own freely interpreted version of the opera.

The action all takes place in the same set (as also happened in Onegin and Trovatore) which is an elegant library in the house of Il Comendatore. All the characters live together and belong to the same family. Donna Anna is the nymphomaniac daughter of the Comendatore, and she has a relationship with Don Ottavio; Zerlina is her teenage daughter from a previous marriage. Donna Elvira is Donna Anna’s cousin and she is married to an alcoholic and decrepit Don Giovanni. Leporello is a relative who lives in the house and accompanies Don Giovanni on his adventures. Finally, Masetto is the boyfriend of the whimsical Zerlina.

Tcherniakov tries, and almost manages, to destroy the myth of Don Juan, showing a character without any appeal, and it is rather difficult to believe that he could have had as many lovers as Leporello recounts in his famous catalog aria. It is the rest of the family who put an end to Don Giovanni, hiring an actor to play the Comendatore in the final scene.

The stage production works rather well during the first act, but it is impossible to escape boredom during the entire second half, in which the stage is like a stone. Worst of all is the idea of presenting the opera as separate scenes with no less than 8 breaks, which interrupts the musical flow in order to gain nothing.

In favor of the production I must say that no there are no provocative moments or any bad taste, as has happened in other modern productions (among which it is not easy to forget the work of Calixto Bieito). The problem is that Tcherniakov’s ideas and the libreto don’t follow the same line. A few examples will serve to get an idea. The Comendatore dies accidentally; the exchange of characters between Don Giovanni and Leporello in the second act could not be believed even by those who are blind; Zerlina sings “Vedrai carino” not to Masetto, but to Don Giovanni’s coat; Don Ottavio adresses Il Mio Tesoro to Leporello. And what I can say of the scene at the window or of the whole scene in the cemetery? They could only be hallucinations by Leporello and his master. All in all, it was a boring production.

The slow pace of the recitatives has to be due to Mr Tcherniakov, who seems to be far more interested in them than in arias, and this makes the musical reading feel very heavy. It is probably unfair to condemn Alejo Perez for his handling of this Don Giovanni, because he was surely also a victim of the production. A more experienced conductor does not accept these impositions. We have seen him conducting on other occasions and the result was very different.

The cast was mostly disappointing. It seems that what counted was that singers played their roles as Mr Tcherniakov conceived the characters, and this worked against the interests of the audience.

Particularly objectionable is the presence of Canadian baritone Russell Braun in the character of Don Giovanni. No wonder he was booed in the first performances, because his voice is small and too light, and is inaudible at the bottom of the range.

Gerard Mortier said in an interview that it was inconceivable that Kyle Ketelsen could be booed, as he is the best Leporello in the world. This seems to me to be a joke. The last Leporellos I’ve seen on stage (Luca Pisaroni, Erwin Schrott and Alex Esposito) are light years ahead of Kyle Ketelsen, who is just a good actor, with not a very natural voice – ‘ingolata’ as italians say.

Christine Schäfer offered a pleasant voice as Donna Anna and sang well, but her vocal characteristics are more suitable for Zerlina than for Donna Anna. I did not like her Or sai che l’onore, and found the best of her singing at Non mi dir.

Paul Groves has been a remarkable Mozart tenor, but he is not at his best any more. He was acceptable with Dalla sua pace, but showed his limits and problems in a poor interpretation of Il mio tesoro.

It was very easy for Ainhoa Arteta to succeed in this mediocre cast. Hers was the only important voice on stage, offering an excellent Donna Elvira. Apparently she was the only one not to get boos at the premiere.

Mojca Erdmann was a delightful Zerlina onstage, but she is nothing more than a soubrette as a soprano. She was not convincing in any of her arias, being best at La ci darem la mano.

Both veteran Anatoli Kotscherga and David Bizic were serviceable as the Comendatore and Masetto.

Teatro Real was sold out. The audience responded coolly during the performance, but with the final bows we got a fresh surprise. To avoid the boos of the previous days, there were no individual bows, which did not prevent disapproving voices from being heard. It seems that the idea of this collective bowing came from Ainhoa Arteta, which was a genuine gesture of friendship towards her colleagues. Two minutes after the final bar we were already out of the theater.

José Mª. Irurzun