Holten’s Don Giovanni Lacks Magic and Comedy

Mozart, Don Giovanni (in a new production by Kaspar Holten): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Nicola Luisotti. Broadcast to the Odeon Cinema, Chelmsford, Essex. 12.2.2014. (JPr)

DON GIOVANNI, ROH Photo (c) Bill Cooper
DON GIOVANNI, ROH Photo (c) Bill Cooper

Don Giovanni: Mariusz Kwiecień
Leporello: Alex Esposito
Donna Anna: Malin Byström
Donna Elvira: Véronique Gens
Don Ottavio: Antonio Poli
Zerlina: Elizabeth Watts
Masetto: Dawid Kimberg
Commendatore: Alexander Tsymbalyuk

Director: Kasper Holten
Set designs: Es Devlin
Costume designs: Anja Vang Kragh
Lighting design: Bruno
Poet Video designs: Luke Halls
Choreography: Signe Fabricius
Fight director: Kate Waters
Directed for the screen by Jonathan Haswell

The director of this new production, Kaspar Holten, in a pre-recorded introduction explained how ‘Don Giovanni is a story about a man who has seduced 2,065 women. On the morning of one of his conquests, he gets stopped by the father of a woman he has just seduced and, in the ensuing fight, kills him. From then on it’s all downhill.’ He went on to add that his idea for his servant Leporello was as Giovanni’s conscience and how they had ‘turned the stage into a version of Don Giovanni’s mind. It’s almost as if we enter his mind as the girls he seduced do.’ The set was a stage-deep two-storey cube that often revolved throughout the evening and its designer, Es Devlin, added ‘Because we are projection mapping over the entire sculpture, at times sometimes you are not sure whether a wall is moving or a projected wall is moving.’

 The broadcast was introduced by a very relaxed Bryn Terfel and after the interval he commented to Holten how ‘Peter Stein, Patrice Chéreau, fantastic directors, they always said to me they’re afraid of Don Giovanni – it’s like a graveyard for directors. Why? It’s such a fantastic drama.’ Holten’s reply informed what we had seen in Act I and how the evening would end: ‘I have to agree with them – though it may be famous last words for me tonight. It’s a piece where people come with high expectations. It’s DON GIOVANNI! It’s got to be magical, also you’ve got to have comedy, it’s got to be funny – but also you have got to do the tragedy. What’s it all about? For me, it was very much about finding out what hell is all about … the ending of the piece. For me hell is not about a barbeque, it’s not about the flames. It would be about loneliness … all you have dreamt about in life disappearing – nothingness, loneliness, that would be hell. That is something we were keen to investigate.’

 I can only comment on what I saw on the large cinema screen in a sold-out auditorium in Chelmsford and perhaps things might have been different in the opera house. However for me Holten missed both the magic and the comedy and had clearly worked out his ending without too much idea of an idea what to do with the rest of the opera. Even then, to justify how it would finish he employs a controversial cut in the music and after Giovanni’s death it goes straight to the denouement as he is left entirely alone at the end. Holten justified this by saying that Mozart also cut the finale and was not sure how to end it … this might be something for those more knowledgeable to discuss. For me, it was probably a case of the ends justifying the means!

The use of video starts well with the scrawling of the names of the serial-seducer’s 2065 victims across the façade of Es Devlin’s installation. This hints at what might have been as these scribblings reappeared from time-to-time over the two acts alongside what looked like moments of psychedelia and gigantic inkblots that originate in the Rorschach psychological tests. Clearly what we should be seeing is Giovanni at the end – and at the beginning? – suffering the effects of his life of debauchery and looking back on it as distilled through a broken mind and body because of all the sex and drugs. The production team clearly lacked the courage to go down this road and – by Holten’s own admission – having wanted initially a ‘slightly more mature’ Giovanni, someone looking like George Clooney(!?) … they settled on Mariusz Kwiecień (singing his 100th Don) who is more Johnny Depp! Spurred on by the cut in the music his character hastens to his tragic end without disturbing Kwiecień’s flowing locks though his descent in madness – however precipitous – does have a certain dramatic potency even if it is not fully explored by what we have seen earlier. Elsewhere, Es Devlin’s sculpture and Luke Halls’ video designs (along with Bruno Poet’s lighting) bring the viewer a box of tricks of Escher-like visual impossibilities as to what doors, panels or staircases are real or not. It does create a performing space for characters ‘real’ or spectral to appear or disappear, eavesdrop or intrigue. Only rarely does anyone address someone else directly and especially in the bigger ensemble moments they seem – more than ever – to be inhabiting worlds of their own. I had expected the visuals to be more cinematic than they were however in Jonathan Haswell’s direction for the screen, in close-up we would miss what else was happening elsewhere at that moment – and in longshot it was occasionally all too gloomy to decipher who we should be focussing our attention on. At the end as a ghostly stage band come on to serenade Don Giovanni during supper (playing popular tunes of the day including quoting from Le nozze di Figaro) they were only discernible by the glint from their instruments! I accept the video element in opera is being employed to attract a modern audience with their limited concentration span and the need to have their minds constantly visually stimulated. However, the average age of the audience at the screening in Chelmsford was probably over 60 and I suspect many were left pondering ‘Well, what was that all about?’

Holten brought other new slants to the accepted dramaturgy; Donna Anna is clearly aware that she is ‘entertaining’ Giovanni in her bedroom and only cries ‘rape’ to placate her dimwitted fiancé, Don Ottavio; she therefore now is complicit in her father’s death. For the rest of the opera it is a ‘we know – that she knows’ situation that changes her character, as well as, her reactions to certain events. He makes Zerlina definitely ‘open’ to Giovanni’s advances and Masetto, her bridegroom, another gormless cuckolded male. I couldn’t work Leporello out – he was like a character from Samuel Beckett’s middle period with a hint of Disney’s Jiminy Cricket and the urge to twerk during his ‘Catalogue Aria’. The only time I laughed during this Don Giovanni was the vaudeville slapstick business with the swapping of headgear as Leporello exchanges clothes at the start of Act II with his master to lure Donna Elvira away. Elvira is shown as another of Giovanni’s victims back for a second helping. The Commendatore’s voice is supposedly just a figment of Giovanni’s mental disintegration and the statue is a smallish bust that gets smashed – nevertheless a zombie-like Commendatore is indeed shown roaming around. With all these changes in their character’s motivation everyone is still singing Da Ponte’s original words and so it never seems dramatically real. Neither is ‘pretty boy’ Giovanni’s rapidly deteriorating mental state because prior to this he has seemed perfectly happy with the life he has led.

Added to all this is that everyone is dressed by Anna Vang Kragh in Victorian costumes because the buttoned-up morality of that age is something that Giovanni’s voracious sexual appetite can readily undermine. I have not come back to Don Giovanni at Covent Garden very often over the last 30 years so my musical memories are of conductors Bernard Haitink, Colin Davis and Roger Norrington with singers such as Geraint Evans, Ruggero Raimondi, Richard Van Allan, Stuart Burrows, Kiri Te Kanawa and John Tomlinson. In those days there was a Mozart style of singing that was distinct from the sound needed by other composers. Here directed by Nicola Luisotti from the fortepiano (with continuo aided and abetted by Paul Wingfield on harpsichord and George Ives on cello) it seemed – through the loudspeakers – to be a swift, in-your-face account of the score with little time for Mozartian refinements and so the cultivated sound from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House was more like that of Donizetti or early Verdi. This matched the singing of all the soloists apart from Antonio Poli’s more eloquent Don Ottavio.

Mariusz Kwiecień has the darkly-brooding charismatic good looks and voice of a successful womaniser, Véronique Gens is a suitably emorionally conflicted Donna Elvira and Dawid Kimberg could not do much with his role because Masetto here is rather dull. Both Malin Byström’s deceitful, vocally pallid Anna and Alex Esposito’s downtrodden Leporello pulled some strange faces in their close-ups – I suspect this was more the way they sing rather than something Holten wanted – but it made them difficult to watch on the huge cinema screen and I couldn’t warm to either of them. Alexander Tsymbalyuk impressed as a cadaverous and booming Commendatore – but the best singing on the night was from Elizabeth Watts’s Zerlina who turns ‘Batti, batti’ into her own song of seduction – not for her husband-to-be but for Giovanni!

Jim Pritchard

To view what is still to come to a cinema near you in the 2013/14 season visit http://www.roh.org.uk/cinemas. For more about what is going on at the Royal Opera House visit www.roh.org.uk.