Holten’s Don Giovanni Stimulates and, Occasionally, Transfixes at Covent Garden

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Don Giovanni: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Marc Minkowski (conductor), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 29.6.2018. (CC)

Kasper Holten’s Don Giovanni (c) Bill Cooper


Don Giovanni – Mariusz Kwiecień
Leporello – Ildebrando D’Arcangelo
Donna Anna – Rachel Willis-Sørensen
Don Ottavio – Pavol Breslik
Donna Elvira – Hrachuhi Bassenz
Il Commendatore – Willard W. White
Zerlina – Chen Reiss
Masetto – Anatoli Sivko
Donna Elvira’s Maid – Josephine Arden


Director – Kasper Holten
Revival Director – Amy Lane
Designer – Es Devlin
Costumes – Anja Vang Kragh
Lighting – Bruno Poet
Choreography – Signe Fabricius
Revival Choreography – Anne-Marie Sullivan
Video Designer – Luke Halls

Fascinating to meet Kasper Holten’s Don Giovanni once more: I saw it in its Summer 2015 incarnation, but not on a reviewing assignment. Holten’s take on the Don is certainly complex, making spectacular use of lighting effects. The Don’s conquests are ‘written’ over the stage, a cubed, two-storied building that, as we find out, revolves to give multiple perspectives. The cube does not take over the entire stage space, but instead gives a sense of claustrophobia, of suffocation. Adding to this is the design of the cube, a design indebted to Escher’s magnificent drawings of impossible staircases and constructs. Anyone trapped in an Escher would never escape: any sense of forward movement fails as eventually one realizes the starting point is once more reached. And so it is here in the Don’s brain, a sequence of unsatisfying liaisons that lead to his melt-down in a finale that leaves him alone on stage, tormented. The effect is brutal; we leave him suffering in his own Hell, a Hades that is firmly in our world. The final confrontation with the Commendatore finds Willard White above and behind the Don, with both facing the audience. There is no dragging downwards, and there is no final sextet, and therefore no explanatory resolution. The Escher labyrinth clearly continues in his mind, a descent into madness.

The staging is very clever, not to mention at times discombobulating (not least in the Champagne Aria, ‘Fin ch’han dal vino’, in which the Don is found the centre of a revolving vortex of images). Projected blood suffuses our vision at the murder of the Commendatore. Video Designer Luke Halls’ talents are seen on full display. But perhaps the cleverness detracts too much from the score rather than complementing it. We are so wrapped up in wonder, positive or negative, that it is easy to miss the many subtleties from the pit. Marc Minkowski’s direction of the pared-down orchestra is magnificently intelligent, his baton clear and highly expressive, the joy evident frequently on his face. Here, one is in a safe pair of hands. Minkowski not only clearly adores the score but is also clearly immersed in it. The many tricky corners between stage and pit were expertly negotiated; continuo in recitatives were spot-on.

Mariusz Kwiecień is no stranger to the role of Don Giovanni, and his confidence shines throughout. He portrays the Don as less an incarnation of evil, more as someone caught up in a game that becomes ever less appealing, like a gambler losing the pleasure of gambling and sinking into addiction. Manipulation of the feminine is the norm for him, a necessary and natural extension of the male ego; as a result, he becomes a trickster architype, the catalyst for bringing out the darker sides of his seductees’ personas. Vocally he is fabulous: that Champagne Aria, musically, was a triumph, as was his honeyed Serenade. His wingman, Leporello, is taken by the astonishing Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, who brings a wealth of operatic experience to the role, even risking the odd bark for dramatic effect in his ‘Catalogue Aria’. Don and his sidekick worked superbly well together here, the more comedic side of Mozart encapsulated in the latter.

Donna Anna, the impressive Albina Shagimuratova in 2015, was here Rachel Willis-Sørensen in an if anything even finer assumption. American soprano Willis-Sørensen, who has recently performed Donna Anna for the Vienna State Opera, has a terrific voice, full, potent and agile, with stage presence to match. With her ‘Or sai chi l’onore,’ she established her credentials as a great dramatic singer; her ‘Non mi dir’ was equally impressive. This was the stand-out character of the evening. The Donna Elvira was the Armenian soprano Hrachuhi Bassenz, dressed in mourning back. In this production, Elvira is massively conflicted, one moment raging with hate, the next giving in to lust, then hating herself for it. This torrent of swirling emotions has several outlets, each as memorable as the next, each a separate explosion of fury: ‘Ah, chi mi dice mai,’ ‘Ah, fuggi il traditor!’ and ‘Mi tradi’. Bassenz, a Principal Artist with the Nuremberg State Opera, gave a fully humanised Elvira, a character assumption in which we palpably felt Elvira’s illogical emotional quandary. There was more than a hint of the mezzo to this soprano.

In the 2015 performance, Zerlina was taken by Julia Lezhneva, who made a particularly notable impression. Here it was the Israeli soprano Chen Reiss, making her house debut in this role (she is a regular with the Vienna State Opera). Here is a Zerlina that is no innocent, stripping for the Don and realizing the power she has over the male libido. The duet ‘La ci darem’ was all the more delicious for Reiss’ slight depth to her voice: this is no soubrette Zerlina.

Slovakian tenor Pavel Breslik was a young, fresh, strong-voiced Don Ottavio, his ‘Dalla sua pace’ full of youthful love, while Belorussian bass-baritone Anatoli Sivko was a fine Masetto. Willard White was in excellent, resonant voice for the Commendatore, with little of the ‘wool’ around the sound heard sporadically in recent years.

Whilst not as visceral as, say, Calixto Bieito’s Don Giovanni, Kasper Holten’s reading stimulates and, occasionally, transfixes. It needs a strong interpreter to match it, and in that it did find its match in Minkowski. If Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s Donna Anna was the stand-out role of this performance, there was much to admire elsewhere vocally, too.

Colin Clarke

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