Barrie Kosky’s new Vienna Don Giovanni is caught between a rock and a hard place

AustriaAustria Mozart, Don Giovanni: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Vienna State Opera / Philippe Jordan (conductor). Livestreamed (directed by Ella Gallieni) from Vienna State Opera, 5.12.2021. (JPr)

Philippe Sly (l, Leporello) and Kyle Ketelson (r, Don Giovanni) (c) Michael Poehn

Production – Barrie Kosky
Sets and Costumes – Katrin Lea Tag
Lighting design – Franck Evin

Don Giovanni – Kyle Ketelsen
Commendatore – Ain Anger
Donna Anna – Hanna-Elisabeth Müller
Don Ottavio – Stanislas de Barbeyrac
Donna Elvira – Kate Lindsey
Leporello – Philippe Sly
Zerlina – Patricia Nolz
Masetto – Peter Kellner

We are led by the Vienna State Opera website to the earliest dramatisation of the Don Juan legend in a play The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest written sometime in the early decades of the seventeenth century by a Spanish monk, Tirso de Molina. His story soon inspired other works for the stage before Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte combined for Don Giovanni (or The Libertine Punished) which had its Prague premiere in 1787. In the Vienna introduction we read how ‘The elements of farce, comic and tragic opera, in the low and high style, symphonic and sacred music’ are all melded together into something which has been variously described as a dramma giocoso (a mix of the serious and comic) or – as Mozart catalogued it – simply an opera buffa.

Vienna concisely describes the women Don Giovanni pursues as follows: ‘Donna Anna who was brought up in her father’s strict care and who seeks in him adventure; Donna Elvira who has escaped all ties, seeking and hoping to find in him emotional stability; and the lower-class girl Zerlina, who in his arms dreams of social advancement.’ In Don Giovanni’s never-ending quest to seduce as many women as he can, we learn from his servant, Leporello, how his master has apparently already loved 2065 women (1003 in Spain, 640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France and 91 in Turkey). The antics of the incorrigible libertine are bookended by Don Giovanni murdering Donna Anna’s father (the Commendatore) who returns from the dead at the end of the opera as the ‘stone guest’. He is not seeking Don Giovanni’s eternal damnation but offers him a chance to repent which he refuses to do and the statue should drag him to hell.

This Don Giovanni is the first of Vienna State Opera’s new cycle of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas from Kosky to be conducted by its musical director Philippe Jordan. Kosky and his designer Katrin Lea Tag focus on the ‘stone guest’ element of the Don Juan myth. Basically, this is another staging where the Konzept is all important and less so what the opera is they are actually performing. The set is simply a desolate, dark (often very dark) and grey lava field which could be used for a number of other works. (Indeed, it was seen in Sir David McVicar’s recent Vienna Tristan und Isolde.) There is nothing in that – nor the fashionable modern clothes the characters wear – that particularly suggests Don Giovanni.

Leporello is something of an emo with his blond hair, eye liner, black fingernails and hoodie, as well as obvious psychological issues. Don Giovanni – at least initially – is in a suit as are the other leading male characters while the women have stylish dresses often with a floral design or a hint of nature. Party guests at Zerlina and Masetto’s wedding are in a mix of flowery shirts or pastel patterned dresses. Apart from some of the clothes there is only one real splash of colour and that is for the end of the first act. After recounting to her fiancé, Don Ottavio, about fighting off Don Giovanni’s attempt rape. A black curtain which had just come down will eventually rise to reveal some greenery which looked like a field of corn. There is supposed to be a ball at Don Giovanni’s house which is simply a ruse for him to pursue Zerlina. By now he has ditched his suit and is bare-chested and wearing a gold dressing gown. His congaing guests have elaborate wreaths of flowers in their hair as unique types of masks.

Vienna State Opera’s Don Giovanni close of Act I (c) Michael Poehn

The mistaken identity shenanigans at the start of the second act take place in and amongst a basalt outcrop looking like skeletal fingers. We hear about a window but there is no window and then a reference to guns; notably any reference to weapons in the opera is replaced by the characters wielding some of the volcanic rocks lying around. What happens to some of them as a result of any violence is also in doubt because in the first scene we see the battered and bloodied Commendatore get up and walk away. At the end of the opera there is no door to knock on and no food and the Commendatore having reappeared as the Ghost of Christmas Past eventually just strolls off up the set. When Don Giovanni (now in shiny violet top and scarlet trousers) and Leporello appear to address the statue, they are fondling what looks like a piece of coal while splashing around in a hot(?) spring. Don Giovanni who has fallen dead at the front is seen to rise, bid farewell to Leporello and also wander off. The opera ends with Leporello, Donna Anna, Don Ottavio, Donna Elvira, Zerlina, and Masetto reflecting on their futures now that Don Giovanni has met the end they wish for all wrongdoers.

Perhaps the more omnipresent Kosky is, the less imaginative he is becoming, and I was left thinking even more fondly of his Covent Garden The Nose (and even his Carmen) as well as Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Bayreuth. Nevertheless, some of Kosky’s famed Personregie was still evident, and this Don Giovanni is not without interest though you will scratch your head about how this relates to what you believe you know about Mozart’s opera. There is so much that Don Giovanni offers a director in 2021 that could have been explored with greater clarity, such as, the idea of men as aggressive sexual predators and women as perceived sexual objects.

Sadly, due to some extreme coronavirus precautions the Vienna State Opera was performing without an audience – though thankfully these are being (partially?) lifted in a few days – and the cast, conductor and orchestra must be commended for the high musical standards of the performance.

Kyle Ketelsen’s Don Giovanni was a charismatic and manipulative playboy, an urbane charmer who was rather blasé about the negative consequences of his lifestyle. Employing some eloquent legato and a honeyed baritone – allied to superb musicianship – he turned ‘La ci darem la mano’ into an expression of smooth seduction and thought-provoking stalking. He was a little two-faced because Leporello and others do suffer from his nasty streak. Philippe Sly was Kosky’s Leporello (with the numbers for his ‘Catalogue Aria’ just in his head) and not Mozart’s, though Sly impressed with the physicality of his performance even if his singing was rather nondescript.

Amongst many highlights for the always reliable Kate Lindsey as Donna Elvira was her love him, hate him, want him obsession with Don Giovanni – as revealed in ‘Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata’ – and Lindsey proved once again was a great singing actor she is. As Donna Anna expresses her love for Don Ottavio (‘Non mi dir’) Hanna-Elisabeth Müller displayed a flexible soprano voice and stylish coloratura. It is not her fault that her character is rather one-dimensional spending most of the opera seeking revenge for the death of her father. Don Ottavio is also something of a cypher in this opera and although Stanislas de Barbeyrac sweetly and ardently sings ‘Il mio tesoro’ – another aria swearing vengeance – it came as a surprise when he hit Leporello and beat him with a belt after he is discovered disguised as Don Giovanni.

Patricia Nolz was a sparky but vulnerable Zerlina, who is clearly dubious of Don Giovanni’s intention when she first encounters him for their ‘La ci darem la mano’ duet but will later be shown cuddling him (on the prompt box). Initially Zerlina and Masetto cannot keep their hands of each other on their wedding day, but we soon discover how easily Peter Kellner’s light voiced Masetto becomes jealous of his fiancée. He has a volcanic temperament and he treats Zerlina very badly at times. Ain Anger brings gravitas and suitably portentous tones to the Commendatore after he rises from the grave. The chorus also don’t have much to do but were energetic and full-throated. It has to be mentioned how all the singers benefitted from being towards the front of the stage during most of the opera.

Tall and straight-backed Philippe Jordan looks an ‘old school’ conductor and here played continuo on a fortepiano for the recitatives. He conducted crisply and with dramatic effectiveness and interestingly it sounded as if Jordan attempted to bring out some authentic Mozartian style from the most Romantic of modern opera orchestras (members of the Vienna Philharmonic).

Jim Pritchard

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