Don Giovanni at Opéra Bastille, though well sung, is a mixed experience

FranceFrance Mozart, Don Giovanni: Soloists, Chorus (chorus master: Ching-Lien Wiu) and Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris / Bertrand de Billy (conductor). Opéra Bastille, Paris, 11.3.2022. (MB)

Christian van Horn (Don Giovanni) and Krzysztof Baczyk (Leporello) (c) Vincent Pontet

Director – Ivo van Hove
Set and lighting design – Jan Versweyveld
Costumes – An D’Huys
Choreography – Isabelle Horovitz
Video – Christopher Ash
Dramaturgy – Jan Vandenhouwe

Don Giovanni – Christian van Horn
Commendatore – Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Donna Anna – Adela Zaharia
Don Ottavio – Pavel Petrov
Donna Elvira – Nicole Car
Leporello – Krzysztof Bączyk
Masetto- Mikhail Timoskenko
Zerlina – Anna El-Khashem

The problem with Don Giovanni, or rather with all too many contemporary approaches to it, whether by directors or audiences (perhaps less musicians), is secular liberals’ inability or refusal to acknowledge its nature as a deeply religious, indeed theological work. It does not tie one down to a single possibility, far from it, but simply to ignore that aspect, likewise its delicate, related balance on the cusp of mythology, serves at best to impoverish and delimit its horizons, and more often to render it and them downright incomprehensible. It is all there in the score, of course, at least as much as in the libretto, still more in the transcendent potentiality of bringing the work to our consciousness, into our bloodstream, in performance; yet liberals, as is their wont, think they know better, all too often lapsing into a skin-deep psychological realism with little to say beyond ‘we neither like nor understand this work, yet consider that to be its fault, not ours’.

There were signs, I think, that Ivo van Hove and his production team had considered this problem, or at least some issues related to it, although at least during this first revival, they were intermittent and somewhat tentative. (It is always difficult to know what might have been there to start with, not only in staging, but in performance too, though by the same token, I have seen revivals that have marked a distinct improvement on their first incarnations.) There is little sign of sympathy or admiration with Mozart and Da Ponte’s hero/antihero, which is fine; the work, in many respects disarmingly open, is far from demanding it. Likewise, for very obvious reasons, it is more difficult than once it may have been to accept a more Faustian, some might say nineteenth-century, reading. Was there nonetheless a sense of sin, even mortal sin, remaining? I think there was, perhaps most evidently in Christopher Ash’s arresting video projections onto Jan Versweyveld’s set (stylishly taking in a Classical inheritance with modern response). A vision of souls writhing in something akin to Hell did not seem out of place, but grew out of what had been there all along, neither necessitating nor ruling out divine intervention. Distance between Don Giovanni’s actions and the divine, even if it were only what he himself saw as an ideal version of himself, was clear throughout. He could not live up to his promise, instead tending towards sociopathy (although this could have been made clearer).

Incipient deconstruction of libertinage — is it more of the ancien régime than of any revolutionary challenge to it? — was somewhat obscured, however, by a disinclination to use social (and political) distinction to bring it out. One need not return to an eighteenth-century society of orders, though one might, to do so, but to level most or all distinctions tends, if one is not careful, to present further difficulties of incomprehension, even incomprehensibility. If Giovanni is neither the ultimate product of a diseased system of privileged liberties, nor a Sadeian-Nietzschean herald of liberty who might lead revaluation of our values, then what is he? How does he manage to get away with it? With Leporello appearing more or less indistinguishable from his master  —it can work, as for instance with Peter Sellars’s pair of Harlem twins — the assumption seems to be that the not-very-servant like accomplice stays because ultimately he wants to be like him. Fair enough, but why, given that he is little more than a dislikeable and, more to the point, unsuccessful operator? Moreover, Leporello seemed too close to Giovanni in the first place, not only in often identical costume, but also in his behaviour. I had the impression that the Stone Guest scene was intended to address this, but Leporello’s unwillingness to serve, instead throwing food around and acting more like his master might than his master did, failed ultimately (at least for me) to make much sense. It clashed with words and music, without offering anything in the way of meaningful dramatic counterpoint. Perhaps the arbitrariness was the point; if so, it seemed neither a strong nor coherent enough point to have been worth making.

This is, of course, a musical drama, and it is perfectly reasonable to say that some at least of such matters might be dealt with by musical means. Alas, Bertrand de Billy is not a conductor likely to make any such, or even other, dramatic points. There were times when, to his credit, he acted as a facilitator for outstanding playing from the Paris Opéra orchestra. Its sweetness of tone in every section was greatly appreciated; likewise sterner passages with considerable backbone. The conductor’s direction, however, proved somewhat listless, individual numbers and even phrases often floating in the moment, then stopping rather than closing, leading nowhere in particular.

The version of the score — whose decision this was, I do not know — was regrettable too. For once, we did not have an unholy mixture of Prague and Vienna (understandable from the standpoint of singers, yet from no one else’s) but rather what was more or less Vienna. Elvira thus had ‘Mi tradì’; ‘Il mio tesoro’ was replaced with the markedly inferior Leporello-Zerlina duet (its staging, which might have been the making of it, sadly half-hearted); worst, we had cuts in the finale, papered over by that jarring new setting of ‘Resti dunque quel birbon fra Proserpina e Pluton!’ You cannot have it both ways, it might be responded; if you dislike composite versions so much, then you cannot disallow Vienna. Perhaps, but my dislike of ‘traditional’ composite versions rests on their dramatic failure (the finest performance can suspend one’s disbelief, but it must be the finest) and not on their lack of ‘authenticity’. The solution is easy: Prague. Yet no one seems willing to take it.

Christian van Horn gave an attractive performance of the title role, fully at home in its slippery shifts of style and character, though perhaps ultimately a little lacking in its darkness of soul. Was it a little too genial, especially given the production? There was nonetheless much musically to admire, as there was with Krzysztof Bączyk’s Leporello, though having a darker-toned Leporello compared with his master also posed dramatic problems that seemed to fuse with those of the production. Adela Zaharia and Pavel Petrov made for an outstanding seria pair, clean yet purposeful of line, with coloratura that unquestionably meant something, musically and dramatically. (I actually found myself regretting the loss of Don Ottavio’s second aria.) Much the same might be said of Nicole Car, her interpretation of the mezzo carettere role of Donna Elvira affording considerable erotic as well as more dignified pleasures. Mikhail Timoskenko and Anna El-Khashem were fully at home in the less ambiguously earthy pleasures of Masetto and Zerlina (also a strength of the production, if not fully mirrored in the higher social orders). They exuded immediate attraction — and attractiveness — and were all the better for it, as were we. The Ukrainian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk received great cheers and applause when taking his curtain call with ‘NO WAR’ emblazoned on his shirt. Rightly so, but it was equally right for his excellent performance as the Commendatore, which offered a rich, dark nobility whose political and religious implications might fruitfully have been engaged with elsewhere.

Mark Berry

Leave a Comment