Sunday 2 February 2014

Innovative Don Giovanni Royal Opera House

The new Mozart Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House London is so innovative that it will take time to sink in fully. What is Don Giovanni but an opera that operates on many different levels?  Many will panic at the very idea of anything new. But Don Giovanni is so  rich that anyone, including the audience, who doesn't keep learning from it, will not do it justice. This production has so much insight  that will enrich appreciation of the opera itself,  and of the process that goes into the making of opera. Kaspar Holten has pulled off a great feat: this Don Giovanni could be rewarding for years to come. Indeed, I think we'll appreciate it even more once the initial shock effect wears off.

Women's names appear on the backdrop, gradually developing into a torrent in tinier and tinier script. We are seeing the Catalogue unfolding before us. There are so many names that they become undecipherable, the identities of the women blurred. What sort of man keeps a catalogue of conquests?  What motivates such obsessional behaviour? Don Giovanni's relationships with women are mechanical, bringing no lasting pleasure. What is really behind his compulsiveness? This production is psychologically penetrating and exceptionally subtle. The images often suggest marble, a stone that seems soft to the touch but is enduring. Like women, perhaps, or like the Commendatore's statue. Don Giovanni smashes a stone head but ends up trapped behind stone walls. Is he in the Commendatore's tomb or in some frozen womb?

This sensitive approach to the opera reveals itself in the multiplicity of visual images. The central structure , designed by Es Devlin,  resembles MC Escher's etchings of palaces with staircases that lead nowhere, and buildings that reverse themselves in precise, but irrational ways.  Like Don Giovanni's mind. He compartmentalizes his emotions, locking them in a maze of subterfuge. He needs escape routes if only to escape responsibility for himself.  Perhaps he seeks challenge in order to prove himself? Gambling with the Commendatore is the ultimate dare. Leporello's scared but Don Giovanni is defiant. Suicide by Stone Guest?

Onto this structure, numerous images are projected, allowing exceptionally rapid changes of nuance and detail. Music develops  with every note and operates on many simultaneous layers. Physical stagecraft just can't compete. It felt as if we were watching notation dance and come to life. At one stage the singers are seen each in their individual vortexes, moving forwards while being pushed back by the force of the visual projections. We know it's video, but the image is so powerful that it expresses the force of the music and the psychic trauma the characters are going through.Luke Hall's video designs elevate projection into an art form. A hundred years ago, electrictyb transformed stagecraft : now we are heading into  a new doimension.

Nicola Luisotti's conducting emphasized agility and brittleness. This wasn't a full-blooded Romantic interpretation, but something at once late Baroque and surprisingly modern. How poisonously dissonant the fortepiano, harpsichord and cello continuo sounded! Don Giovanni was elegant though he used his grace for evil purposes. (Luisotti played the fortepiano).

Watching this Don Giovanni was stimulating because the visuals, for once, kept up with the constant motion in the music, which reflects Don Giovanni's obsession with staying ahead of the game. This production elevates video into art form, much in the way that electricity transformed stagecraft a hundred years ago, yet it's also pertinent to meaning.  Don Giovanni is a master of deception. Portraying his personality through tricks of light  intensifies the sense of constantly changing illusion.  When Leporello hides, we can still just about see him, camouflaged in moving shadows. When the Stone Guest appears, he materializes as if from the very structure of the building,  By this stage in the opera, the images are becoming more recognizable, as if reality is starting to intrude on Don Giovanni's  consciousness. The Stone Guest stands above  the image of an eye, a reference to the all-seeing Eye Of God, often seen in Catholic symbolism,  and also in Freemasonry.  Normal physical staging could not produce this level of detail.

When Don Giovanni is drawn down to hell, he's seen trapped behind high walls that fill the whole stage area. All his life, Don Giovanni has survived by manipulating people. Suddenly, he's all alone. What can be more horrifying to someone like that to be alone and having to confront himself ? Being entombed alive is far more chilling than comic book hellfire. Moreover, he hears the Sextet, taunting him from a distance. The "happy ending" is sometimes unrealistic, like an add-on moral lesson. Here, it's incredibly poignant.

Part of the joy of this production was the way the visuals stayed as backdrop, allowing the singers to take prominence. The big set arias were given full prominence. in this production, Mariusz Kwiecień was very much the central character. His elegance suggested Don Giovanni assumed his superiority as if it were his natural right.  As the net closes in on the character, Kwiecień sang with  vehemence verging on demonic, without losing his innate poise.

Véronique Gens was outstanding as Donna Elvira. She sang with such richness and dignity that she brought out the tragedy in the role. Donna Elvira throws herself at Don Giovanni : she's just as obsessive as he is, and possibly disturbed, but Gens makes us feel her tragedy. When she sings her last big aria, she is so compelling that we feel sympathy for Don Giovanni lurking in the darkness. Perhaps he's learned the real meaning of love, too late.

Malin Byström sang Donna Anna. with presence, well supported by Antonio Poli's Don Ottavio. Elizabeth Watts was a lively Zerlina and Dawid Kimberg sang Masetto. Alex Esposito sang Leporello.  As the run progresses, the singing will settle, so I'm certainly going again, and catching the HD broadcast on 12th February. For more, please read Opera Today, where Claire Seymour will be reviewing.

photos copyright  ROH Bill Cooper 2014

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