Tuesday 5 August 2014

Salzburg's soulless Don Giovanni

A new Mozart Don Giovanni at the Salzburg Festival with a superb cast and a good conductor. So what went wrong? Excellent singers - Lenneke Ruiten (Donna Anna), Anett Fritsch (Donna Elvira), Valentina Nafornita (Zerlina), Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (Don Giovanni), Luca Pisaroni (Leporello), Tomasz Konieczny (Il Commendatore,) Andrew Staples (Don Ottavio), Alessio Arduini (Masetto), Conductor Christoph Eschenbach. Maybe I was expecting too much, but surely good Mozart in the Haus für Mozart should not be too much to hope for ?

Joyce DiDonato has said  "People need to understand that great performances are aided by great direction." She knows what shes talking about. Good direction isn't about costumes, or props, or physical things, but about drama.  An opera is "about" something. Performers are there to express what the story and music might mean. Every performance, even a 100th revival, should engage with the dynamic of  human relationships. Singers of this calibre can't go wrong. But what were they singing about? They seemed oddly disengaged, almost as if they were bored.

Setting Don Giovanni in a stylish hotel is a good idea, because it allows quick scene changes that don't hold up the pace. Donna Anna might be in a fancy suite, while Masetto and Zerlina's wedding takes place in the ballroom. This solves the problem of fitting in parties and dinner guests. A hotel is also anonymous: a metaphor for Don Giovanni's  soulless pursuits. But there's more to good directing than a set.  Sven-Erik Bechtolf's production unfortunately dwells so much on the impersonal and anonymous that there's almost no insight as to why Don Giovanni does what he does, or why women fall for him. Or, for that matter, why the audience should care.

Luca Pisaroni's Leporello looks bemused the whole time. The look of incomprehension on his face may be the director's take on the drama. Pisaroni has done the part so many times that he knows how much more there is to Leporello than this. Very good singing, but he can, and has, been much more emotionally involved.  When will he sing Don Giovanni himself ? In a production that makes full use of his exceptional skills for characterization, one hopes.

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo sings Don Giovanni well, but the lack of direction lets him down.  He appears in a snakeskin coat, which is a nice touch, since the character is a snake, who slips his skin off when he wants. His many costume changes aren't in themselves a problem, but there's much more to drama than what one wears. Who is Don Giovanni? What drives him? Why does he defy death itself? He's a lot more than a serial seducer. D’Arcangelo falls to the ground when the Commendatore grabs his hand. But at the end he gets up, runs off and chases yet another anonymous woman.  Quite probably, men like Don Giovanni don't learn a thing, but Mozart makes it pretty clear that Don Giovanni is wrong. In this production, so much for the Moral, and for the intensity of its expression.

There are lots of extraneous details, like waiters in devil masks and a rather good scene where D’Arcangelo licks the icing off Zerlina's wedding cake, but these details amount to nothing, if there's no engagement with the deeper ideas in the drama.  There are people who sneer at "Konzept",as if they're being clever. But all the word means is joined-up thinking. It's all very well to have bits of this and bits of that, but without an overall conceptual understanding of what makes a drama work. Maybe some audiences like productions that are purposeless but pretty. But Mozart and da Ponte deserve a whole lot more. How can anyone not engage with music and ideas as powerful as those in Don Giovanni ?  There's no such thing as affect-neutral listening.

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