Don Giovanni in Images

Mozart – Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni – Mariusz Kwiecień

Leporello – Alex Esposito

Donna Anna – Malin Byström

Donna Elvira – Véronique Gens

Don Ottavio – Antonio Poli

Zerlina – Elizabeth Watts

Masetto – Dawid Kimberg

Commendatore – Alexander Tsymbalyuk

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Nicola Luisotti.

Stage Director – Kasper Holten.

Royal Opera House, London.  February 1st, 2014.

When the cast for this particular production of Don Giovanni was announced I knew immediately that I had to go. After all, getting to see four favourite singers on the same stage is an irresistible opportunity, so much so that I booked not only for the show itself but also for the Insights evening where the creative team presented the new production.  Indeed, the Insights evening was quite illuminating in discovering more about Kasper Holten’s view of the work.  The previous production of Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House was by Francesca Zambello and I really was not a fan.  I found it vacuous, dreary and lacking in imagination.  The only other example of Holten’s work that I have seen live, his Yevgeny Onegin also at the Royal Opera House, completely polarized the audience between those who loved it and those who thought it messy and unfocussed.  I have to admit that I was in the latter camp despite clearly being able to see that a lot of thought had gone into it.  Given Don Giovanni’s reputation as a director’s graveyard I approached the show tonight with some trepidation.

Taken at face value, it was a highly enjoyable evening in the theatre.  It didn’t present any particular new insights, but it played to the gallery as entertainment.  Part of the problem with Holten’s Onegin was that it contained a massive gimmick that distracted from the singers.  Tonight instead of having dancers flail around distracting from the singing we had video.  It was used to signpost relevant information such as the names of Giovanni’s conquests or imagery relevant to the scene in question.  It was indeed distracting on occasion as if to draw attention from the singers but on other occasions (such as the swirling during the champagne aria or when it changed Leporello’s costume to match Giovanni’s) it was quite interesting.  It seemed a little inconsistent in its application though but it was certainly novel.  I also found that the first 20 minutes felt a little slow (under-rehearsed?).  It was only when Véronique Gens’ peerless Elvira entered that the show started to move up a gear with Kwiecień’s Giovanni and Esposito’s Leporello feeding off of the energy.  I was also a bit worried that the Commendatore would have to spend the entire evening on the floor after being murdered (Holten has form in this of course) but fortunately, he was whisked away quickly on the moving platform.  The main idea of the production was that Giovanni was tired of his life of seduction and needed the ultimate challenge of death to keep things interesting.  The problem was that the over-reliance on the video betrayed a lack of Personenregie with characters who seemed to barely relate to each other.  The more experienced performers were able to transcend this but some others left less of an impression.  Ultimately, it felt like a great ‘show’ but it lacked humanity.

The set (Es Devlin) revolved around constantly representing various means for the spectators to view different angles of the action.  Interesting also that Leporello clearly wanted to kill Giovanni at the end of Act 1 and that Anna may well have been complicit in the murder at the beginning.  Unfortunately, I feel that Holten completely fluffed the ending with a horrific cut. He decided to cut from the end of the dinner scene to the very end of the epilogue with the other characters singing from the pit.  This made no musical sense and also meant that we were deprived the tonal journey that Mozart intended us to take.  His rationale for this – as he mentioned at the Insights evening – is that the epilogue goes on a bit too long and seems to make little dramatic sense.  Yet I think there he misses the point.  The epilogue serves not only to tie up the histories of the other characters dramatically but also musically, giving the audience a chance to move from the horror that is the dinner scene to the bright and cheerful D major of the closing bars.  This is why when it is cut in the Vienna version it always feels like such a loss.  Tonight’s ‘solution’ was to me to completely unmusical and highly unsatisfying.

With regards to the singing, however, there was so much to enjoy in a cast where at least three of the singers are amongst the very finest exponents of their roles today.

The best singing came from Véronique Gens’ stunning Elvira. She was the only principal to demonstrate a complete understanding of the Mozartian style and it was outstanding.  Her set pieces were beautifully ornamented and all sung with a richness of tone that was beguiling.  Her ‘mi tradi’ was spectacular (I closed my eyes to the video just to appreciate it), the breath control endless, the line ornamented to perfection and a wonderful use of dynamics.  ‘Ah chi mi dice mai’ used the ornamentation to wonderfully illuminate Elvira’s mental state as portrayed in the music.  After her stunning Mme Lidoine in Paris in December, it is clear that Gens is at her absolute peak.  A remarkable artist.

In Holten’s conception of the work, Giovanni is made to seem an impatient brute who completely throws himself into everything and Mariusz Kwiecień fully entered into the sprit of the staging.  Regrettably it meant that he had to frequently sacrifice tonal beauty, as in the champagne aria which was sung as if by a frustrated addict looking for his next fix.  Fortunately, when given the opportunity to do so, he was able to pull out that wonderful bronzed legato that makes his singing of bel canto so special as in a glorious ‘la ci darem’ and a nicely introspective serenade.  By the finale he was quite simply incredible, as if finally throwing off the shackles of the staging, he delivered a final scene that was so thrilling it had me at the edge of my seat.  He gave everything he had to it and the effect was completely gripping.  I would very much like to see him perform the part again in a staging that actually penetrates the heart of the work.

Alex Esposito repeated his world-famous Leporello proving why he is indeed one of the finest exponents of the role around. He brought real textual awareness, impeccable diction and wonderfully fluid vocalism.  His catalogue aria was showstopping.  He also gamely entered into the spirit of the production and struck real sparks off of his relationship with Giovanni.

Malin Byström offered a big, bold attractive voice as Donna Anna.  I imagine she is headed to a different repertoire but the sound in itself was impressive and she blended beautifully with Gens in the ensembles.  The voice loses a little colour at the very top and she had a tendency to oversing in the big moments, such as ‘or sai chi l’onore’, which meant that pitch wasn’t always accurate.  It may well have been nerves though and hopefully she will relax over the rest of the run.  She is undoubtedly an exciting talent.

The same could be said of Antonio Poli’s Ottavio.  He has the core of a really beautiful voice yet the top was pinched and some of the lines were not quite as sustained as well as they could have been.  He made a real effort to sing quietly in ‘dalla sua pace’.  If the voice isn’t quite there yet he is still very young, has real promise and will hopefully mature into a very interesting artist.

Elizabeth Watts offered us a vivacious and fluently sung Zerlina with a deliciously tender ‘vedrai carino’.  Dawid Kimberg was a decent enough Masetto and Alexander Tsymbalyuk, who so impressed me in Boris in Munich last year, gave us a fabulously large and rich Commendatore but was also quite woolly and tremulous.  Again, this may have been nerves.  The Chorus offered the usual wobbles and lack of unanimity of sound that we have come to expect at this address.

I loved Nicola Luisotti’s conducting of Nabucco at the Royal Opera in April 2013 and thought it one of the best examples of Verdi conducting I have ever heard.  I had high hopes then for his Mozart and while I admire the fact that tempi never seemed to sag too much, I can’t say it was my tasse de thé.  Indeed, the overwhelming image I had was of someone negotiating a Bentley through a narrow alleyway.  The strings played with full vibrato and tempi were on occasion (such as the start of the overture or in ‘vedrai carino’) to my taste incredibly slow.  I missed a crispness of attack, wit and sense of the drama running to its inevitable conclusion that made say Gardiner’s Figaro in this same house so memorable last October.  I also wonder what really was the point of having both a fortepiano and a harpsichord in the recitatives.  I recall in the Insights evening that the point was to demonstrate audibly the difference between the ‘modern’ Giovanni and the ‘traditional’ rest of the cast.  The problem was that the result was audibly messy.  I imagine that Luisotti was also complicit in that awful cut to the final ensemble.  As I said, I loved his Verdi and would really like to see him conduct more but on the evidence of this Don Giovanni, I can’t say I feel the same way about his Mozart.

Ultimately this Don Giovanni is a highly entertaining evening in the theatre and is an improvement on the Royal Opera’s previous production.  The problem is that this is achieved by over-reliance on technology, which distracts from some outstanding performances.  This seems to reflect an unwillingness on Holten’s part to engage with his singers and use them to drive the drama forward.  It won’t, I fear, despite its best intentions make one re-evaluate the work.  It does offer some great singing and is certainly worth listening to.  Ultimately it’s a crowd-pleaser and taken at face value has much to offer but once one starts to question it, the façade begins to crumble.

UPDATE 2014/02/03: Tonight I saw the show again. I have to say musically it felt much more settled. The overture actually showed the kind of drive and vigour that I loved in Luisotti’s Verdi and the strings even started with minimal vibrato which was great but had a poor effect on the intonation and they quickly returned to full cream vibrato-rich weak-attack playing. Tempi also returned to the Bentley-like stateliness we had on Saturday but I did appreciate some more raspiness in the brass. As far as the singing was concerned, I really do like Malin Byström – the sound is glorious but the intonation issues were still there. I wish she would just relax a little, the voice is a good size and she doesn’t need to push it. Gens was again fantastic, I can’t think that I have ever heard a better ‘mi tradi’ and it’s worth the price of the ticket alone. Esposito was superb but the evening belonged to Kwiecień. He was able to tone down the aggression asked of him by Holten’s staging and the champagne aria was quite simply perfectly done tonight. The serenade also showed that warmth of tone that is his trademark. Again, the final scene was incredibly, powerful, edge of the seat stuff dramatically and vocally and I saw in him tonight the greatness that I spotted in his King Roger in Bilbao back in 2012. Incredible. Fortunately, I have plans to see one more performance before the end of the run.


Production image © ROH Photographer Bill Cooper

One comment

  1. […] Kasper Holten's new Don Giovanni which opened at Royal Opera House in London last night is dividing opinion. This is his second production since he took over as Director of Opera, the first being Eugene Onegin which similarly got mixed reviews. I didn't see it and have no plans to go. Interesting review by operatraveller. […]

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