Obsession and Addiction: Don Giovanni at De Munt / La Monnaie

Mozart – Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni – Jean-Sébastien Bou

Leporello – Andreas Wolf

Donna Anna – Barbara Hannigan

Donna Elvira – Rinat Shaham

Don Ottavio – Topi Lehtipuu

Zerlina – Julie Mathevet

Masetto – Jean-Luc Ballestra

Commendatore – Willard White

Choeurs de la Monnaie, Symfonieorkest van de Munt / Ludovic Morlot

Stage Director – Krzysztof Warlikowski.

De Munt – La Monnaie, Brussels.  Sunday, December 7th, 2014.

There are occasionally moments when one attends an opera where one wonders whether the visuals are overpowering the music.  The very best productions in my experience are those that illuminate a work, that make one think afresh, yet always put the music front and centre where it belongs.  There were times today where I wondered whether Krzysztof Warlikowski had actually thought about whether his stage pictures were there to illuminate the work or to create ‘his’ Don Giovanni.  I am not quite sure that he always struck the right balance. The premise was an interesting one and was based on a reading of the libretto that was certainly justified by the text.  The idea was that Don Giovanni was a sex addict who was tired of his life of seduction.  At times he was barely able to stand up and at others he was wearing an intravenous drip, suggesting in fact that he was very sick.  Interestingly, it seems that the other characters were encouraging him to maintain his life as a sex addict as if by maintaining his lifestyle, they were in fact maintaining their own.  Consequently, Warlikowski raised interesting questions about the nature of society and our complicity in creating and maintaining obsession.  His Munich Onegin was heavily inspired by the aesthetic of Brokeback Mountain and here his Don Giovanni was clearly inspired by Steve McQueen’s movie Shame.  During the overture, projections reflecting the threesome scene towards the end of that movie appeared on a screen at the front and there were a few cross-references throughout the show.

Andreas Wolf (Leporello), Rinat Shaham (Donna Elvira), Julie Mathevet (Zerlina), Topi Lehtipuu (Don Ottavio), Barbara Hannigan (Donna Anna)  © Bernd Uhlig
Andreas Wolf (Leporello), Rinat Shaham (Donna Elvira), Julie Mathevet (Zerlina), Topi Lehtipuu (Don Ottavio), Barbara Hannigan (Donna Anna) © Bernd Uhlig

In keeping with the focus on a wider society it seemed that the other characters took on a greater importance than they might in another staging.  This was less Don Giovanni and more a story of a dysfunctional community brought together by the Don.  During the catalogue aria, webcam images of women appear on the screen at the back of the stage.  A group of servants are constantly present, moving furniture when required and also carrying the Don when he is reluctant to get dressed for example.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t really appreciate the opening scene as it was set in the royal box to my right.  It was projected onto the stage but it was difficult to get the subtleties of what was happening.  Giovanni shoots the Commendatore, who reappears in the party scene with a gunshot wound to his head, and in the stone guest scene is already sitting at the table, albeit hidden initially.

Topi Lehtipuu (Don Ottavio), Jean-Sébastien Bou (Don Giovanni), Barbara Hannigan (Donna Anna), Rinat Shaham (Donna Elvira) © Bernd Uhlig
Topi Lehtipuu (Don Ottavio), Jean-Sébastien Bou (Don Giovanni), Barbara Hannigan (Donna Anna), Rinat Shaham (Donna Elvira) © Bernd Uhlig

Relationships were sharply drawn. It seems that the Commendatore was less Anna’s father and more of a ‘daddy’ figure and it is clear that she doesn’t want to let him go.  In the final scene, Anna crawls towards him on the floor reaching out to him.  The relationship between Anna and Ottavio is a dysfunctional one.  As she pours out her soul in ‘non mi dir’, Ottavio performs cunnilingus on her.  Elvira is a powerhouse and a lady clearly in control of her own destiny but who was deeply hurt by Giovanni’s treachery.  She is seen opening act 2 enjoying some very intimate moments with her maid.  Zerlina is easily seduced by Giovanni and enjoys the power she has over him, whereas Masetto tries to stand up to Giovanni but simply isn’t able to. The stone guest scene was a real highlight – having seen so many stagings that resort to the cliché of smoke and fire, here Giovanni was made to lie on his kitchen table by the servants and Leporello, just like the piece of meat he had just been cutting up.  Left with no alternative, Giovanni takes his own life by slitting his throat, blood flowing from his neck.  In a way, this was the only way out for him, finally finding peace away from those reliant on him for the pursuit of their own pleasure.

Andreas Wolf (Leporello),  Jean-Sébastien Bou (Don Giovanni), Sir Willard White (Il Commendatore), Barbara Hannigan (Donna Anna) © Bernd Uhlig
Andreas Wolf (Leporello), Jean-Sébastien Bou (Don Giovanni), Sir Willard White (Il Commendatore), Barbara Hannigan (Donna Anna) © Bernd Uhlig

The problem was that all of the thought and logic that Warlikowski had put into the staging was ruined by a lack of pace that considerably slowed down the show and meant that the images on stage overwhelmed the music.  Characters would act in slow motion or a girl would come on and start skipping.  Recitatives were taken at a deliberate rather than a conversational pace which meant that the music simply came to a halt and any momentum created was dissipated.  I hope that when it is revived that this is looked at as it prevents a decent Don Giovanni becoming an outstanding one. It was performed by a cast completely at one with Warlikowski’s vision who gave fearless and energetic performances even in the most difficult positions imaginable.  They were required to smoke, eat while singing and Anna had to deliver ‘non mi dir’ on her back while Ottavio orally devoured an intimate part of her anatomy.  It says much for Warlikowski’s powers of persuasion that he was able to convince his cast to do the things he required and they really gave the staging their utmost commitment.

Andreas Wolf (Leporello), Barbara Hannigan (Donna Anna), Sir Willard White (Il Commendatore), Jean-Sébastien Bou (Don Giovanni) © Bernd Uhlig
Andreas Wolf (Leporello), Barbara Hannigan (Donna Anna), Sir Willard White (Il Commendatore), Jean-Sébastien Bou (Don Giovanni) © Bernd Uhlig

Musically it was somewhat mixed but where it was good, it really was very, very good.  Jean-Sébastien Bou’s Giovanni was a somewhat anonymous presence but that might have been what was required by the staging.  The voice is perfectly serviceable but perhaps lacks a recognizable timbre.  All the notes were there and he gave us a beautifully smooth legato in the serenade.  The champagne aria was elegantly dispatched.  In common with all his colleagues he fully entered into the spirit of the staging.  It really was very well done but not quite as distinctive as it could have been. Andreas Wolf was a terrific Leporello – the voice darker and well-contrasted with Bou’s.  He also gave us a real sense of style with some tasteful ornamentation and appoggiature here and there.  The catalogue aria – the second part of which was sung to Giovanni – was dispatched with real ease.  Jean-Luc Ballestra’s Masetto showcased a wonderfully healthy and robust baritone that had a real sheen to the sound.  Combined with genuine stage presence I very much hope he will give us his Giovanni soon.  Willard White’s voice has dried somewhat with age but what hasn’t diminished is his magnetic stage presence that was perfectly deployed as the Commendatore.  Even when not singing he was absolutely captivating to watch.  Unfortunately, Topi Lehtipuu’s Ottavio was a disappointment.  The voice lacked colour and too many intrusive aspirates entered the line.  He was never less than watchable and he gave us all the notes of both his arias and added some sensitive embellishments, it’s just that I craved a smoother line.

Rinat Shaham (Donna Elvira),  Julie Mathevet (Zerlina), Jean-Luc Ballestra (Masetto), Barbara Hannigan (Donna Anna) © Bernd Uhlig
Rinat Shaham (Donna Elvira), Julie Mathevet (Zerlina), Jean-Luc Ballestra (Masetto), Barbara Hannigan (Donna Anna) © Bernd Uhlig

Barbara Hannigan is perhaps not one of nature’s Donna Annas but she sang with a steely determination that was utterly convincing and she made the role her own.  Everything she did was so utterly musical and always intelligent, even when singing an exceptionally difficult aria lying on her back.  Rinat Shaham’s Elvira also made the role her own. The voice so rich and easily produced, the tessitura holding no terrors.  She was also a captivating actress, fully encapsulating Elvira’s strength yet also mapping the journey when she realizes her betrayal.  Julie Mathevet’s Zerlina was sparky and bright of voice. The fine house orchestra played well for Morlot.  The sound was big but tempi were ponderous, especially in the act 2 sextet.  Clearly, this wasn’t helped by the recitatives being taken so slowly.  It felt like a much longer show than it actually was.  I missed a sense of drive propelling the drama forward but also some wit, grace and elegance.  The quality of the orchestra is unquestionable and the chorus, relegated to the pit, was fine.  Ornamentation was inconsistently applied – I would certainly have liked to have heard more of it.

Julie Mathevet (Zerlina), Jean-Sébastien Bou (Don Giovanni) © Bernd Uhlig
Julie Mathevet (Zerlina), Jean-Sébastien Bou (Don Giovanni) © Bernd Uhlig

This unfortunately felt like a bit of a missed opportunity.  There was so much to admire in the staging and in the fearless commitment of this highly dedicated cast at a very high musical level.  Warlikowski’s Don Giovanni is the study of a world where obsession has taken the place of rational thought in a society where the obsession of one also feeds the obsession of the other.  Yet it falls down on the fact that it doesn’t put the music first.  The frustrating part is that the concept fits with a reading of the work and had it been tightened up and more attention paid to a better pacing of the recitatives it would be a terrific evening.  The final scene and a twist in the epilogue really do fascinate.  All the more annoying then that so much is lost in the pacing.  This is a production that really does need to be seen but I very much hope that it can be revived, soon, with the pacing resolved.

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