Containerized: Don Giovanni at the Bayerische Staatsoper

Mozart – Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni – Christopher Maltman

Leporello – Alex Esposito

Donna Anna – Erin Wall

Donna Elvira – Véronique Gens

Don Ottavio – Charles Castronovo

Zerlina – Hanna-Elisabeth Müller

Masetto – Tareq Nazmi

Commendatore – Ain Anger

Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Constantinos Carydis.

Stage Director – Stephan Kimmig.

Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater, Munich.  Friday, January 16th, 2015.

This was a very interesting Don Giovanni.  Musically – as expected with a cast of this calibre – there was much to admire but it was framed by a staging that for me, really didn’t work.  It seemed that Stephan Kimmig had decided to throw every possible trick at the stage in the hope that something would work.  The set (Katja Haß) was a series of revolving shipping containers that opened up to reveal various scenes.  Yet, it was unclear who these characters were and why they would spend their lives in shipping containers in the first place.  The show lacked context.  Perhaps the containers were a metaphor for the way our lives are compartmentalized and our urge to break out of them.  Yet, the very opening scene was clumsily set up and there seemed to be no reason for Anna’s anger towards Giovanni and why he would murder the Commendatore other than for the thrill of it.  A good a reason as any I guess.  There were some intriguing stage pictures – the cemetery scene took place in an abattoir with meat hanging from the ceiling and it was refreshing to see Giovanni apparently dying from shock rather than being dragged to hell.  Yet the whole thing felt half-baked and certainly next to Warlikowski’s deeply-considered staging, the lack of a coherent narrative was painfully obvious.  A video was projected at the top of the stage and yet it served no real purpose (the second act merely showed streetlights on a loop) and had it not been there I doubt anyone would have noticed.  The Personenregie was very good – the singers fully inhabited their characters and interacted well with each other.  They were clearly flesh and blood characters it’s just that the lack of narrative meant that it was unclear what brought them together.  The costumes (Anja Rabes) were highly effective and I really wish that they had forgotten about the set completely and performed the whole show, in those costumes within a black box stage.  Had that been the case, I feel the show would have had much more impact.  By using the video and revolving shipping containers, I feel Kimmig fell into the same trap that Kasper Holten did in London and betrayed an unwillingness to allow the singers and the work to drive the action forward.

Despite this, it was a deeply satisfying evening musically.  Often in productions of Don Giovanni, Don Ottavio comes across as a weak character.  Tonight was very different.  Charles Castronovo gave us singing of great richness and warmth.  Combined with his ability to get the most out of the words this made for a very special portrayal.  His ‘dalla sua pace’ was sensational.  The line easy and the pianissimi absolutely secure.  He took the risk of singing it incredibly softly and it really paid off.  The legato was smooth and his attention to text was outstanding.  Fortunately, we were also given ‘il mio tesoro’ which he sang with wonderful ease and highly sensitive and musical ornamentation.  If the definition of greatness is not being able to imagine anyone else sing an aria then Castronovo is a great singer.

I was very much looking forward to hearing Erin Wall sing Donna Anna.  The voice is a wonderful size yet it has a brightness that really opens up at the top.  She gave us a deeply felt ‘non mi dir’ with an easy line and turned the corners nicely.  I do have the feeling that the role isn’t quite as comfortable in the voice as it perhaps once was.  The more florid writing wasn’t executed as accurately as it could have been though it was a real pleasure to hear an Anna with the weight of voice that the role calls for.  Stylistically, Wall made several highly tasteful decorations to the line and they were highly satisfying to hear.

Véronique Gens’ Elvira is a known quantity and here she once again demonstrated her status as one of the greatest Mozart singers of today.  Everything was sung with her trademark beauty of tone and attention to text.  Naturally the ornamentation was present and really enhanced the beauty of the line.  ‘Mi tradì’ was sung with real feeling, effortlessly long lines and immaculate coloratura.  There isn’t much I haven’t said about Gens before that I can’t say now, other than the voice is unmistakable, she is a genuine actress and a fine musician.

Alex Esposito’s Leporello is also familiar.  It is always a pleasure to hear such textual awareness in this repertoire and he was a witty and vivacious presence.  The catalogue aria was dispatched with real spirit and genuine wit.  Ain Anger was a towering presence as the Commendatore – the voice has a vibrancy that was really quite arresting.  Tareq Nazmi’s Masetto was sung with a rich bass-baritone that promises much.  Hopefully one day we will hear his Leporello.  Hanna-Elisabeth Müller was a light and lyrical Zerlina.

I have left Christopher Maltman’s Don until last.  The voice was very healthy and easily produced.  He sang all the notes and was a highly watchable stage presence.  There is much to admire in the sound of the voice.  Despite this, I felt his Don was somewhat anonymous.  I don’t feel he made as much of the text as he could have though he dispatched his big numbers with ease – the champagne aria with elegance and the serenade with a smooth line.

Constantinos Carydis’ conducting was very interesting.  In the overture and first scene, I loved the swift tempi, the vibrato-less strings and natural trumpets.  Later on, tempi slowed down a little too much.  That said, he really understood this score and brought out the interplay within the orchestra and between the orchestra and singers really quite wonderfully.  There was a drive to the rhythm that was unmistakable and there was always the sense of the drama pushing to its inevitable conclusion.  The Bayerisches Staatsorchester, with the pit raised, played well – apart from the odd patch of sour string intonation.

This was a Don Giovanni that promised much and it certainly delivered vocally.  The staging, sadly, is one destined for the directors’ graveyard.  Perhaps one day if they revived it without the sets it might actually work very well.  It was enhanced by some outstanding performances from a truly exceptional cast, one that I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to hear live.


The Nationaltheater in Munich. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl
The Nationaltheater in Munich. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

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