Midlife Crisis: Don Giovanni at the Gran Teatre del Liceu

Mozart – Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni – Mariusz Kwiecień
Leporello – Anatoli Sivko
Donna Anna – Carmela Remigio
Donna Elvira – Miah Persson
Don Ottavio – Dmitry Korchak
Zerlina – Rocío Ignacio
Masetto – Valeriano Lanchas
Commendatore – Eric Halfvarson

Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu, Orquestra simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu / Josep Pons.
Stage director – Kasper Holten.

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Catalonia.  Friday, June 30th, 2017.

In one respect it was quite bittersweet to be seeing this Don Giovanni new to the Liceu.  The house’s previous production, that of Calixto Bieito, was one of the most inspired that I have seen – a tale of urban dysfunction where the obsession of one, fed the obsession of others.  Having only seen it on DVD, I was hoping one day to be able to see it with Mariusz Kwiecień’s Don.  Sadly it was not to be.  Instead, the Liceu has imported Kasper Holten’s Royal Opera staging, here revived by Amy Lane.  My reaction to it was quite cool during the first London run back in 2014.  I found (in a similar way to last night’s Cav & Pag in Dresden) that the use of graphic projections meant the visuals overwhelmed the principals – and this was a cast containing exceptional singing actors.  A second viewing in 2015 from much closer quarters revealed an interesting concept trying to break out.  I certainly welcomed, then, the opportunity to reappraise this production with Kwiecień and a promising international cast.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

Tonight it was clear that the staging had been reworked and reconsidered.  There was a level of detail to the personenregie and interactions of the principals with Luke Hall’s video projections that I don’t remember being as coherent in London.  It felt much darker, less of a dramma giocoso and much more of a dramma.  We saw Giovanni undergoing a mid-life crisis in a detailed look at how a man comes to terms with his own mortality, and the way that he treats others, yet always unable to stop searching for the next conquest.  The names of Giovanni’s previous copulations projected onto the set during the overture, is reflected later with Elvira seeing her own name on a door, bringing her to the realization that she was just one of many.  Giovanni can’t help himself – he’s addicted to sex like a drug and constantly needs more of it.  Similarly for Anna, he becomes her escape from a life of boring mundanity with Ottavio.  This is a Giovanni in search of the ultimate fix and finds instead death and loneliness, abandoned by his lady friends Anna and Elvira, who no longer want anything to do with him, and by Zerlina who just led him on for the craic.  Giovanni’s statements of ‘io mi voglio divertir’ in the finale felt much more of desperation than entertainment.

I felt, however, that the staging still has a number of issues.  There are a number of non sequiturs – the moving corridors in the sextet came from nowhere and went nowhere.  Similarly, there were random graphics during ‘non mi dir’ or clouds in ‘la ci darem’ that added nothing but distraction.  Sadly, Holten continues to cut the epilogue, moving from the stone guest scene to the final ensemble.  This is a ruinous cut that neglects the fact that the epilogue not only serves to tie up the characters’ histories dramatically, but also musically.  I very much regret that this has not been changed.  Nevertheless, the show felt much tighter than previously and feels much more appropriately nihilistic and psychologically astute than it did in London.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

On stage throughout the over three-hour running time, being seen reacting to other characters’ numbers, Kwiecień gave us a career-defining performance.  His dedication to the staging was total with a staggering level of dramatic and musical detail, right to down to the level of illustrating a single word or gesture to add meaning and nuance.  To sustain this level of detail is an immense achievement and confirms Kwiecień’s status as one of the greatest singing-actors of today.  Back in 2014, I had the impression that he was sacrificing the beauty of his handsome baritone to create a tired, desperate character.  Not so tonight.  Instead, the champagne aria was sung with surging desperation yet with a warmth of vocalization that it made me believe that he really was capable of seducing those thousands of women (and most probably quite a few men too).  He pulled out that honeyed legato and genuine trill in the serenade, finding a desperate supplication in the word ‘crudele’.  If there was one thing missing, it was that I would have inevitably have preferred more ornamentation – a few more appoggiature or varying the melody more frequently in the serenade would have been especially welcome – but this was an issue throughout most of the cast.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

The exception was Miah Persson’s superbly sung Elvira.  She sang with the kind of profound understanding of the Mozartian style that can’t be taught, transforming a simple appoggiatura into a deeply emotional and moving device, illustrating Elvira’s plight and transforming the music to really mean something.  She made me believe during her numbers that she was the only person in the world who could sing her music – and this is a role I have been exceptionally lucky with in the theatre.  Her sunny, strawberries & cream tone was a delight to listen to.  Most impressive.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

Carmela Remigio’s Anna was also well sung.  Hers isn’t the largest voice to have essayed this music, and hers was a more contained Anna than usual, not quite spitting fireworks in ‘or sai che l’onore’.  Yet the fact that she never went beyond her limits meant her singing had a sense of security that gave much pleasure, nowhere more so than in a deeply felt ‘non mi dir’.  Her Anna was always sung, never screamed.  Dmitry Korchak’s Ottavio was slightly more problematic.  He also sang both his arias with feeling but his vocal production sounded very wide which resulted in him never sitting quite on the note.  The impression of dullness he was required to maintain by the staging was magnified by the total lack of ornamentation making his arias sound rather anonymous.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

Rocío Ignacio was a spirited Zerlina, fuller of voice than usual with a beguiling, crystalline vibrato.  Valeriano Lanchas’ rustic baritone and warm stage presence made him a genuine and unthreatening Masetto.  Eric Halfvarson boomed menacingly as the Commendatore, but the voice is now showing signs of dryness with the passage of time.   Anatoli Sivko’s Leporello gave much pleasure.  His is a slightly acidic, typically eastern European bass-baritone.  He sang off the text and the hint of the Slavic accent in his Italian added an extra spiciness to his personality.  He was also a game stage presence.

After his disappointing Figaro at this address last fall, I was somewhat nervous of seeing Josep Pons conducting Mozart again.  He felt like a completely different conductor.  The stage-pit coordination issues that plagued that Figaro were nowhere to be seen.  Tempi were leisurely and in many places (in ‘vedrai carino’ for example’) felt far too slow.  Yet there was a rhythmic impetus in other numbers that kept the evening pulsating along.  The house band played very well – the valved horns making a convincingly raspy impression of natural horns, and the strings playing senza vibrato were always impeccably tuned.  Dani Espasa added some interesting contributions to the textures on the harpsichord (though I do wish they had used a fortepiano) and the recits crackled with life and dramatic tension.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

Tonight, the case of Holten’s reimagining of the work as a parable of the mid-life crisis of one man desperately seeking meaning in a life where the next fix no longer has any interest, was most certainly brought to life.  It seemed infinitely stronger and more convincing than it did in London.  Musically, there was much that was good even if (with one notable exception) the lack of ornamentation disappointed.  I’m not quite convinced that Holten’s Don Giovanni is one for the ages – there are still issues with the visuals that far too often add nothing, but at other points do add deeper understanding.  The cut to the epilogue is also unmusical and fails to tie up the story dramatically and musically.  Still, it’s a deeply considered and psychologically astute staging now, dominated by Kwiecień’s career-defining Don who hit greatness tonight, giving us a total performance of overwhelming dramatic and vocal power.

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