Mozart under the stars: Don Giovanni at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence

Mozart – Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni – Philippe Sly
Leporello – Nahuel di Pierro
Donna Anna – Eleonora Buratto
Donna Elvira – Isabel Leonard
Don Ottavio – Pavol Breslik
Zerlina – Julie Fuchs
Masetto – Krzysztof Bączyk
Commendatore – David Leigh

English Voices, Le Cercle de l’Harmonie / Jérémie Rhorer.
Stage director – Jean-François Sivadier.

Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France.  Saturday, July 15th, 2017. 

There is something very special about spending an evening at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, watching opera under the Provençal stars.  Mozart, of course, has been key to the history of this Festival with Don Giovanni being performed here for the first time in the second edition back in 1949.  The Festival combined this year a promising youthful cast under one of the most exciting young Mozart conductors with his period instrument orchestra.  The ingredients were certainly there for a very exciting evening, but did it actually deliver?

Photo: © Pascal Victor / artcompress

The first thing that struck me about Jean-François Sivadier’s production is simply to ask ‘what is that we’re actually seeing’?  Were we seeing a rehearsal of a traditional Don Giovanni production or were we seeing a performance?  As we enter the theatre, we see the cast milling around in modern dress but later, as the evening develops, the costumes become more eighteenth-century rustic chic only to return to modern dress towards the end.  There was a simplicity to the stage visuals – no especially elaborate set here – but much of the visual interest was achieved instead through the principals as well as with a corps of actors and the constant movement of this energetic cast.  In an interesting program note, Sivadier discusses the multiple influences on his staging and he is clearly a thoughtful and well-read director.  However, the downside of this approach is that we end up with a cluttered narrative.  Sivadier adds so many layers, characters and extras indulging in so much extraneous stage business, that one is constantly wondering why things are happening.  For example, Anna perambulating around with a crucifix while Ottavio sings ‘dalla sua pace’ or the man hacking into the wall in the Act 1 finale.

Photo: © Pascal Victor / artcompress

There were, however, some insightful ideas.  We come to realize that the hanging lightbulbs that appear all over the set are in fact symbols of Giovanni’s former conquests.  Whereas in Kasper Holten’s Don Giovanni, seen at the Liceu two weeks ago, the names of Giovanni’s conquests appear on the set, here the presence of the lightbulbs remind us of his prodigious sexual appetite.  There are points in the evening where Sivadier makes use of spotlight, seemingly to symbolize something; yet what precisely it is there to symbolize is left unclear, simply because the narrative is so cluttered.

Photo: © Pascal Victor / artcompress

Perhaps Sivadier is making us reflect on the performativity of seduction.  For Giovanni, seduction is as much of a performance as anything else.  But what lies beyond that?  I’m not sure Sivadier gives or even hints at an answer.  We saw a cast who address the audience more often than addressing each other.  The relations with others as much as projecting as revealing inner feelings.  I felt that the exception was the Zerlina/Masetto couple who for once I felt I understood the tenderness between them that led to ‘batti, batti’.

Photo: © Pascal Victor / artcompress

Ultimately, having to constantly ask ‘why’ things were happening, also meant that we needed to also ask ‘who’ we were seeing.  Who were these people and why should we care about them?  In a way, Franco-Ontarian bass-baritone Philippe Sly’s Don Giovanni didn’t stand a chance against the constant stage business around him.  The fact that he was able to transcend it and make such a strong physical impression is testament to his excellent acting ability.  His physicality was staggering – even at the end of a very long evening, he was jumping around the stage as tirelessly as he was at the start.  Sly gave us a performance of uninhibited physicality, one that inspired great respect.  Vocally, he gave us a lieder singer’s attention to text, with an intimacy of delivery that felt perhaps more at home in the recital room than the opera house.  The voice is handsome but tends to lose the core of the tone below mezzo forte.  He is very young, not yet thirty, and at the start of what will undoubtedly be a very exciting career.  If his vocalism didn’t quite dominate the stage as much as his physicality, surely this will come with time.

Photo: © Pascal Victor / artcompress

Sly was joined by Nahuel di Pierro’s Leporello.  Di Pierro is a sensational actor with superb comic timing.  His Leporello was witty, whether in recitative or in his catalogue aria, sung off the text and genuinely lived.  Vocally his is a rustic and engaging bass, full at the bottom, and his use of the words gave much pleasure.  Eleonora Buratto was a tremendous Anna, spitting fireworks in ‘or sai che l’onore’ but also finding the tenderness required for ‘non mi dir’, singing the latter with seemingly endless lines and genuine dignity.  The voice has just the steely edge required but is also full, round and carries through the theatre.  I must admit I found Isabel Leonard’s Elvira problematic.  It was beautifully sung, all the registers were integrated and the tessitura caused no issues.  Her oboe-toned mezzo is voluptuous and velvety.  And yet, there was a lack of individuality to her singing, partly due to the relative lack of ornamentation, and partly also due to the limited palette of vocal colours.  There seemed to be no identification with what she was singing, the connection between words and notes not in place, which resulted in her Elvira feeling rather cold.  Technically it was impeccable, interpretatively didn’t feel particularly memorable.

Photo: © Pascal Victor / artcompress

Julie Fuchs gave us a lovely Zerlina, wonderfully beguiling, the tone bright and crystalline.  Krzysztof Bączyk’s Masetto was sung in a truly handsome bass with Italianate pointing of the text.  Indeed, in many ways I wish he had doubled up as the Commendatore.  David Leigh’s Commendatore certainly had stage presence, the words were clear, but the tone itself was somewhat hollow and didn’t quite boom as imposingly as one might have expected.  Pavol Breslik gave us a very fine Ottavio.  He sang ‘dalla sua pace’ with sensitivity, making use of a honeyed mezza voce.  In ‘il mio tesoro’ he sang the rapid passagework with wonderful evenness but also demonstrated evenness throughout the range as he passed through the passaggio.  Certainly the attractive small embellishments he made really enhanced the line.

Photo: © Pascal Victor / artcompress

There certainly was some use of ornamentation tonight but regrettably, for my taste at least, not quite enough of it.  The use of ornamentation is essential to this repertoire and it did feel like something of a missed opportunity with the cast (Buratto’s Anna a notable exception) not especially exploiting the power of appoggiature as a psychologically insightful device.  Jérémie Rhorer led a reading in which all of his tempi felt just right and the evening sped by in a heartbeat.  We were given some splendid playing by the Cercle de l’Harmonie – I don’t think I’ve ever heard that otherworldly strangeness he brought out in the strings as the Commendatore shows up for dinner before.   The brass were especially good, raspy horns tickling the ear delightfully, and the trombones making their presence felt.  There was also a very characterful solo bassoon and the hard sticks on the timpani adding a rhythmic edge that was irresistible.  The twelve singers of English Voices gamely threw themselves into everything asked of them and sang with tight ensemble.

Tonight was one of those evenings where the promise didn’t feel quite realized.  The principals gave absolutely everything of themselves and Sly in particular deserves our admiration for his fearless physicality.  Yet, the evening was compromised by a staging that cluttered the narrative with far too much extraneous detail, found itself sidetracked when it needed clarity, and never really seemed to answer its own ‘why’ or ‘how’?  That said, the dedication of the cast and the excellence of the orchestra and conducting are certainly worth seeing.

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