Another Door Opens: Don Giovanni at Den Norske Opera, Oslo

Mozart – Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni – Johannes Weisser
Leporello – Jakob Bloch Jespersen
Donna Anna – Birgitte Christensen
Donna Elvira – Marita Sølberg
Don Ottavio – Anthony Gregory
Zerlina – Caroline Wettergreen
Masetto – Martin Hatlo
Commendatore – Jens-Erik Aasbø

Norske Operakoret, Norske Operaorkestret / Benjamin Bayl.
Stage director – Richard Jones

Den Norske Opera, Operaen, Oslo, Norway.  Saturday, June 16th, 2018.

In a post-#MeToo era, can we still view Don Giovanni as a dramma giocoso?  After all, this is a work that starts with a rape and focuses on a character whose life consists of a series of conquests around Europe.  This may be oversimplifying things somewhat – one could certainly argue that there is much more to the piece than that – but that’s a discussion for another time and another place.

Photo: © Erik Berg

Richard Jones approaches the work as a parable of obsession.  He isn’t the first to take a similar approach, and it draws parallels with Warlikowski’s even more radical Brussels staging in 2014.  As the curtain rises, the audience is confronted with a proscenium-high image of Johannes Weisser’s Giovanni with a single word, ‘wanted’, underneath.  But wanted how?  That’s the question and the strength of Jones’ staging is that he turns that idea of wanting on its head.  Rather than wanted as a criminal, Giovanni is in fact wanted as an object of desire, a canvas upon which each of the characters paints her or his own individual obsession.  During the overture, we see a steady parade of ladies (and a gentleman) enter Giovanni’s room, emerging afterwards in an almost business-like fashion.  In this 1950s setting, sex is transactional and kept hidden behind doors.  The set is made of multiple doors, each potentially hiding a variety of sexual proclivities or Giovanni’s volumes of registers of his conquests.  There is little tenderness between the characters – individuals seem to barely engage with each other.  Anna has a fantasy of being taken by force and uses an encounter with Giovanni as a way of living this out.  This fantasy, instead of a rape, becomes the catalyst for the drama.  The Commendatore, himself enjoying an assignation in the next room, hears his daughter, rushes to her aid and is instead accidentally murdered.  The murder triggers a series of events that exposes the hidden sexualities beneath the surface.  Whether they be Elvira’s desperate search for a monogamous husband or Masetto’s need to satisfy his violent urges.  That propensity to violence brings a sinister edge to ‘batti, batti’ for a Zerlina who is clearly working through her own issues.

Photo: © Erik Berg

While this aspect of the obsession and objectification of Giovanni is cogently argued and provided a very convincing thread through the evening, I’m not quite convinced by other aspects of Jones’ staging.  He isn’t the first director to remove the giocoso from the dramma, yet at the same time it felt a bit underdeveloped.  Having Leporello dancing with jazz hands during the champagne aria seemed disconnected to the rest.  Similarly, I’m not quite convinced by why and how the Commendatore managed to rise himself from the dead for his dinner date.  Given the highly realistic staging, the insertion of the supernatural seemed illogical – though it would be hard to see how Jones could have set it up otherwise.  There is an absolutely fascinating plot twist at the end.  Without giving spoilers, suffice it to say that it’s an extremely clever move from Jones.

Photo: © Erik Berg

Musically there was a lot that was very positive tonight.  Right from the opening chords, Benjamin Bayl gave notice of a very special evening to come.  The strings immediately setting their stall playing senza vibrato, giving the opening an appropriately otherworldly tone and the generous Oslo acoustic giving the orchestral sound an added resonance and impact.  The first act flew by in a heartbeat.  Tempi were always well judged, based in a firm rhythmic foundation, propelled along by firm thwacks on the timpani.  Very occasionally stage and pit lost contact with each other and occasionally also the strings ran away from themselves.  Otherwise, it was a very satisfying reading.

Photo: © Erik Berg

Weisser was a tremendous Giovanni, commanding the stage throughout, both vocally and dramatically.  There’s a youthfulness to the tone that I find absolutely engaging and ideal for the part.  He brought out a handsome seductiveness in the serenade (sung down the phone to Elvira’s maid) with an impeccable legato and ornamentation that enhanced the line.  The champagne aria was dispatched with extrovert ease without compromising on the beauty of the tone.  So much of Giovanni’s character is created in the recitatives and here Weisser really used the text fully to illustrate the character, thereby giving him the impact to carry the show.

Photo: © Erik Berg

Jakob Bloch Jespersen’s Leporello was somewhat more problematic.  He has solid musical instincts and his singing was always accurate.  The voice isn’t the largest and didn’t always reach my seat in the fourth row of the orchestra section, often drowned out by the band.  I wish he’d also made more of the text – singing with it rather than over it.  Still, his dedication to everything asked of him was admirable.

Photo: © Erik Berg

Birgitte Christensen spat out fireworks in her ‘or sai chi l’onore’ singing with generous force, the voice slightly acidic with a steely glint.  Her ‘non mi dir’ was deeply felt, daring to reduce the tone to a thread and taking risks with imaginative and welcome ornamentation.  Marita Sølberg took a little while to find her best form, her opening ‘ah chi mi dice mai’ somewhat blowzy.  She quickly found her feet though, the voice blooming to a silky, aristocratic fullness.  It’s a ravishing sound.  Her ‘mi tradì’ was sung in endless phrases, the voice even from top to bottom.  I did wish that Sølberg had taken a few more risks with the line.  Other than a few appoggiature, more ornamentation would have given her singing even more individuality.  Make no mistake, Sølberg is the owner of an instrument of rare distinction.

Photo: © Erik Berg

Anthony Gregory sang Ottavio in a compact and lean tenor.  He sang both his arias with an easy line and great sensitivity.  As of yet, there appears to be a somewhat limited palette of tone colours and the runs in ‘il mio tesoro’ were somewhat aspirated.  Gregory does promise to be a very useful artist.  Caroline Wettergreen was a spiky and beautifully sung Zerlina with a voice of crystalline beauty.  Martin Hatlo sang Masetto with a large and rustic bass with imposing stage presence – indeed, I wonder whether he might have been more optimum casting for Leporello.  Jens-Erik Aasbø boomed lyrically as the Commendatore, the voice warm with complex depth.  The chorus made an agreeable noise in their brief interjections.

Photo: © Erik Berg

There was so much that gave pleasure in tonight’s Don Giovanni.  An intelligent and cogent staging, very well sung on the whole, and conducted with energizing vigour.  Jones gives us a fascinating, and frequently subversive, vision of a society where desire, need and hypocrisy feed into each other.  The truth is, this Giovanni could be anyone, anywhere, upon whom others project their fantasies.  If there are a few non sequiturs along the way, this is a small price to pay for a theatrical experience so engaging and so stimulating.

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