Another Midlife Crisis: Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House

Mozart – Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni – Mariusz Kwiecień
Leporello – Ildebrando d’Arcangelo
Donna Anna – Rachel Willis-Sørensen
Donna Elvira – Hrachuhi Bassenz
Don Ottavio – Pavol Breslik
Zerlina – Chen Reiss
Masetto – Anatoli Sivko
Commendatore – Willard White

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Marc Minkowski.
Stage director – Kasper Holten.

Royal Opera House, London, England.  Thursday, July 12th, 2018.

I’ve written at length on Kasper Holten’s Don Giovanni staging over the years, having now seen three runs of it at the Royal Opera House and one at the Gran Teatre del Liceu.  I admit that at first, I was skeptical but with time Holten, together with revival director Amy Lane, has transformed the staging into a cogently argued and interesting journey into a man’s obsession as his sexually active past catches up with him.  Tonight’s performance was broadcast to outdoor screens around the UK as well as on the YouTube.  What struck me in particular about this revival, as well as that at the Liceu, is how stronger the female characters are compared to the initial run.  We have three very clear ladies – one trying to hide her indiscretions that ended in the murder of her father, another who just wants a happy married life, and a third who just wants a laugh.  The relationships between all of the cast are stronger and more transparent now.

Photo: © ROH/Bill Cooper

The main issue remains Luke Halls’ video projections.  While they add visual interest, far too often they distract from what are extremely convincing and striking performances from the principals.  The staging is also starting to look dated.  The projections seem to be less focused than before, the hazy light getting tiresome to look at.  Of course, the biggest issue I have with the staging is the cutting of the epilogue.  It seems completely unmusical, sending us out into the night with the unbearable sense of a cadence desperately in search of resolution.  How a conductor with as solid a background in performance practice as Marc Minkowski could authorize this, is something I find hard to fathom.  Especially so as the epilogue could completely work within Holten’s concept.  For instance, Giovanni could be trapped on the upper level of the set while characters below start to plan their life without him.

Photo: © ROH/Bill Cooper

The staging benefits from the uncompromising advocacy of Mariusz Kwiecień’s Giovanni.  On stage throughout, he is absolutely tireless.  Kwiecień is an exceptional singing actor, his ability to incarnate a character second to none.  He gave us some remarkably seductive soft singing in ‘la ci darem’ as well as in the serenade, pulling out that burnished legato that is his trademark.  Of course, I would have liked to have heard more ornamentation, truly essential in this repertoire, but Kwiecień managed to make the music his own through such intelligent use of dynamics.  The evening culminated in a final scene of visceral, thrilling power, Kwiecień generating enough theatrical energy to power an entire city.  His Giovanni is defiant, vulnerable and impossible to take your eyes off of.  This is the work of a master singing-actor.

Photo: © ROH/Bill Cooper

Rachel Willis-Sørensen was a tremendous Donna Anna, blowing me and my fellow audience members, quite literally, away.  The voice is huge.  There’s something quite thrilling about hearing a massive voice in this music, but she can also turn the corners with ease.  Her ‘or sai chi l’onore’ was sensational, firing out her bright, steely soprano into the auditorium with some thrilling embellishments above the stave.  Similarly, her ‘non mi dir’ was sung with great delicacy and ornamented to perfection.  She was joined by Pavol Breslik who gave us a lovely ‘dalla sua pace’ sung on a thread of tone.  His honeyed tenor gave great pleasure, the even legato gratefully deployed.  He also gave us some sensitive and stylish ornaments that truly enhanced the line.

Photo: © ROH/Bill Cooper

Hrachuhi Bassenz sounded somewhat out of sorts as Elvira.  There was no denying the generous force with which she sang – her Elvira was most certainly a powerhouse – but the voice sounded somewhat tight, the physical tension audible in the tone.  There was also a seemingly limited palette of tonal colours.  Her dedication was most admirable, however.  Chen Reiss was a crystalline Zerlina with an easily-produced lyrical soprano.  Anatoli Sivko (Leporello at the Liceu last year) a gruff and masculine Masetto.  Willard White still has stage presence to share, but the sound of the passage of the years is now audible in his grainy bass-baritone.  Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s Leporello benefitted from his native diction but seemed to be singing in a different tempo from his castmates for much of the evening.

Photo: © ROH/Bill Cooper

Minkowski led an interesting reading.  I was surprised by the fact that a number of his tempi felt flaccid, particularly in the slower numbers – ‘vedrai cario’ being one notable example.  There were also some issues of coordination between stage and pit, surprising given this was the penultimate performance of the run.  This was the 435th Royal Opera Don Giovanni, so one would think the orchestra would have had some practice in the piece.  Unfortunately, the strings were poorly tuned throughout, scrappy in attack.  Frankly, for a house of this reputation it really wasn’t acceptable.  The winds, however, were very good, some real personality and wit in the playing, and the trombones suitably sepulchral where required.

Photo: © ROH/Bill Cooper

Tonight was something of a mixed experience.  We had some sensational singing with Willis-Sørensen proving herself one of the finest Annas I have ever heard.  Breslik’s Ottavio also gave much pleasure and both Reiss and Sivko were an ardent pair of young lovers.  The conducting felt somewhat flaccid and that really isn’t the most desirable quality that one might look for in a Don Giovanni.  Holten’s production feels like a much more coherent, intelligent and indeed human piece than it did when it was first premiered, anchored by Kwiecień’s electrifying Giovanni.  Having seen Kwiecień perform this piece over eight times now, on two continents, what strikes me is how every performance is so different from the next.  Each one an organic, living character who pulls the audience in.  This may be Don Giovanni’s mid-life crisis rather than a youthful seducer but Kwiecień makes a most convincing case for this reading.

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One comment

  1. Rachel is certain to have an astonishing career. Her Elena in Munich was really astounding, I had seen her several times prior and enjoyed her but nothing prepared me for that nor this Donna Anna, which earned one of the few legitimate screaming ovations I’ve seen at the ROH.

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