Looking Within: Don Giovanni at the Staatsoper Hamburg

Mozart – Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni – Andrè Schuen
Leporello – Kyle Ketelsen
Donna Anna – Julia Kleiter
Donna Elvira – Federica Lombardi
Don Ottavio – Dovlet Nurgeldiyev
Zerlina – Anna Lucia Richter
Masetto – Alexander Roslavets
Commendatore – Alexander Tsymbalyuk

Chor der Hamburgischen Staatsoper, Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg / Ádám Fischer.
Stage director – Jan Bosse.

Staatsoper, Hamburg, Germany.  Sunday, October 20th, 2019.

Who exactly is Don Giovanni?  The answer, traditionally, is fairly straightforward – philanderer, rogue, libertine, or any variation thereof.  But Jan Bosse, in his new staging for the Staatsoper Hamburg premiered tonight, asks an even deeper question: what effect does Don Giovanni have on others?  He isn’t the first to explore this theme in depth – Richard Jones took a similar approach in Oslo last year, for instance.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Bosse’s approach provides for an interesting first act.  The female characters are much stronger than we often see – Federica Lombardi’s Elvira is fiery and hellbent on revenge, Anna Lucia Richter’s Zerlina takes control and dominates Masetto in ‘batti, batti’, while Julia Kleiter’s Anna appears to be a willing participant with Andrè Schuen’s Giovanni in the opening scene.  And yet, when they have the chance to kill Giovanni in the Act 1 finale, they don’t take it.  Is it that each person’s relationship with Giovanni is key to understanding themselves?  There’s a nihilism to Bosse’s vision, a sense of uncontrollable misunderstanding, an obsession and retreat into oneself, that I found both troubling and timely.  And yet, it felt that Bosse’s staging lost steam in Act 2, with the characters retreating into individual spaces, in many respects matching the course of the music, with the sequence of arias following the sextet, that meant the trio of Elvira, Anna and Ottavio mused to themselves rather than engaged to others.  This meant that there was nowhere else for them to go and develop as individuals.  Perhaps, though, that was the point.  Perhaps we’re destined never to find real connections outside of ourselves.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Troubling, certainly, and especially so as Bosse chooses to cut the epilogue.  This is musically barbaric, ejecting us out into the night with the sense of a cadence in desperate search of resolution.  But it also meant that the characters, we had spent the previous three hours engaged with, trailed into nothingness.  This sense of a staging losing its way was reinforced by Bosse’s direction.  During that sequence of arias – ‘mi tradi, il mio tesoro, non mi dir’, he projected images of cast members deep in thought onto the noisily rotating set, distracting from, rather than amplifying, those in front of us.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

During the course of the evening, Bosse also introduced a new character ‘Amor/Tod’ in the shape of actress and frequent Bosse collaborator, Anne Müller.  She was a constant presence in Act 1, opening windows, painting graffiti with the total number of Giovanni’s conquests, and inviting musicians from the pit to the stage to provide the stage music.  And yet, in Act 2, she seemed to disappear, only to return in the closing scene as a pale vision dragging Giovanni to hell.  I’m not entirely convinced she added much to proceedings, though her energy, constantly moving in Act 1 and also body popping to the music at times, was impressive.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Musically, this was a satisfying evening.  Schuen is a major Don Giovanni.  The voice is in fabulous shape, seductively dark in tone and equipped with an impeccable legato.  He savoured the text, bringing out a wealth of nuance – essential in a role where so much of the development of his character takes place through the recitatives.  His champagne aria was extrovertly dispatched, yet never breathless.  His serenade was delivered with a lieder singer’s sense of intimacy, pulling right back, floating that elegant line and bringing the audience right in.  He rose to a final scene of visceral dramatic power, utterly gripping to watch.  Most impressive.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

I don’t know how many times Kyle Ketelsen has sung Leporello.  He’s certainly one of the leading exponents of the role today.  Tonight, he made it sound utterly fresh, as if discovering the character for the first time, bringing a wit and charm that was captivating, striking sparks off his relationship with Schuen’s Giovanni.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

There was an impressive trio of ladies.  Kleiter sang with poise and elegance, rising to a deeply felt ‘non mi dir’.  She floated the lines with sophistication, the pearly tone containing a touch of steel at the core.  Perhaps varying the line and adding some appoggiature would give her singing even more individuality, but this was a notable role debut.  Lombardi was a fiery Elvira, spitting out ‘ah, chi mi dice mai’ with uninhibited force.  Her ‘mi tradi’ offered endless lines and warm golden tone with a few welcome appoggiature.  She also made much of the text, digging deep to find meaning.  Richter was a crystalline Zerlina.  She does appear to have a tendency to sing slightly sharp, not helped by her having to sing laying on her back or straddling her Masetto.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

He was Alexander Roslavets who sang with implacable, masculine tone and was an engaging stage presence.  As Ottavio, Dovlet Nurgeldiyev sang with impressively long-breathed phrasing in both his arias, shading the tone with care and attention.  The passagework in ‘il mio tesoro’ was nicely even.  The voice was always well placed and bright in tone.  That said, I did long for him to dig a little deeper into the text, to pull out meaning, rather than sing over it.  Alexander Tsymbalyuk boomed magnificently as the Commendatore, amplified by having the trombones behind him on stage.  There’s so much juicy resonance to his bass.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Ádám Fischer led a reading where tempi were on the moderate side of swift.  As is often the case on an opening night, there was a touch of scrappiness in the strings in places, but he kept the forces together throughout the evening.  The opening of the evening was striking, with hard thwacks on the timpani and strings playing with minimal vibrato, exploring and working through the strangeness of the orchestral line.  There were a few places where tension sagged – the final scene felt far weightier than the music could support, and the Anna, Elvira and Ottavio trio in the Act 1 finale seemed to lose a sense of forward momentum.  The recitatives also felt slightly saggy at times but Schuen and Ketelsen ensured that the pace picked up and increased the tension.  There was some ornamentation but, given its essential importance to Mozartian style, not enough of it.  Otherwise, his was a sensible, efficient reading and always supportive to his singers.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Musically, there was a lot to enjoy in this Don Giovanni.  The singing throughout was very good, with a cast that had clearly been assembled intelligently.  In Schuen, Hamburg has a major interpreter of the title role.  Dramatically, it was one of those evenings that started with a really intriguing and thoughtful premise but seemed to lose its way after intermission.  Perhaps all of us, at some point, meet a Don Giovanni.  Someone who forces us to retreat into ourselves, to lose our way and become a shell of who we were before.  Yet in losing the epilogue, Bosse deprives us and his characters of any resolution, giving us a nihilism which is all-consuming.  Perhaps this is a Don Giovanni for our troubled times.  I’d like to think, though, that resolution is still possible.

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