Don Giovanni in the 21st century

After a week of nostalgia wallowing in ancient “productions” from the met and the COC it’s back to Regietheater with a vengeance for the 100th DVD review on this blog.  The subject is Martin Kušej’s Salzburg production of Don Giovanni which premiered in 2002 but was recorded in 2006 as part of the M22 project.

For a start there’s nothing giocoso about this dramma. It’s a very bleak and complex production with lots of ideas; some of which work and some of which are more problematic, and it’s provoked more discussion at the Kitten Kondo than just about any other recording we’ve watched recently.  Rather than write a 3000 word review I’m going to write a normal length review and follow it up with one or more posts on aspects of the production that seem particularly worth exploring.

The production is given a contemporary setting.  Costumes range from sweaters through cocktail dresses to dinner jackets.  The set is a vast array of white wall and circle elements that, in constantly changing configurations, form a rather stark backdrop to the action.  Sometimes, as during the overture, it’s a blank wall, though here decorated with a giant portrait of five more or less nude women.  At other times it transforms into a series of rooms; either revolving slowly behind the action displaying tableaux of the Don’s conquests during the catalogue aria or providing a series of stark spaces for Don Giovanni and Zerlina to play cat and mouse in.  Besides the usual characters and chorus there is a troupe of, usually scantily clad, female extras, the sisters of Persephone who act, in the classical sense albeit silently, as Chorus.  They are pretty much omnipresent.  We first meet them when they process across the stage, catwalk style, during the overture and disappear through a door in an otherwise blank wall.  They are there at the end as mocking witnesses to Don Giovanni’s downfall.  In between we see a Don Giovanni who starts out as master of his essentially heartless game of seduction and casual sex but loses the plot as the action progresses and his essential viciousness is revealed.  In Kušej’s words “We despise Don Giovanni and want to be rid of him”.  This idea culminates in the supper scene where rather than Don Giovanni being dragged down to Hell he is more prosaically stabbed by Leporello.  This is followed up by a really bleak rendering of the final scene in which there’s no sense of triumph or justice or redemption.  Even the couples don’t seem much interested in each other.  Grim!  All of this is supported by a complex, atmospheric and highly effective lighting plot.

There’s more violence linked to the sex than we usually see; notably a badly beaten up Zerlina.  Also, unsurprisingly given the concept setting, there’s even more ambiguity than usual about consent and complicity.  Donna Anna’s scarf appears at intervals as a blindfold raising questions about who’s fooling who about what.  That’s a subject for a whole other post.  There’s also a shoe fetish thing going on.   Does Don Giovanni shorn of its supernatural elements and an 18th century concept of female “honour” based on chastity work?  Not entirely but it raises enough questions to be really interesting and, in my view, worthwhile as theatre.

The singing and acting is generally very good.  The casting provides a pleasing variety of tone colour in which the whole is more than the sum pf the parts.  Among the men Thomas Hampson’s lyrical baritone Don contrasts nicely with the darker, almost coarse, tone of Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s Leporello.  Both of them act superbly too.  They are well supported by a much less annoying/boring than usual Don Ottavio in Piotr Beczala and an almost ludicrously young looking Luca Pisaroni as Masetto.  Robert Lloyd is a straightforward Commendatore but he’s pretty much an optional extra in this production.  The three sopranos are even more of a contrast.  At one end there’s the light lyric voice of Christine Schäfer as Donna Anna and at the other the bigger, brighter and more dramatic voice of Melanie Diener as Donna Elvira.  In between is Isabel Bayrakdarian as Zerlina, already starting to show the much darker tones in the middle and lower registers that have become so apparent in the last couple of years.  All of the singing is good and the acting responds well to the demands of some pretty detailed and demanding Personenregie.  I was less convinced by the conductor (Daniel Harding) and the orchestra (Wiener Philharmoniker).  At times the orchestra seems to be lagging the action but it’s hard to tell because the voices are balanced a long way forward and the orchestral sound is more muffled than it ought to be on a modern recording (at least that’s how the DTS 5.1 track sounds, maybe the PCM stereo is better but I doubt it).  All in all the singers rather seemed to be left to get on with it.

The video direction is by Karina Fibich and it’s idiosyncratic.She uses really odd angles a lot of the time like shooting from the wings or the orchestra pit.  I really don’t see the point of showing a view that no-one in the audience sees, especially when the stage picture is as complicated and carefully composed as here.  The picture is OK.  It’s 16:9 digital TV quality.  It certainly wasn’t shot in HD which may be why there’s no Blu-ray version of this production.  There are English, French, German, Italian and Spanish subtitles.  The English is weirdly archaic in places which rather jars with the production!  The booklet includes a useful, if short, note by Richard Fairman as well as track listing and synopsis.  The only extras are promotional pieces for other Decca recordings which is a shame.  An interview with the director would have been very helpful.

I doubt that there could ever be a “definitive” Don Giovanni and this certainly isn’t it but it’s well worth watching, probably more than once!

Follow up posts
Delusion and collusion; in which I explore how Kušej treats sex, kink and consent in Act 1.
Choices and futures; in which I look at how Kušej develops and resolves (or doesn’t) the problems raised in Act 1.

11 thoughts on “Don Giovanni in the 21st century

  1. Sounds like I should add this one to my list too. Also re: the weirdly archaic English in the subtitles. Sometimes I notice things like this and I really wonder where they’re getting their translations. At times I suspect it’s older public domain English versions of the librettos — like 18th/early 19th-century public domain.

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  9. This is an amazing Don Giovanni. Kusej renders it provocative again. I think I’ve watched it a dozen times and still find things. This and the Guth Giovanni are among the meatiest stagings of the last ten years or so.

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