Calixto Bieito’s 2002 production of Don Giovanni from Barcelona’s Liceu theatre is a drink and drug fuelled nightmare. The general atmosphere will be familiar enough to anybody who has been around the “entertainment district” of a large city around chucking out time. Besides chemical stimulants and a great deal of enthusiastic bonking there’s also lots of violence, some of it quite disturbing, and buckets of blood but, as far as I could tell, only one rape. It’s bold and never dull but I think it stretches the libretto to its very limits and perhaps beyond.
The opening scene sets the action up as it must in any Don Giovanni. What really happens between Donna Anna and Don Giovanni determines, among other things, her relationship with Don Ottavio and thus so much else. Here there is no ambiguity. The lovers are screwing enthusiastically in the back of the Don’s car while Leporello keeps watch. When Donna Anna emerges in pursuit of him it’s clear that she knows who he is and she is a very willing “victim”. Only when the Commendatore, here a very violent and threatening figure, arrives and is killed does she seek to distance herself from Don Giovanni. Don Ottavio is shamelessly manipulated in her synthetic search for “vengeance”. The whole wedding/party scene is a sort of “stag and doe” party in which everyone is completely plastered. Masetto wears an outfit that would be over the top in Chelmsford and Zerlina loses her wedding dress. When the “virtuous” trio arrive it turns into a sort of costume party with, inter alia, Don Ottavio in a Superman costume. Act 2 is like a hangover coda to the orgy of Act 1. Leporello ends up stripped to his underwear. The statue of the Commendatore is a booze bottle. Don Giovanni’s dining room is a bar in its “morning after” state. There is no hell fire but rather a surprising and brutal final scene which might just be the most effective piece of theatre in the whole production. The idea that the whole thing is a drug driven nightmare is kind of interesting but does nothing for subtlety and the brutal and straightforward opening leaves no room for the kind of ambiguity that makes Martin Kušej’s Salzburg production so fascinating.
It’s not a particularly starry cast but the principals all seem to be doing their best to make the production concept work. The stand outs are Kwanchoul Youn as Leporello who sings and acts convincingly throughout and the Donna Elvira of Véronique Gens, who portrays a rather sympathetic character, in so far as one can feel sympathy for anyone in this crowd. Marisa Martin’s hard as nails Zerlina is also something of a tour de force and central to the production. There’s no vulnerability in Batti, batti and Vedrai, carino is positively twisted. Anatoly Korchega, as the Commendatore, is really good in the first scene; powerful, brutal and dangerous, but he’s rather undermined by the production in Act 2. I’m quite ambivalent about Regina Schörg’s Donna Anna. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether her rather dim, confused actions are deliberate or the result of not very good acting. In any event the result is to produce a rather unconvincingly manipulative Donna Anna which makes it even harder than usual for Don Ottavio to come across as anything other than a colourless wimp Marcel Reijans doesn’t manage it and he’s not the strongest singer in the production either so he falls a bit flat. Wojtek Drabowicz isn’t especially vocally distinguished as the Don but he does act well and there’s an odd sense in which in this production the action revolves around, rather than centres on, the Don so the fact that he’s sometimes a bit anonymous may not be such a bad thing. Felipe Bou’s Masetto is solid enough but he’s so upstaged by Zerlina that one hardly notices. Bertrand de Billy conducts and I don’t think one could ask for better musical support for the production concept.
The video direction is by Toni Bargalló. He’s got a very tough job to do. This production is dark (as in not much light) and very busy so it’s hard to compose shots that look like anything at all and give a fair idea of what’s going on on stage. Bargalló does what most video directors do in that situation and relies heavily on close ups. The trouble here is not just that we miss a lot of the action but that we get an over exaggerated view of some already rather overwrought acting, especially from Schörg. It’s not ideal but then I’m not sure what would be. The picture technically is very good given the low light levels and the DTS surround sound is more than averagely solid and spacious. There are English, French, German, Italian, Castilian and Catalan subtitles. There are no extras to speak of on the disk but the booklet contains a fairly useful essay..
I don’t think this would be anyone’s first choice for Don Giovanni. Traditionalists and beginners would probably be better off with something like the Metropolitan Opera’s very traditional 2000 recording or maybe Glyndebourne’s recent effort with Gerald Finley. Regie fans have lots of good choices including the Kušej version mentioned above and the more recent Guth recording from Salzburg. That said, for all its flaws, this production is worth a look.