Kasper Holten’s Royal Opera House production of Don Giovanni, seen in cinemas, is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s a visually and dramatically complex production so it’s probably as well that there’s plenty of explanatory material on the disks and in the booklet. Es Devlin’s set is a two storey structure that rotates and serves as a screen for a heavy use of video projections by Luke Halls. These start wth the 2065 names of the women Don Giovanni has seduced and seem to be mostly about what’s going on in Don Giovanni’s head. The sequence during Fin ch’han dal vino calda la testa is particularly spectacular.
Holten’s concept really has several main elements. Most important is his attempt to answer the question “What does Hell mean nowadays?” As he says, when one wakes up screaming in the night nowadays it’s not because demons are dragging one off into the flames. His answer is mortality itself; at least for a hedonist like Don Giovanni. Hell is to become old and lose one’s attraction. His Don Giovanni is getting there and the events of the fateful 48 hours will finish the job. The last scene is actually quite remarkably disturbing. Then there is his take on the three women. All are deeply attracted to Don Giovanni and both Donna Anna and Zerlina are deeply implicated in their own seduction. There is no rape/attempted rape here. In fact during Della sua pace (beautifully sung) Donna Anna slips off for a quickie with Don Giovanni. The drawback of giving the women this kind of agency though is that makes Masetto and Don Ottavio even more like cardboard cut out chumps than normal.
Holten is also very aware that Don Giovanni is, on one level, a farce and he uses Leporello to emphasise that. Here more Don Giovanni’s conscience and wingman than servant, he’s also at the root of most of the physical comedy. Finally there’s a writing and ink motif running through the projections and the costumes; perhaps a reminder that this is a story or just a reminder of the centrality of the “little black book”? Also, there are some cuts. The graveyard scene is (mercifully) shortened and the scene between Don Giovanni going to Hell and the final ensemble is completely omitted. I think that makes sense as it makes for a much starker ending. When I first saw this production I thought it was visually chaotic. On rewatching it makes rather more sense. In fact, like all the best Don Giovanni productions, it rather gets under your skin.
There are some very fine performances. Marius Kwiecien really gets into things and looks like he believes in what he’s doing (unlike in Grandage’s production at the Met). It’s a fine singing performance with all the big numbers nailed but it’s his ability to create a Don who is both dangerous and sexually irrestible that’s really impressive. The other standout acting performance is Malin Bystrōm as Donna Anna. Her Donna Anna is a very juicy and highly sexed blonde. Her ability to portray a woman who can’t make her mind up whether Don Giovanni is who she wants long term, while being very clear about the short term!, is impressive. Again, a good singing performance though never music for music’s sake. In Non mi dir, for example, her ongoing obsession with Don Giovanni is plain to see. Véronique Gens is near perfect as Donna Elvira. This role is here perhaps closer to the “standard version” but she’s convincing and sings beautifully. Her big numbers are spot on including an exceptional Ah, fuggi il traditor. Elizabeth Watt’s Zerlina is unusual. Not at all waif like, she’s running the show and, like Donna Anna, trying to decide whether she can make a go of Don Giovanni. The big arias, though well sung, seem a bit perfunctory as she has Masetto so tightly leashed.
Alex Esposito is a cheeky chappy Leporello. He has some very funny comic moments and he sings well. His voice, darker and perhaps naturally lower, contrasts well with Kwiecien too. The other men; Antonio Poli as Don Ottavio, Dawid Kimberg as Masetto and Alexander Tsymbalyuk as the Commendatore, are all perfectly adequate but really are rather written out of this production. Poli, in particular, is a pleasure to listen to. Nicola Luisotti conducts and seems entirely in sympathy with what’s happening on stage.
Jonathan Haswell had the unenviable task of filming this visually very complex production. It’s good work. Sure, there are times when there’s more going on than he can convey but that’s inevitable. Picture and sound (DTS) quality on DVD are very good though for some odd reason the stereo option is Dolby 2.0 – very 80s. I’d go for the Blu-ray if you have that option though as this is very complex. There are lots of useful extras on the didsks including the option to watch the entire production with commentary by Holten and Devlin. The booklet has a synopsis and an essay Don Juan and the Modern Mind. Neither are specific to this production. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.
There are many good video recordings of interesting productions of Don Giovanni. Indeed, perhaps no other opera poses so many questions for directors and elicits such different answers. Holten’s production is an intelligent and very modern take on the story and there are some really good performances. Definitely worth a look.