Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s second Mozart/daPonte for Salzburg was Don Giovanni which premiered in 2014. There are some similarities with his Così fan tutte. He uses a symmetrical unit set again and shows a fondness for creating symmetrical tableaux vivants but there the similarities pretty much end. I could find a consistent, believable set of humans in Così but not so much in Don Giovanni. The problem is really the man himself. Bechtolf, in his notes, seems to be arguing that Don Giovanni can make no sense in an age of pervasive accessibility and exposure to all things sexual. Da Ponte’s Don requires a climate of sexual repression for his essence; to Bechtolf a kind of Dionysian force (he cites Kierkegaard), to make any sense as a human. I think I get that but then, I think, the challenge becomes to create a Don Giovanni who does make sense to a 21st century audience as, in their different ways, do Guth and Tcherniakov. Bechtolf seems to treat the character not so much as a human rather than as a kind of energy focus who exists by igniting aspects of the other characters; whether that’s lust or jealousy or hatred. He caps off this idea at the end by having Don Giovanni reappear during the final ensemble as a kind of mischievous presence still chasing anything in a skirt, even if it’s, perhaps, from another world. It’s an idea that I could not really buy into.
Other aspects of the production are sometimes quite interesting, if sometimes also a bit puzzling. The setting appears to be an upmarket hotel in, maybe, the early 20th century. The visual clues as to time period are contradictory. So, there are lots of bedrooms and waiters, porters and maids in abundance. The Commendatore is clearly the proprietor or manager and Don Ottavio some favoured and quite senior underling. This took a bit of sorting out as they wear fancier versions of the porters’ uniforms and I don’t associate characters of that status with uniforms unless military. A Germanic taste for uniforms in general?
There are some interesting touches. The knife that kills the Commendatore is actually in Donna Anna’s hand though Don Giovanni is directing it. Several scenes are highly sexualised, even when Don Giovanni is not about. Donna Anna is all over Don Ottavio while she is describing the attack by Don Giovanni and Zerlina and Masetto both end up in their underwear during Vedrai carino. There are some interesting devil waiters around during the party scene (they reappear at the end), the handling of the whole bit with the statue is neat and the final scene is visually arresting. A lot of thought has clearly gone into details but I’m not sure it’s enough to overcome a basic conceptual problem.
In some ways the singing and acting parallel this. Obviously at the core is Don Giovanni, here played by Ildebrando D’Arcangelo. It’s a polarising casting choice. According to one’s tastes I think he could come off as virile and dangerous or coarse toned and one dimensional. I lean to the latter. I just don’t like his voice and his relentless rather loud, very dark toned singing. It’s interesting that Luca Pisaroni, playing Leporello, manages a pretty good vocal impersonation of D’Arcangelo during the Donna Elvira seduction but there’s no change at all in the tenor of the latter’s voice. All round actually I liked Pisaroni’s rather nerdiy and well sung Leporello. I wasn’t much taken with Andrew Staples Don Ottavio either. There are places where he sings quite elegantly but generally I found him a bit thin toned and uninteresting. Thomas Konieczny’s Commendatore and Alessio Arduini’s Masetto are both pretty decent though.
Lenneke Ruiten sings Donna Anna and she’s pretty good. She’s easy to listen to and makes a really good job of the coloratura in Crudele! Anett Fritsch is a very good and sympathetic Donna Elvira. She manages a suitably desperate and put upon air and her rather breathy soprano is interesting and not too plummy. She does a great job on Mi tradi. Zerlina probably shouldn’t be the star of a Don Giovanni but Valentina Nafornita comes very close. She has a lovely voice and that indefinable quality, stage presence. She steals just about every scene she’s in and, to ice the cake, she’s drop dead gorgeous. One to watch. I’m not sure the Wiener Philharmoniker need conducting in this music but Christoph Eschenbach does an efficient job with tempi on the brisk side and sympathetic support for the singers.
On Blu-ray, the picture and DTS-HD sound are excellent. Even the dark scenes, and there are a few have enough detail. Video direction, by Andreas Morelli, is fairly conventional though, as almost always, with more close ups than I care for. I’d also question using cameras well to the side of the theatre when the stage director is clearly trying to create a symmetrical effect. There’s a most unusual extra feature on the disk. There are actually two video tracks; the normal one and a back stage camera. One can watch either or watch the back stage in a window while the main feature is playing. I used the feature for a few minutes and I really don’t see the point. I want to watch the opera not someone swigging their water bottle or getting their make up touched up. The booklet has a detailed track listing and Bechtolf’s production notes. Otherwise there are no explanatory materials. Subtitle options are English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Korean.
I can’t imagine going back to this production very often. I’d much rather watch the Guth or Tcherniakov productions referenced above or even the older, and endlessly fascinating Kušej production.