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2006-5, Zürich, review of Janet Woodall

Don Giovanni, Zurich, 20 May 2006

A personal view by Janet Woodall

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Where should I start? Maybe at the highlight of what was an extraordinarily fine evening: “Deh vieni alla finestra“. SK sang it alone on stage, standing on high on what had been the cocktail bar – there was no need for Elvira’s maid to be there as the Don was serenading the audience, and singing for his own pleasure. It felt as if he was allowing each audience member to witness a very special performance of the song. A very personal, public moment, and I feel privileged to have been there. At the end there was a second of stunned silence; then SK moved on without letting us roar our approval.

Another highlight for me was the incredibly sympathetic conducting of Franz Welser-Most. He has won my undying admiration for his use of the orchestra. The singers were allowed enough time and space to give meaningful expression to the words and music. The Champagne aria, for example: It was lively and vivacious but not so fast that it became blurred, you could hear every note and every word. At no point did the orchestra overpower the singers, enabling them to sing almost at a whisper when needed – entirely fitting for the small size of amphitheatre and for the dramatic intention. I was amazed by how much of the score I hadn’t really heard properly before. All of the singer-actors (for that is what they are) were top class, although Piotr Beczala seemed to have some vocal problems in the first half. It was obvious that everyone concerned with this production was striving to make it work. And it did.

Having seen the under-rehearsed, light and frothy Don Giovanni in Vienna earlier in the year, I wanted this production to be  psychologically dark. It wasn’t, but I was in no way disappointed. I thought the production was inspired. Apart from one or two small quibbles I was entranced by the entire evening – completely immersed in it. The only thing that left me perplexed was the appearance at one point of pairs of dancers who each ending up killing their partner, though my recollection is that it was during Donna Anna’s vengeance aria, so although distracting, it made a kind of sense.

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The action takes place in “function rooms”, complete with parquet flooring and concertina room dividers (which were used to very good effect in changing scenes) – you felt you could be invited to one party but, by accident or design, end up at someone else’s. Judging by the A-line dresses and utilitarian furniture, the period is the 1950’s, though there are elements of 1930’s Art Deco about the design too. It is true that there was a lot of dressing and undressing, but no nakedness and nothing particularly graphic. Girls stripped down to rather ample undergarments, and the goings-on at the party were implied and never explicitly shown. In any case, rather than trying to be erotic, the background party goers were, for want of a better phrase, going through the motions. Scene changes involved leaving the seedy aftermath of one party and the next one starting up. This created the feeling of it being a never-ending, aimless and destructive round of parties and drink and sex. It felt like an entirely plausible world in which to place this interpretation of the opera. This sense of circularity of it – that life always was and will ever be like that, and that there is always a Giovanni – was reinforced by an endless mirrored reflection of the first and last scenes. So many productions try to show this timeless aspect of the story (not least in Vienna) but few do it so well.

I was delighted by the twists on the characters, although individually the ideas may not have been original, they combined to create an entirely believable set of relationships, and what is more, helped to flesh out some of the more 2D aspects of the protagonists. They managed to produce a “gossip-factor”, where the characters have taken on a life of their own, so that you find yourself pondering other aspects of their lives, wondering what their history was, what their motives are, and what the future holds for them. And that is very clever.

They even managed to make Don Ottavio interesting. The party-girls adored him as the only good man in their abusive world. Well they would, wouldn’t they! In “Dalla sua pace” they slowly gathered around him – some of them plainly “offering” themselves, though Ottavio did not even seem to be aware of that. It lent him a suave, sophistication to someone usually depicted as emasculated and ineffectual. He was still the opposite of Don Giovanni, but he retained his dignity. At the end of “Il mio tesoro”, Ottavio, lying on his back with his arms outstretched, is carried horizontally on the shoulders of the girls – Christ-like and sacrificial. It was witty and really quite touching.

What an excellent debut for Malin Hartelius as Elvira. For once I felt real empathy with this sad, deluded character. Perhaps this was because she showed such empathy with the Don’s victims: during Leporello’s catalogue aria the curtain at the back of the stage lifted to reveal what you assume is the Don and a semi-clad girl in post-coital torpor. Elvira lead the girl front stage and tenderly dressed her, finally wrapping her in Elvira’s travel coat and scarf. Did the girl represent Elvira? Well yes, but to me she also represented all of the other girls debased by the Don, and Elvira was showing solidarity with them. This scene added an extra dimension to Leporello’s patter song – stopping you from forgetting quite how distasteful the sentiments in the song really are.

It was a brilliant ruse to have Ottavio sing “Il mio tesoro” to Elvira to comfort her (in a paternal kind of way) after her 2006_Don_Giovanni_Zurich_26shock of discovering it was in fact Leporello that she had… ahem… entertained and not DG (yes, Leporello actually got lucky in this production). That was a great piece of acting by Elvira – her realization of the awful truth – I felt physically sick along with her.

Ottavio and Anna had a very plausible and thought-provoking relationship. They were completely cool toward each other and it was no wonder that she chased after Don Giovanni (literally in the first act). As usual, Ottavio was more taken with her than she with him: when she sang the “Crudele” aria after having asked Ottavio to wait until her grieving was over, the love she was singing about was certainly not for Ottavio. In fact, she was front stage while he moved to the back, then the curtain came down behind her while he ran to try to get underneath it and join her before it was too late. He failed, and she sang the second part without him being there at all. She then walked off stage and Ottavio hurriedly reappeared stating “I will follow her” and duly did so! It very effectively told their story.

I loved what they did with Masetto and Zerlina – making him a small-time gangster with her as his young and not-so-innocent moll, and with the wedding party very cheekily paying homage to the finger-clicking Jets and Sharks in West Side Story. When Zerlina sang “Batti, batti” you knew that Masetto did indeed regularly beat her. He was a completely charmless thug, and you, like Zerlina, knew she could do better.

Not for them any sentimental treatment of Zerlina’s “cure” for Masetto’s ills following him being brutally beaten by Giovanni; her comfort was of a much earthier kind, making explicit what is implicit in the aria, but also causing at least two members of the audience near me to walk out.

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Zerlina was a much more central character than usual, and Martina Janková was perfect in the role. Yes, she was young, drunk and a bit silly. She had her head turned by the very calculated suggestion of marriage by the dashing nobleman, and she thoroughly enjoyed being the centre of attention at his masked ball. But she was the only female who unequivocally said no to the Don when he sought his reward. This was a very dark moment – Don Giovanni had spent enough time and energy on this conquest so he dropped all charm and pretence, grabbed her by the arm and dragged her away. This was going to be rape, and it was very uncomfortable. I wanted to leap on stage and protect Zerlina from this monster. Mind you, I also wanted to save her from Masetto!

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Leporello was played with enormous aplomb and enjoyment by Scharinger. The relationship between him and his master was entirely believable – joshing about one moment but brutally put-down the next. There was never any doubt as to who was boss. I enjoyed the relationship formed by SK’s Don and Bryn Terfel’s Leporello in the 1997 Ferrara production, but for me, SK and Scharinger rate as highly as Tom Allen and Claudio Desdieri in the old ROH Don Giovanni (the highest praise I can think of!).

And what about SK as Don Giovanni? He was so “right” for the production and SK sang fantastically well throughout the evening. He was very funny, charming, seductive, full of life and glamour, but it was thrilling when you caught a glimpse of the nastiness beneath. An utterly believable and likeable Don, and thoroughly dangerous because of it. One very telling scene for me was the Act 2 trio when Giovanni re-seduces Elvira while changing into Leporello’s clothes and Leporello-in-Don’s-clothing is trying not to be recognized. This Giovanni sings with such seductive beauty but, what all except Elvira can see, he is clearly thinking of other things. This Don is truly gifted in the art of deception.

And the way he died was absolutely in keeping with his play-boy image – a heart-attack or a stroke or haemorrhage – that is how people like that die – of their own excesses. Or at least how they should die if there was any justice, and that is so in keeping with the original morality message of the opera. I wasn’t worried in the least by the cursed voodoo doll acting as stone guest. It made sense to me to solve the tricky problem of the statue by introducing this element of the exotic.

The “redemption” scene at the end is notoriously difficult to stage without it being an anticlimax, but I loved the idea of the remaining characters being given appropriate presents to unwrap whilst singing of their future plans. Were the presents from “beyond the grave” or had Don Giovanni set them up beforehand because he knew he was going to die, or were they “overspill” from Zerlina and Masetto’s wedding?

This production won’t be to everyone’s liking: it will annoy those who prefer a traditional treatment of the opera, and will disappoint those expecting a “darker” Don. But I enjoyed every minute of it and am thrilled that it will be produced on DVD.

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JW, May 2006

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