Cher Public

The beast with three backs

Among the “auditions” that have come flooding in from the cher public are reviews of three very different productions of Don Giovanni. Your doyenne has taken the liberty of combining the three critiques into a single posting, but she urges you to remember, remember well the names of the authors of this troika of treatises. 

We begin with one of La Cieca’s oldest and dearest collaborators, the incandescent Indiana Loiterer III.

Some scenes, like certain recipes, look so simple on the page yet turn out to be next to impossible to stage credibly. Take, for instance, the end of the first act of Don Giovanni. We all know what has happened; the Don has accused Leporello of assaulting Zerlina, but nobody is buying his story. Somehow or other the Don gets away scot-free at Leporello’s expense, as Leporello will complain at the beginning of the next act. But how? (This being the stretta of an opera buffa finale, there are no stage directions to guide us.)

Usually the Don strikes some dashing pose or other center stage while everyone else mills about aimlessly, which doesn’t get us from here to there. In the new DVD of Francesca Zambello‘s Covent Garden production of Don Giovanni from Opus Arte, Simon Keenlyside as Don Giovanni, having casually disarmed his enemies of their swords and pistols during the stretta, makes his escape by climbing the wall on a red rope dangled by one of his red-clad servants. It gets us from here to there, after a fashion, but rather crudely; which kind of summed up my feelings about the production.

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Red is a very important color in this production (sets and costumes, the latter fantastical late eighteenth-century, by Maria Bjornson). Don Giovanni is dressed all in red and reddish-brown, which flatters Keenlyside’s complexion rather nicely. The ballroom of the palace of the Act 1 finale is all in red, with matching lackeys. This contrasts with the virginal white of Donna Elvira’s Act 1 wedding gown and Zerlina’s shift (a very unflattering garment for poor Miah Persson). Clearly we are meant to liken Don Giovanni to the Devil.

There is plenty of fire in the final scene–none of it connected to the Commendatore, who rises from below looking just as he had when alive, and whose statue is represented by a hand-like structure made of blue lights at the back of the stage, scarcely visible at all in the previous graveyard scene, which moves to the front to the stage at last to cast the Don into hell. (Eric Halfvarson‘s wobbly singing as the Commendatore didn’t help make him seem any more threatening.) But in a final touch, the last thing we see in the Epilogue is… Don Giovanni in hell holding a naked woman in his arms. What kind of punishment is this?

Under the circumstances, Keenlyside literally climbs the walls a lot–the first verse of “Deh vieni alla finestra” is sung while hanging with one hand off Donna Elvira’s garden wall–but piles on the soft legato charm with the ladies, achieving genuine vocal and physical elegance in “La ci darem la mano”. The Devil can be a gentleman, as goes the old saying; but he can also be a positive ruffian with the men, as “Meta da voi” revealed–the duel with the Commendatore is rendered as a mugging pure and simple (not even with Don Giovanni’s sword, but Leporello’s dagger!)

But this is a very violent production by traditional standards (props to fight director William Hobbs); even Donna Elvira in her opening scene brandishes a musket, though to no good use considering that just by pulling the trigger she could have dispatched Don Giovanni then and there. Also a very touchy-feely production; when during “Mi tradi” Zerlina and Donna Anna wander in and began taking things away from Donna Elvira, we seemed to have wandered into a group therapy session.

Of the three ladies, vocal honors go to Joyce DiDonato‘s Donna Elvira. I was surprised at how large and how comfortable with the higher reaches of the music her voice seemed. What with her unremitting vocal and dramatic intensity throughout the first act, the notion that some misguided early-music conductor suggested the Fidelio Leonore to her seemed less crazy. (And having heard her in the Curtis Alcina, I marvel all the more that she can adjust her vocal approach from the delicate nuances of period-instrument Handel to the broader strokes of big-house Mozart.)

Persson, as Zerlina, has the sort of light lyric soprano that projects as solidly in its lower octave as it gleams above the staff; she was the most enthusiastic adder of ornaments among the cast. Marina Poplavskaya threw herself into Donna Anna’s plight with plenty of gumption, but the music doesn’t show her voice to advantage; declamatory passages too often came out dark and foggy, and anything above the staff thinned out.

Kyle Ketelsen, as Leporello, offered an exceptionally nuanced vocal performance matched to a smooth and ringing bass, without milking the audience’s attention even though he rather overdid the physical awkwardness shtick. (I especially enjoyed his handling of the multivolume encyclopedia of Don Giovanni’s conquests–did I tell you this is a prop-heavy production?) Ramon Vargas, as Don Ottavio, has vastly improved his posture since I last saw him as Ramiro in the Met Cenerentola back in 1998. He played the role as a properly manly aristocrat rather than the stereotypical wimp, to the point of rather barging his way through “Dalla sua pace” so that you realized what a difficult aria it was (“O mio tesoro” fared well, though).

Robert Gleadow, the Masetto, sounded right, but he could have restrained his temper a little– or at least directed it to some object other than Zerlina– to dramatic advantage. Sir Charles Mackerras, in the pit, conducted with his usual energy; few of his patented added ornaments made it into this performance, but appoggiaturas abounded.

So should you buy this performance? It’s not one for the ages. There are better traditional Don Giovanni productions on DVD out there. Still, it’s pretty well sung and conducted; it may not be worth preserving on DVD, but it would I imagine be an enjoyable evening in the theater.

And now, cher public, we move on to another in the Felsenstein Edition series, reviewed by Gypsy Rose Vendetta.

I am reviewing a 1996 1966 black and white video of Don Giovanni, sung in German, from Komische Oper Berlin, from ArtHaus Musik, part of the Walter Felsenstein Edition.

Where to start? With one exception I was not familiar with any of the singers, who I thought were very committed and gave their all to this effort. That said, Norma Desmond would cringe at the silent movie-style acting of the entire group, wide eyes, clutching hands, outstretched arms, lots of flailing. The Leporello (Rudolf Asmus) has Oliver Hardy’s costume from “March of the Wooden Soldiers” and behaves accordingly. Don G (Gyorgy Melis) flaunts several costume styles spanning many centuries, none flattering.

The big whammy concept of this production is that Donna Anna (Klara Barlow) got a taste of old Don and really liked it and was trying to prevent his leaving so she could get a little more, then the father is killed and the guilt sets in. Ottavio is still a drip with two great songs. Zerlina and the peasants never walk on, they skip. Invited into Don’s house, they skip. Inside the house they skip drunk. The Commendatore arrives at the banquet and after a lot of “Nein ! Nein! Nein! Nein!” there’s a blackout… then a strobe light that doesn’t work and a flashpot at the foot of the stage that gives one little puff and no more Don!

I tried my best to give over to the story and the music, found the camera work better than expected, with closeups of the orchestra during the Overture and decent sound for what it is. However, we have come so far with picture and sound and the Met in HD, the singers today are young and beautiful (Kwiecen, Keenlyside, Schrott, Maltman, Mattei, Tahu Rhodes, as well as Fleming, Graham etc.) and all are decent to excellent actors who take a more natural approach, in productions with more daring concepts than this. I can recommend this video only as a quaint and sometimes very campy piece of memorabilia.

And now a word from one of La Cieca’s newest and nicest friends — and, judging by the name, an étoile with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Ana Kushakashakama.

As with most good ideas at the time, the 1999 staging of the Vienna State Opera’s production of Don Giovanni probably sounded good on paper: Depict Don Giovanni as an evil that transcends time as does the devil or vampires. Since those don’t die the deaths of mortals and neither does Don Giovanni, it would seem to be a workable, imaginative concept. On paper. The notes by Gottfried Kraus included with the DVD of this production suggest that Don Giovanni is a time traveler and as such can be seen to exhibit his immoral pursuit of happiness across the ages, specifically from the 1500s to the 1800s.

Honestly, I’m not sure this works on paper, either. The concept of Don Giovanni as a sinner for all centuries might have worked, but it needed an anchor. Time travel stories need a sense of what is “current time” in order to appreciate the passage of time up to that point or even past it. This production lacks a time stamp that would provide an appreciation for the timelessness of Don Giovanni, making for lots of costume changes but no constant thread. Fortunately some quality singers more than compensate for the staging that was at best a fashion show and at worst a good idea confoundedly executed.

Certainly some staging worked: Leporello has what looks like a hand-cranked picture box through which characters can see Don Giovanni’s exploits for themselves (a precursor to our current sex tapes, perhaps). Elvira leaves behind love letters that Zerlina discovers as a tangible warning against the suave Don Giovanni. Leporello uses a ladder to great effect.

While the constant period changes gave the opera its narrative problems, the costumes themselves were really very good. The reason for Elvira’s nautical themed entrance, complete with a backdrop of crashing waves, a billowing sail and her pirate-like costume was not exactly clear, but visually it had its aesthetics. All of the costumes (eight for Don Giovanni alone, according to the DVD notes!) and most of the stage business looked correct for the period or at least suggested the period… once you knew which one.

Thankfully the singing saved this production. While I cannot attest to current performances of Carlos Álvarez (Don Giovanni), in this production he sounded excellent with clear diction, pitch accuracy and a commanding timbre to his voice. Very much the same can be said for Ildebrando d’Arcangelo. He was in commedia dell’arte white face for some of this production which highlighted his most expressive face. The women, Anna Caterina Antonacci (Donna Elvira), Adrianne Pieczonka (Donna Anna) and Angelika Kirchschlager (Zerlina) all gave fine performances.

Ms. Pieczonka gave her character a sense of pathos without screeching. Though she sometimes sounded as if she might lose her breath, she managed to hang on to tone. While there have been sweeter sounding Zerlinas, Ms. Kirchschlager still had a pleasant voice and was suitably cast for the role. At times Michael Schade (Don Ottavio) made me think of Joe Feeney (from the Lawrence Welk Show) who had just a big sound but no nuance. But as Schade’s performance continued, his voice showed different shades and produced some lovely sounds even in the higher falsetto/head register.

Aside from the jumpy story-telling style of this production, the conducting raised some questions also. The orchestra itself felt balanced and measured, but there were moments when I thought Maestro Riccardo Muti’s tuxedo was on fire. While the overture didn’t sound fast and Don Giovanni’s serenade in Act Two seemed even, the duet between Ottavio and Donna Anna in Act One and Elvira’s “Mi tradi quell’alma” all sounded like a race to the finish.

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

However, even though this production may have become a comedy of eras, the annoying camera work on this DVD leaves a lasting impression and in the worst way. Excessive close-ups do not a good opera DVD make. Of course since there have been opera glasses, opera goers have always wanted a closer look, but opera is also about getting the whole picture. It was as if the camera could either capture the stage or the singers’ faces, but nothing in between. There were points at which the production could not be seen for all the badly timed close-ups. With those limits, this DVD would have benefited from fewer of them. And although it has somewhat more camera control, the same could be said for the HD broadcasts, but that’s a different review.

At the risk of sounding like a dancer on American Bandstand—and showing my age at the same time—I would give this DVD three out of five stars. Although I enjoyed the singers, and would look forward to seeing them in another production, preferably live (of course), the perplexing production and poor camera work left me less than impressed.

  • oh, they are all goods, but some director needs to hire these two…

  • louannd

    Thank you so much for these reviews. I especially enjoyed Ana’s review. I am always afraid to plunk a lot of dollars down for a DVD, and I almost bought that first one because it is one of the few in Blu-Ray. I am glad I didn’t.

  • richard

    Gypsy Rose, the year on the B&W Felsenstein isn’t really
    1996, is it? I think Klara Barlow had died by that point.

    Maybe 1966?

  • I can recommend this video only as a quaint and sometimes very campy piece of memorabilia.

    And probably as a memento of American Soprano Klara Barlow. She stepped in as Isolde at the met for Nilsson in the now legendary history and was good enough for Vickers to come down his high horse and actually show up to performances after the threw a tamtrum worthy of a 2 year old.

    I had the pleasure of meeting Barlow and I though she was a fabulous person and a non-diva.

  • Graciella Scusi

    I believe Barlow also sang Donna Anna at the Met, probably a bone they threw her for spelling Nilsson at the TRISTAN prima. She was a decent utility singer and good actress trying to scratch out a career between the covers at the Met and other houses. But the Met soon had no use for her and kicked her out of bed. Around the same time, she popped up in an OONY Guglielmo Tell, replacing…who else….Caballe, I think. Gedda also cancelled and was replaced by two different tenors: not a stellar evening. Klara was tall and slim and striking, with, at that performance, platinum hair tightly pulled back in a chignon, with what looked like two knitting needles sticking out of it; she looked like the Hapsburg princess from outer space and sang like, well, a one-size-fits-all last minute replacement.

  • Cocky Kurwenal

    Second review of Poplavskaya I’ve read this week that says the role didn’t show off her voice to its best advantage. Each was talking about a different role. Maybe nothing shows her off to her best advantage, because she isn’t very good. Just a thought.

  • MontyNostry

    Cocky — judging by her recent Elisabetta on Radio 3 --where she wasn’t bad to start with, but had run out of voice and stylistic tricks by the last act — Poplavskaya isn’t turning into the interesting soprano that people expected when she sang La Juive at the Barbican in (?) 2006. Her Tatyana last year was unsympathetic and she should never have been cast as Elisabetta anyway; a number of people said that the Tebaldo (Pumeza Matshikiza) was far more impressive. (Indeed, her phrases in Act I shone out.) Apparently, too, MP is more than a little crazy. Nice hair, though.

  • richard

    Re Barlow, I saw one of her Tristans, she was really thrilling for much of the first act with some really
    electric singing. Also she was a tigress on stage, it was a very exciting performance and at least partially justified the buzz she got when she “saved” the premiere. She looked like the picture of what I imagined Isolde to look like, tall, statuesque, with blond hair and a form fitting metalic blue gown.

    If she had been able to sing the whole role the way she sang Act 1, it would have been a true triumph.

    (What a fiasco on the part of the Met’s artistic/music that was! Ligenza cancelling and no one even worrying about the fact that the cover singer wasn’t willing to sing the part on stage. Leinsdorf writes about it in his Cadenza)

    Mostly Barlow deserved the accolades she got but unfortunately her entire performance wasn’t on the same
    level as the first act. She either oversang or the Met was just too big for her. She ran out of voice after
    the narration and curse in the performance I saw and sang the rest of the role with a kind of nasal shallow vibrato with very little projection. The broadcast sounded similar to me and didn’t include the act 2 high c’s (not a huge deal for me anyway)

    Too bad for her.

    The Don Giovannis were prior to the Tristans, she may have had a cover contract for that season as she sang a Fidelio and two Donna Annas in MArch of 1971.

    The Met didn’t really give her much after the Tristan
    rescue. To be fair, it seemed like she was a bit underpowered for the heroic Wagner. Other than a few cover perfomances (I saw her do a so-so Elektra), the MEt only cast her as Marina in Boris and a “girl” in Mahagonny.

    I saw her in the OONY Tell, what a mess that was!!!!

    Sadly, the last time I saw her, in the early 90s, she
    sang in the premiere of an opera based on Frederick Douglass with the NJSO in Newark. She looked dowdy
    and dumpy and sang very unevenly. I’m not sure what was going on but at one point she dropped out of an ensemble and just sat down on stage.

    But what memories of that act 1 Tristan! I can still see her singing the narrative and curse moving around the stage like a combination goddess/panther.

  • richard

    Barlow wasn’t replacing Nilsson, who was contracted for some performances later in the Tristan run and who showed up as scheduled. She was replacing Ligenza.

    Ligenza was scheduled for the four Isoldes and cancelled
    several weeks in advance. Leinsdorf was the conductor, as he was when the production was new a few seasons earlier, and he paints a very messy picture of the chaos
    at the Met in dealing with Ligenza’s cancellation in his autobiography, Cadenza.

    Barlow was brought in rather close to the premiere, making it seem like a “rescue”. Vickers was unhappy with the machinations and cancelled some of his performances and decamped to Bermuda. He did come
    back to sing the broadcast with Barlow and one later performance with Nilsson.

  • jeepgerhard

    i believe NILSSON replaced BARLOW (or was it Ligendza) for the only performance of T&I she and VICKERS sang at the Met. At least 17,469 people now claim to have been in the house that night -- sort of like the number of shrines that display “pieces of the true cross” -- but i lie NOT when i say i was. it was pretty amazing.

    Cieca, dear, if you think J-DiD’s singing in Alcina is amazing, check out her ARMIDA. I think Renay might have to cede the honor iffenwhen the Met brings it back!

  • jeepgerhard

    PS One word of clarification is needed in the review of the Felsentein productions:
    EAST- (before GERMAN).

  • Gualtier M

    Nilsson was always scheduled to sing the last “Tristan” with Vickers. When she was told that Ligendza was singing the first four or so, she asked Schuyler Chapin “Who is her cover?”. Ligendza already had a reputation for cancellations.

  • CruzSF

    jeepgerhard, I think the world of JDD, but don’t see “Armida” in her discography. Has she recorded the entire work? (I know she recorded four arias on her new Rossini disc.)


  • Graciella Scusi

    @10 jeepgerhard re: Nilsson/Vickers TRISTAN..

    “but I lie not when I say…it was pretty amazing.”

    Except for the Brangane (Michelle Vilma?) who was way out of her depth. And I would second Richard’s positive impression of Barlow’s first act Isolde. Curious about her Met career, I went to Wikipedia which also lists performance(s) of the Ballo Amelia and Elektra in 1975, which I have no memory of. Perhaps they were also cover opportunities. She later taught at Indianna University for several years.

  • operaguy

    jepper: If you read Chapin’s autobiography, you will see that the Nilsson/Vickers had always been on the schedule -- Chapin discusses that through the whole mess one of his overriding goals was to save that performance.

  • olddansker

    Back to the reviews. I notice that the first review omits mentioning anything about Keenlyside’s vocal performance. Sin of omission, or avoiding unflattering remarks, which, given my respect for K’s talent, I seriously doubt.

    • Indiana Loiterer III

      Sin of omission, I suppose, though I thought “legato” was enough of a musical term to refer to his vocal charm as well as his physical charm. Keenlyside certainly has a good legato when called for, and doesn’t strain at all. Part of the problem with talking about his vocal performance is that Don Giovanni doesn’t have the really big extended arias you would expect of a man of his station; it’s not really a virtuoso singing role.