Cher Public

Behind the red curtain

It was indeed a curious sensation  making a late morning trek to East 59th Street, a block devoted to showro0ms for bizarre upscale furniture and lighting fixtures, and then to enter a boutique cinema specializing in Hindi films (the big coming attraction right now is Desi Boyz) — and all this before sitting down in an auditiorium half- full of retirees to see a live performance of Don Giovanni from La Scala. That it worked as a Mozart experience I think can be chalked up to two factors: Robert Carsen‘s production and the constantly improving (if still imperfect) HD technology. 

To take on the nerd stuff first: in general the tech now is pretty close to transparent. The projected image is clean and detailed, with a strong sense of light and shadow; textures of fabrics in particular I thought came across very clearly, without the super-sharp focus that tends to make everyone, even 19-year-old starlets with airbrushed makeup, look haggard. The sound is clear, though it is obviously mixed as a broadcast and not as a theater acoustic: voices are extremely present and the bigger instruments turned a bit strident as (I would assume) they overloaded the individual microphones worn by the singers. The orchestra was more plausible sounding, somewhere in the middle distance, and there was very little stage noise besides the banging and thumping that naturally accompany the beating of Masetto, for example.  I was particularly impressed at how the engineers managed to minimize the rumble of falling chairs during Donna Anna’s great act 1 recitativo accompagnato.

There were glitches and my sense was that they were somewhat worse than par for the course. For the first half of act 1, the sound would drop out for an instant every five minutes or so, though eventually that resolved. Worse was a signal loss during the finale ultimo, just at the point when Don Ottavio and Donna Anna sing their little “reconciliation” duettino. I took a bathroom break before leaving and then heard music as I re-entered the lobby, so I was able to return to the auditorium for the final moments of the opera. It seems like there should be some way for the local operator to skip back in the stream and show the missing moments, but at any rate it wasn’t a deal-breaking glitch.

That I was still interested to see that notoriously anticlimactic epilogue is a tribute to Carsen’s production. It may not have opened any new doors in Don Giovanni interpretation, but the fairly familiar theme of metatheater as manipulation was presented with flair, a lot of humor, and a visual restraint that is both chic in itself and self-effacing in throwing the focus onto the performers. Big-personality singers like Anna Netrebko and Barbara Frittoli positively bloom when styled in little black dresses and sleek coiffures. In fact, they closely resembled Anouk Aimée and Yvonne Furneaux in one of the all time greatest “style” films, La Dolce Vita.

What sets Carsen above a lot of other directors immersed in pop culture, though, is that he uses these elements not as ends in themselves. In other words, he doesn’t fall into the trap a hack director might do, and present Don Giovanni as a sort of rehash of La Dolce Vita. For example, La Netrebko is the only one here wearing sunglasses, nd even that modernist cliche is rationalized by the dramatic situation: she is attending a funeral for her father.

Where Carsen doesn’t quite pull the conceit off is where most performances of Don Giovanni come to a crashing halt, i.e., between Zerlina’s second aria and the graveyard scene. This big lull in the second act is, I think, da Ponte’s fault: he ran out of story and so the plot marks time for necessary (and beautiful) music movements. Carsen’s solution was in part to indicate “it’s just an opera, after all,” with the sextet flailing away in conventional gestures, lit by footlights, as Don Giovanni and Elvira’s maid enjoy the private performance. That left the two grand arias, of course, and there Carsen didn’t seem to have such rigorous ideas.

The finale ultimo (what we saw of it) seemed a bit half-baked too. Making Don Giovanni’s death a mirror image of the Commendatore’s felt a little too neat to me, and from the time the old man drew his sword it was all too obvious where the scene was going. That that the “death” was just another manipulative performance by the Don was a good idea, but I think its irony might have landed better if the death scene we just saw had been more conventional, the “standard” demise with flames and such.

The singers were all on a high level without any example of absolute brilliance. I was awed by Netrebko’s ferocious attack on “Or sai chi l’onore” and I love the sheer velvet of Peter Mattei‘s baritone, especially how he can suggest vehemence though emphasis of diction without pushing his lyric instrument into anything like an ugly sound. Frittoli and Giuseppe Filianoti in a way are similar performers in that they transcend non-stellar vocal material with dramatic intensity and superb musicality. That said, her voice is in poorish condition generally these days and his more generally good, though in Ottavio’s music he sounded tight, as if on the fence whether to sing out or to fabricate a “genuine” Mozart sound. (I wish he’d sing out.)  Štefan Kocán (Masetto) is an artist that bears watching, and not just because he’s so pretty!

The biggest letdown was Daniel Barenboim‘s conducting, which doesn’t belong in any opera house, let alone La Scala. After a slow, erratic and noisy performance, the maestro took the Maria Ewing coward’s way out in his curtain call, appearing onstage not alone but with the orchestra. Anyone that worried about being booed needs to find another place to work.

  • operaassport

    Barenboim can be erratic but his Tristans at the MET were a revelation.

  • MonCoeurSouvreATaVoix

    I’m curious, Cieca. Carsen’s production is, from what I can tell from the clip, gorgeous and innovative. Would you enlighten me? What production tops Carsen’s? Surely nothing at the Met or the Royal, which are often a step removed from Vegas.

    • I don’t say that the Carsen is inferior to any existing production, only that I think it could go farther in certain respects and be (even) better than it is. Don Giovanni is a notoriously difficult opera to produce, and I think this is a very fine take, far superior to the dreck you mention at the Met and the Royal.

      • MonCoeurSouvreATaVoix

        Yes, thank you, Cieca. I agree about the dreck at the Met and Covent Garden.

      • Lalala

        Thanks, La Cieca, for this review. I’d love to see this. Surprised, though that no mention was made of my two favorite roles in the opera--Zerlina, and Leporello.

        • Here is the Zerlina with Mattei:

          • SilvestriWoman

            Good gawd, Mattei’s voice is such a thing of beauty! Unbelievably, it seems to get fresher with age.

            Okay, must re-post this -- it brings me such joy!

          • Camille

            Mattei looks like Dan Ackroyd.

            I finally got it. It’s been driving me to distraction since I saw him, the idea he resembled someone else.

            Dan Ackroyd’s taller and better looking brother, to be sure!

        • oedipe

          I’d love to see this

          You dream it, we (with ARTE’s help) make it! Though I am not sure it works outside of Europe:

          • My experience is that we here in the states can only see what they put up on Arte Live Web, “web” being the operative word.

          • oedipe

            Anyone that worried about being booed needs to find another place to work.

            I have just finished watching the ARTE replay and, at the very end, Barenboim DID come out on stage alone to face the music, i.e. the copious booing from the audience. May be this got redacted from the HD.

          • A. Poggia Turra

            Thanks so much for the link, oedpie -- I’m currently watching the final scene (accessing from Florida using the proxy server in Paris).

          • Donna Anna

            Is it still up? I tried and got an error message.

          • bluecabochon

            I can’t view it in NYC. Maybe someone will capture it and post it to Youtube or as a torrent?

          • A. Poggia Turra

            I’m no Internet networking expert, but here’s my semi-educated guess:

            The web server that runs the Arte website uses technology that detects where (what country) a request for access is coming from.

            The Arte server software contains a list of approved countries. When a request to view the site comes in, the Arte server checks the originating country of the computer making the request; if the country is NOT found om the approved list, the request is denied sometimes a denial or failure message is displayed, sometimes not). The BBC iPlayer uses the same trchnology to limit its video content to U.K. computers.

            However, when I use proxy service software on my PC, I connect my PC to the proxy company’s server in Paris (or other city of my choice).

            Until I end the proxy software on my PC, all requests to websites and other internet resources will show the Paris server’s identifying information, not my own PC’s information (hence “proxy”).

            So when I clock on oedpie’s link, the Arte server sees the request as coming from the server in Paris (instead of from my PC in Ft. Lauderdale). The request for access is approved, and the video begins to load.

            Simple as that :D

          • thanks apogg; however, all I can find as far as proxy service for France is people who promise and don’t deliver for a fee. I’m a bit afeared for my computer’s life any other way. :)

          • A. Poggia Turra

            louannd, if you’re interested, have a look at WiTopia ( )

            I’m currently using their personal VPN Pro product (about $70 per year). It’s easy enough for a dunderhead like myself to install and use, and it has a small “footprint” on my laptop.

            I use it when home in the U.S. to access European sites that are normally off-limits to US machines, and conversely, when in Europe, I’ve use it to access U.S. sites (Hulu would be one example of a US site that is blocked in many outher countries).

            I also like that I can sit in a Starbucks or airport lounge and be protected from potential packet sniffers, and other potential threats.


          • Thank you A.Pogg. I’m trying out tunnelbear. Arte sitll won’t load it for me; however, I wonder if it’s still available for anyone at this point. Thanks for the Youtube link for second act.

  • Edward George

    Barenboim also had the orchestra with him on the opening night of Carmen in 2009. I’d assumed, wrongly perhaps, that it was a Scala tradition.

    (You can watch it here:)

    • oedipe

      What a gawdawful Carmen that was! No Carsen in sight to rescue it, unfortunately.

    • Camille

      Last year, at the scaligera prima of Die Walkuere, I do not recall him taking a bow with the orchestra and just now I asked my husband and he tells me he remembers his funny looking shirt, but that he did not bow with the orchestra.

      That’s the best we can recall at the moment.

    • yappy

      Ever efficient, those arte guys are using exactly the same footage of Milano for the opening and almost the same dress on the presenter on both the 2009 and the new transmission.
      Btw for those who prefer German to French subtitles:

      • FragendeFrau82

        Ooh, thank you, yes I would prefer German subs. Will try to catch it via proxy (tunnelbear). Any idea how long it will be available?

  • Baritenor

    Where does the “Maria Ewing coward’s way” stemm from? I think I missed that day in “DIVA SCANDALS 101″…probably skipped it so I could study for my “ADVANCED INTERNET SNEERING 207” class.

    • Camille

      Could that have been when she appeared before the curtain with her “son” in Wozzeck? By that time it was getting pretty bad for her, and I seem to recall this maneuver. It worked.

      Possibly there are other incidents. Maybe a Carmen or Salome one?

      • To Miss Ewing’s likely distress, Carmen and Salome have no children to be pressed into service as human shields. I do recall that Wozzeck and the brief moment when the child stepped away from Ewing, at which instant the entire theater rang with boos. (The noises immediately ceased as soon as the singer grabbed the kid and stationed him downstage again.)

        • Camille

          OH, Cieca, you remember it too, then?
          Well, I guess my old memory hasn’t completely failed, YET!

          I wonder if her daughter, Rebecca Hall, maybe got her first stage experience as Mamma Butterfly’s “Trouble”?
          That shore would have been WEIRD!

          ‘my voice gone now — just a washed-up mezzo….et seq.’
          from an old parterre box report
          on the Levine Gala.

    • Often admonished

      You took “AIS-207”? Ask for a refund.

  • Something I have to get off my chest. I’ll say it and then remain silent on the subject.

    I love my Don Ottavios to have that british, voce ingolata, covered sound. To be as un-italian, as aenemic as is humanely possible. Only then can I enjoy Dalla sua pace. I’m sorry but I have to admit it, I cannot enjoy an open Italian sound in this music, not at all. Are you familiar with Keith Lewis on the Haitink set? It is my idea of perfection in this music. You can kill me now.

    On a possibly brighter side, Simoneau was also very great in this.

    And Kenneth Tarver sings the S**t out of this, too :

    He juggles between the throaty british sound and an open italian one. Have no idea how he does it. But it works for me, and I enjoy him immensely.

    Vargas was another pleasant surprise, he can create this beautiful legato line with a latin timbre and has an impressive control of dynamics.

    • armerjacquino

      Hurrah for Tarver! A hugely underrated singer, I’ve always thought.

      Blochwitz (as in ‘whatever happened to…’) is my favourite Ottavio by a mile.

      • He started pretty late (was a computer engineer), around 35 or something, and then it was sort of over around 2000. His singing in Gardiner’s Wheinachtsoratorium is frankly astonishing, esp the Frohe Hirten aria, which has to be heard to be believed.

        I hope you got the irony BTW, AJ. I sometimes really like the more ‘covered’ sound which is rather considered an anathema over here. And I have high appreciation of the british tenor school (except Pears which I can’t stand for more than two mins). As opposed to many, I don’t think that singing is all about ‘letting the voice out’ and that opera is ONLY about ‘voice, voice and more voice’. I guess that’s My syndrome and my curse.

  • YouTube has the entire first act of DG from La Scala up:

    • Clita del Toro

      I had to shut the DG youtube off when Trebs screamed her way through, Or sai che l’onore--yuch! It was a bad as I thought it was the other day. Loud and crude singing, but I guess it woke up the audience.

      • I’ll take Netrebeko’s full-throated, passionate “Or sai” over a timid rendition any day!

        • Clita del Toro

          I don’t want timid either. “Full-throated” and throaty is what I don’t want.

        • Hmphh its not that she’s just full-throated or passionate. She sounded pushed and the voice lost focus and even the intonation was haphazardous. It isn’t a new role for her, she sang it back some 8-10 years ago, in the best venues -- Salzburg, Covent Garden. I attribute this lapse to La Scala nervousness and Barenboim’s heavy style and his fondness to drown his singers, even in Mozart.

          • Clita del Toro

            CF you are sooooo right

          • Clita del Toro

            PS I don’t blame it on Barenboim.

    • A. Poggia Turra

      Second act is now up:

      • Terfel’s imitation of Mattei’s singing is highly amusing.