Bo, concept

The surprises, and puzzles, of Dmitri Tcherniakov‘s production of Don Giovanni in this DVD of a performance at the Aix-en-Provence festival begin before a note has been played or the curtain has risen. The cast list is not what those of us familiar with the Mozart-da Ponte classic are accustomed to.

We find the statement “The action takes place in the house of the Commander” and then the cast is listed as : “The Commander; Donna Anna (his daughter); Don Ottavio (her new fiancé); Zerlina (her daughter by a previous marriage); Masetto (Zerlina’s fiance); Donna Elvira (Anna’s cousin); Don Giovanni (Elvira’s husband); and Leporello (a relative who lives in the house).”

What struck me instantly, reading that, was that the class distinctions of the original, with its division of the characters into aristocrats (the “Don/Donna” titles being a mark of nobility), peasants (Zerlina and Masetto) and a servant (Leporello), have vanished. This is all one family, all one social class.

The conductor, Louis Langrée, enters the orchestra pit, bows, but the music does not start yet.

The curtain goes up on the production’s sole set, a large and very handsome reception room, with a parquet floor partly covered in a large Persian rug, big wooden doors to the right, a bookcase on either side of the room and French windows at the back. Staff are arranging  floral tributes and chairs around a large dining table. This is done in silence.

An important-looking older man comes in and sits down at the head of the table and the orchestra begins the overture, the very dramatic music of the “statue coming to dinner”scene. It seems to be a party to introduce the Commander to the fiancés of his daughter and granddaughter. The drop dead gorgeous Marlis Petersen (Anna) enters, in the first of a series of very classy ensembles, with her new fiance and introduces him to her father. Zerlina introduces Masetto to him. Donna Elvira enters hand in hand with her husband Don Giovanni.

Everyone is smiling and happy, they shake hands and kiss cheeks and sit down around the table. Leporello comes sauntering in and sits too. Everyone is in chic contemporary dress, clearly a prosperous group of people. There is no food or drink on the table. The curtain falls as the excellent Freiburg Barockorchester, playing on period instruments, launch into the allegro part of the overture, splendidly played.

So it has been very firmly established that all these people know each other, are members of the same family, and seemingly even live in the same house. This is going to create considerable contradictions between the drama apparently being enacted and the words the characters are singing in the ensuing action.

A drop curtain with the caption “A Month and a Half Later” rises. The large dining table has been removed. Leporello is dozing in an armchair. As he complains about being forced to keep watch while Don Giovanni has fun with a girl, he takes out a yo-yo and starts playing with it. Commotion. Giovanni enters, putting his shirt on, pursued by a frantic Anna in a slip. Leporello helps Giovanni on with the camel overcoat he will wear through much of the opera.

“Who I am you will never know”, sings Giovanni to Anna, making no effort to hide his face, but we just saw them sitting round the table together, part of the same family. Anna is desperate for him not to leave, she throws her drink over him, hits him, clings to him. Her father enters and tries to separate the two which infuriates Anna; she  jumps on her father’s back, bites his shoulder and claws at his face. The Commander challenges Giovanni to fight, but Giovanni doesn’t want to. He throws the Commander against a bookcase, against which he strikes his head and dies (apparently). Giovanni and Leporello leave, Anna is aghast.

The drop curtain falls. On it are now the words “Five Days Later”. In the original there is no scene break here, but this production keeps breaking the scenes up into shorter sections with very specific divisions of time like that indicated, making the action transpire over a course of many months.

Now the room is filled with floral tributes and a picture of the dead Commander. Anna goes into hysterics at the sight of her dead father’s body in the next room and makes her rather dull fiance Ottavio swear revenge.

After another drop of the curtain with the words “The Next Day,” Giovanni appears  wearing the camel overcoat, his hair dishevelled, looking like he has not shaved or showered for a couple of days. Elvira comes in, Giovanni smilingly greets her. As she sings her aria wondering where the wretch who abandoned her is, she is calmily looking right at him. He makes his excuses and leaves her to Leporello who tells her about all Giovanni’s many lovers. She does not seem to be paying much attention, rummaging through her handbag, until the end of his aria, when she bursts out laughing. Once he has left, though, she crumples to the floor in distress.

Another drop of the curtain informs us that it is now “A Month and a Half Later”. Zerlina, the waif-like Kerstin Avemo, in a baby doll dress like a tutu and a white feathery cap, looking uncannily like Bubble from Absolutely Fabulous, is celebrating her engagement to Masetto (a hulking David Bizic). Giovanni manages to get Zerlina alone (and it is odd that he has to ask her name when we have seen them together at the family party before the opera started.)

There is not a trace of danger or sexual menace in Bo Skovhus‘ portrayal of Don Giovanni; he is a tired, shambling, rather pathetic figure who seems to be going through a seduction routine with Zerlina against his will. Nevertheless, she is transfixed by him, sinking to the floor before his feet, and during the duet “La ci darem la mano” she takes his hand, not the other way round, and covers it in kisses. This is all being sadly watched through the French windows by Elvira, who freaks out and separates them, to Zerlina’s distress.

Anna now recognises Giovanni as the man who killed her father (but how could she ever not have known who he was?) and demands that Ottavio take revenge. As she sings “Or sai chi l’onore”, Anna rips off her fiance’s jacket, shirt and tie, lies down on the floor, spreads her legs and pulls him on top of her. However he cannot give her what she wants, leaving the excellent tenor Colin Balzer to sing a lovely rendition of “Dalla sua pace” lying in her lap.

“Three weeks later,” as Leporello is telling Giovanni about the trouble he has had with Masetto, Zerlina and Elvira, the Commander enters through the French windows, goes to the bookshelf, takes down a book, and walks out. Giovanni is  disturbed by this, but Leporello doesn’t seem to see anything. Giovanni decides to give a party, and gets quite excited, jumping up and down on a chair.

“Three weeks later,” Giovanni is looking for Zerlina to invite her to the party. “Maybe he won’t see me hiding between these trees” she sings, but there are no trees and she isn’t hiding. Giovanni asks Zerlina and Masetto to the party. Anna, Ottavio and Elvira enter. “Sir, look at the charming maskers!” says Leporello, but they aren’t wearing masks. The ladies however are looking totally gorgeous in their party dresses, espeically the compelling Kristine Opolais as Elvira, ravishingly beautiful.

There are no onstage musicians at the party and although the characters keep referring to dancing, no one dances. They all put on masks now, and Giovanni kisses Zerlina. Leporello kisses Elvira, then he leads Anna to Masetto and has her kiss him, which she does, gingerly at first, and then hotly and with passion. Masetto pushes her away. Next Leporello has Ottavio kiss Masetto. Then Giovanni kisses Elvira which upsets Zerlina. She sings “I am betrayed” at this, not, as in the libretto, at being dragged by Giovanni into the next room. That does not happen. All the other characters turn on Giovanni and furiously denounce him. He seems to suffer a heart attack or some kind of seizure and collapses to the floor.

Act Two is “Ten Days Later”

Giovanni is now hitting the bottle hard, crumpled up on the floor. As Leporello berates him, the Commander again briefly appears through the French windows, sees something going on, and retires. Giovanni has Leporello “exchange clothes” with him, but this only consists of Leporello putting on Giovanni’s camel coat, leaving Giovanni in a filthy T-shirt and trousers. As the second act contains a series of scenes with the other characters mistaking Leporello for Giovanni and the other way round, and as they do not look a thing like each other and it has been so clearly established from the beginning that all the characters know each other well, this is  hard to understand.

Kyle Ketelson as Leporello does not make any effort to sound like Skovhus in the “gulling of Elvira” episode that follows. Giovanni has said he wants to look like Leporello the better to woo Elvira’s maid, but he sings the famous serenade with mandolin accompaniment to no one in particular, or to a phantom in his head, stumbling and turning round and round in an alcoholic daze until he falls to the ground in a stupor.

“Five Days Later, “ no statue is present to receive Don Giovanni’s invitation to supper, just a disembodied voice. Petersen sings an excellent “Non mi dir”.

“The Following Day,” there is no food at “Giovanni’s last supper.” Zerlina, Masetto, Ottavio, Anna and Elvira are sitting round the table with Leporello and Giovanni. Elvira appeals to him to change his way of life, then a signal from Leporello indicates that it is time for her to pretend to see a ghost, and scream. Next it is Leporello’s turn to pretend to be frightened and tell Giovanni that a statue of the Commander is coming. The Commander, seemingly, enters, and sits at the table. Giovanni is amazed, but Leporello is not  frightened, he  thinks it is all funny.

The Commander (Anatoli  Kotscherga) tells Giovanni to repent or face hell, but Giovanni refuses. He collapses to the floor, apparently having suffered another heart attack, but does not die. As he writhes in agony, the Commander removes his false moustache and goatee and shakes hands with Ottavio, who has apparently arranged, in collusion with the others, to hire a look a like Commander to drive Giovanni mad. They express satisfaction. Zerlina walks over to the crumpled up, but still breathing, Giovanni, and spits in his face. All but Giovanni put their coats on and leave. The End.

The main problem I have with this performance is that the secco recitatives with fortepiano are very dragged out, many of them delivered at a snail’s pace, with a lot of pauses put in, for dramatic effect, I suppose. This is not authentic performance practice, the convention  was that secco recitatives were always performed briskly. It seems odd to have a period band in the pit, playing excellently in historically informed style, and then perform the secco recits like that. I think the stage director must have made that choice rather than the conductor. I am not crazy about breaking up the original into shorter scenes as this production does, that also slows the action down and makes things drag a bit, but not as much as the plodding  of recitatives.

This performance focuses the attention overwhelmingly on director Tcherniakov’s interpretation. It is certainly not something “traditionalists” will enjoy. He does not rewrite the libretto. The cast sing all the words of the original text and the subtitles of the DVD translate the original exactly, but what is being enacted is a very different drama than the original.

Tcherniakov gets some of the very best acting performances out of opera singers that I have ever seen. At times it is more like watching a movie than an opera, especially with the film-star gorgeousness of Petersen and Opolais. The references to cinema are deliberate I believe, with setting and mood recalling the 1998 film Festen. the camel coat and dishevelled appearance of Don Giovanni suggest Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris.

A lot of the time the music seems almost irrelevant to the dramatic action. For instance, Zerlina sings “Vedrai, carino” to Giovanni’s camel coat which she is clutching, ignoring the bleeding Masetto altogether. Anna is watching Zerlina sing this and the apparent sexual fetishisation of the coat seems to appall her, she lies on the floor writhing about in agony, the blouse of her latest haute couture suit unbuttoned, revealing her bra. When Zerlina gets to the line “sentilo battere,” she puts the coat on and hugs it close to her and at this point Elvira, also watching, sinks to the floor and begins rocking back and forth in apparently psychotic distress. With all that going on, the way Avemo is actually singing the music, or the orchestra playing it, sort of recedes into the background.

Mozart and da Ponte’s original shows how an aristocratic sex maniac uses his power and privilege to abuse both his social inferiors and every woman he comes across. It would be anachronistic, but not entirely inaccurate, to call the original “feminist” as the sympathy of the creators is clearly with the used and abused women of the piece. This version, on the other hand,  presents a narrative of a pitiable broken-down middle-aged alcoholic wreck being driven to mental and physical collapse by a trio of hysterical women. The sex maniac in this version is not Giovanni but Anna. The original is also intended at least partly as a comedy, but in this live performance, although there is sporadic applause, I did not notice a single laugh, or even a chuckle, from the audience.

This DVD is a recording of a festival performance, and the singing, acting, and playing are all at festival level. The staging is also being presented by the Bolshoi, the Teatro Real Madrid and the Canadian Opera Company. How it would work in a repertory house with a different cast from these truly excellent singing actors I am not sure, but in this version it is very compelling. To me it is a “special event” Don Giovanni: I would not want this to be the only production I ever saw, but much of its imagery and power has now been burned into my mind.