Cher Public

The beast with three backs

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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.

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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.

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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.