Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Royal Opera: Don Giovanni

From OPERA, April 2014, pp. 469-472

Don Giovanni
Royal Opera at Covent Garden, February 3
A year ago, at the press announcement of the Royal Opera’s 2013-14 season, Kasper Holten admitted that Don Giovanni was a directors’ graveyard. If that’s the case, then there must surely be a particularly insalubrious section in that graveyard—and perhaps an associated corner in purgatory—reserved for those who fail to give Don Giovanni’s own comeuppance the dramatic power it is primed to unleash. However ugly and unimaginative the much-derided Francesca Zambello production that Holten’s replaced was, I found myself strangely missing its climax—vulgar pyrotechnics, wicker pointy finger and all. 

In Holten’s staging, very loosely updated to the early 19th century, we ended up
with Mariusz Kwiecień’s Giovanni standing downstage, struggling with his own demons, as Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s Commendatore stood above—too far above, it goes without saying, to extend an icy hand—in the middle of Es Devlin’s set. That single two-floor set—an intricate, ingenious concoction of cream-coloured panels and doors and staircases leading nowhere—had solidified and finally stopped spinning; Luke Halls’s hyperactive projections eventually melted away, too. Don Giovanni’s fantasies were exposed as exactly that; we no longer believe in a fire-and-brimstone hell, Holten explained in interviews, failing singularly to appreciate the distinction between theology and theatre, so Don Giovanni’s personal hell was solitude and abandonment. His final punishment was one of dissolution and disillusion. The world of his imagination had been littered with the scribbled names
of his 2065 conquests (Holten seems to have been obsessed with the exact figure in a strangely literal-minded way) and populated with cobwebby phantoms, which occasionally materialized, along with the ever-present Commendatore, in the corridors of his mind. But it all disappeared to nothing. 

On paper, like much of this production, this might initially look promising, but this final gambit backfired, fully exposing the essential emptiness of Holten’s own ideas, from which the box-of-tricks set and flashy video could only partly distract. Holten’s controversial liberty with the text of the score—he started the finale at the presto fugato passage, ‘Questo è il fin di chi fa mal’, citing the spurious precedent of the first Vienna production—troubled me less per se than the fact that it reflected his attitude to the spirit of the piece. There was certainly no sense at all of it as opera buffa (the term the Royal Opera’s programme plumped for), or even of it fulfilling the potential of its more forgiving alternative designation as dramma giocoso. Holten robbed it of drama and joy, sure, but, worse than that, he created a world in which most of the characters were superfluous; the Commendatore and his climactic final appearance, for example, became an encumbrance that was simply glossed over. But, for all that, Holten’s interpretation relied more on omission than commission: the result on stage was dreary, and, despite all the eager justifications and explanations, ultimately also bespoke a timidity and lack of conviction, not to mention an unwillingness to listen to the music. 

A further problem was that the projections quickly palled—and they will surely date badly with each revival. The staging of the Champagne Aria, clearly envisaged as a mind-bending high point, with Giovanni standing in the middle of the set surrounded by a swirling vortex, looked like a man drowning in a screensaver. The great Act 2 sextet, with the characters pretending to walk through separate projected corridors, seemed like an unsubtle way of underlining an individuality largely denied the characters elsewhere. With so much busyness, meanwhile, the effect of the ball scene, with elaborate choreography by Holten’s partner, Signe Fabricius, felt like a technical achievement rather than a dramatic one. A particular low point came in ‘Mi tradì’: Véronique Gens was positioned stage right under a helpfully scrawled ‘Elvira’ as clouds and a flapping flock of birds grew out of the top right corner of the set—it added nothing, but suggested that Holten felt that too much sitting around singing was going to be boring. 

Gens herself seemed serenely unaffected by all this, and her performance retained considerable nobility even if the voice had its moments of dryness. Both she and Malin Byström’s Donna Anna looked fabulous in Anja Vang Kragh’s costumes—dramatic inky blotches and spatters were far more striking on these simple period frocks than in the projections—and the Swedish soprano’s creamy timbre contrasted well with Gens’s slightly wirier tone, even if she was stretched at the extremes. Elizabeth Watts’s spunky, flirty Zerlina added a much needed buffo element into a po-faced evening, her palpable desire to be seduced reflecting her keenness to get ahead in the world—the singing was delightfully bright and fresh, too. 

Dawid Kimberg was a solid Masetto and communicated the character’s simplicity and frustrations well. Antonio Poli provided a Don Ottavio of regulation stiff dullness but showed that an appealing, lyrical voice is not enough in Mozart: the young Italian’s technique was insufficient for the attempted piano second verse of ‘Dalla sua pace’, and ‘Il mio tesoro’ was unrefined. Alex Esposito’s Leporello is familiar from the last outing of the Zambello production. Here, in rough wool suit and hat, he gave a perfectly respectable repeat performance. The charm wore thin, though, and he tended towards over-emphasis in striving too hard for comic effect once the audience laughter had dried up—which it did rather quickly. To have Tsymbalyuk, Munich’s recent Boris Godunov, as the Commendatore was a piece of luxury casting, and he didn’t disappoint vocally, even if the role, dramatically speaking, was rendered redundant. 

Holten positions Don Giovanni himself as a bored, worn-out seducer, closer perhaps to Nikolaus Lenau’s character (the basis for Strauss’s tone poem) than to Mozart and Da Ponte’s—and certainly a long way from his compatriot Kierkegaard’s interpretation of him as an irresistible life force. It put Kwiecień in a difficult position, though, and his performance fell back on well-practised disillusioned-barihunk schtick, a sort of weary aggressiveness (the recitative exchanges with Leporello were often shouty and charmless) that was both unsympathetic and, perhaps more importantly, inconsistently engaging. 

It might be explained as reverse psychology of sorts that all the opera’s women should want to succumb all the more keenly to this Don Giovanni’s lack of charm and effort, and Holten had them as both complicit in their own seduction and quick—often unavoidably so, given Mozart’s score—to cry foul. But this had the effect of reducing them to ciphers. In terms of pure singing, however, Kwiecień managed a fair bit of seductiveness, not least in a relaxed, honeyed account of the Serenade, during which Elvira’s maid (Josephine Arden) predictably got her kit off.

There was a solid quality to the orchestral playing, including some fine wind contributions. Nicola Luisotti’s account of the score was sensibly paced and musical but often felt rather unimaginative and stiff. We had the dubious bonus of both a sober harpsichord continuo (Paul Wingfield), and the conductor’s own heavy-handed ‘comic’ touches on the fortepiano, which only emphasized how humourless the whole show was. A decade down the line, I imagine we’ll be no less fed up with Holten’s Don Giovanni than we were with Zambello’s.

ENO: Rigoletto

[From OPERA, April 2014, pp. 480-1]

English National Opera at the London Coliseum, February 13
It was inevitable that ENO had eventually to retire Jonathan Miller’s three-decade-
old Little Italy version of Rigoletto, the second of its its iconic productions to be lost this season. But in the case of its replacement by Christopher Alden, the phrase ‘new production’ has been rather loosely applied. Although billed as a co-production with the Canadian Opera Company only, it is in fact nearly half as old as Miller’s, having been seen in Chicago as long ago as 2000. Here it felt like an ill-fitting hand-me-down, extremely handsome, no doubt, but obscuring the work’s dramatic power behind a veneer of pretentiousness. 

This was especially disappointing after an encouragingly taut and disturbing first scene. During the prelude, Quinn Kelsey’s Rigoletto slumped on a chair downstage, gesturing longingly at a prostrate female figure spotlit behind a semi-transparent curtain. As the action got under way, a prim older woman (later revealed to be Giovanna, played by Diana Montague, but also bearing a close resemblance to a portrait of Gilda’s mother) opened the curtain to unveil an impeccably recreated mid-19th-century gentlemen’s club (designed by Michael Levine), replete with pot plants, roaring fire, chesterfields and gas lamps. That female figure (the dancer Rosana Ribeiro, playing Monterone’s wife, we were left to deduce) was passed around like a piece of meat in this oppressively patriarchal environment, where stoically maintained upper lips could be unstiffened and starched collars (and much else besides) unbuttoned. The sense of entitlement, amorality and a casual disregard for the abuses routinely committed was powerfully communicated, with Barry Banks’s chippy Duke presiding ambivalently over it all, Rigoletto keeping his distance. 

But when the curtain was reopened for the second scene, the price paid for the impressive and effective opening became clear. Levine’s set remained, serving as a dramatic straitjacket for the rest of the action, which became alternately stylized and dreamlike, but increasingly unconvincing. Anna Christy’s Gilda was presented as a broken but twisted child of the age, staring at the bleak portrait of her mother. And Peter Rose’s creepy Sparafucile—a bald, bearded travelling factotum with a delicious hint of macabre magic about him—conversed with Rigoletto while she sat there within the same ‘club’. Her dealings with her father were cold and distant. And, with Gilda robbed of innocence, the Duke’s seductions were rendered perfunctory. 

Arguably, of course, to portray Gilda as such is to deny the masculine fantasies of
virginal purity that are so often a prerequisite of woman’s operatic undoing; but it is also to undermine one of the tragedy’s main drivers. Similarly, to retain more of the nastiness in Rigoletto himself than we usually see in the opera (particularly clear in the last of several awkward confrontations played out in front of the curtain as the scenery was shifted) is to undercut Verdi’s own characterization. And, as the show progressed, Alden seemed to resort to stylish but empty theatrical flourishes to mask the fact that his staging and Verdi and Piave’s opera were parting company. A ladder descended from the club’s ceiling in Act 1, which Gilda started climbing; at the end of Act 2, Monterone was hanged at the back, while his ‘wife’ resumed her frantic dancing, and Rigoletto and Gilda sang their vendetta duet with inappropriate restraint. 

The scene of Gilda’s murder, so carefully choreographed in Verdi’s score, was hopelessly botched, complicated by the almost constant presence of the other club members. The final scene, with Gilda folded under a large white sheet and the stage finally cleared of furniture and observers, was visually arresting but dispiritingly cool and unmoving, with Gilda simply wandering off at the end. James Fenton’s translation, a holdover from Miller’s production, handily omits the details in the libretto that would have jarred most, but the snippets of Italian it retains (the ‘addio’s for the Duke and Gilda, for example) are rather incongruous in Alden’s ‘clubland’. 

Kelsey, who had also sung in this production in Toronto, was fully invested in his characterization, to which his beautiful, baleful voice seemed especially well suited. And the apparent ease with which his baritone filled the Coliseum was astonishing, without any hint of the voice being forced or pushed, and with every word coming across with absolute clarity. He can also manage an admirable legato, even if the light-coloured timbre is some way from the grainier, gruffer Verdian norm. He towered, in all senses, above Banks’s Duke, the source of whose power and allure was never entirely clear. 

The tenor sang the role cleanly enough, albeit with a couple of dubious interpolations, but any stylishness was militated against by the tight, slightly squeezed sound and the smallness of the voice. Similarly, Christy’s Gilda was short on lyric allure, but her soprano’s glassy (and occasionally yelpy) sound was not unsuited to the characterization. Rose’s Sparafucile was sung with refinement, and there was a powerful contribution from David Stout as Monterone. George Humphreys and Anthony Gregory were also impressive as Marullo and Borsa, a particularly nasty pair of courtiers here. Justina Gringyte made an extremely handsome Maddalena, although I failed to pick up on the incestuous overtones that apparently existed between her and her brother. 

Graeme Jenkins, returning to ENO after a long absence, conducted a lucid, highly musical and flexible account of the score, and the orchestra (including a cimbasso instead of a tuba) played extremely well, creating a clean and transparent sound that fully revealed the quality of Verdi’s orchestration. Other conductors have found more in the way of implacable dramatic thrust, and there were a couple of moments of dodgy ensemble, but musically this was a very refined evening.