Monday, 22 January 2018

Komische Oper Berlin: Don Giovanni

19 January 2018

Just a week after catching up with Claus Guth’s staging at the Staatsoper, I managed see the other staging of the work currently to be seen off Unter den Linden in Berlin. The contrast could hardly be greater: if Guth’s might be described as hyper-realist, Herbert Fritsch’s at the Komische Oper is, well, maybe hyper-unrealist—it’s certainly hyper something.

Donna Elvira and Don Giovanni in Herbert Fritsch's Komische Oper production (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)

The director, long a member a of Frank Castorf’s ensemble at the Volksbühne, offers up a show that is undeniably stunning in its execution, a gleeful mixture of the exaggerated and the anarchic, brilliantly realised by an ensemble cast.

(click to enlarge)
In an elliptical interview in the programme, he offers what feels like a preemptory rebuke to anyone trying to define—or judge—what he’s doing within traditional parameters. He talks of ‘freedom in art’ not necessarily meaning that, to quote his own unstinting language, ‘I can defecate here [on stage], or get undressed or masturbate there.’ 

Rather, he says, ‘freedom in art means also the free appreciation of art.’ The audience should be allowed this freedom too, he adds, ‘and therefore there’s no way that I’m going to tell you what I’m planning or am going to do with my Don Giovanni production.’

It’s not easy to explain what he has done either, especially for someone only very sketchily versed in the specific local theatrical traditions that he calls on. In terms of the production as we see it, though, the first shock comes in the apparent lack of the overture, displaced, it later becomes clear, to burst onto the scene between the exit of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio and the arrival of Donna Elvira.

At that point, too, the open space of the stage—empty but for a bar heater—fills with lacy flats that bob gently about for most of the rest of the evening; there are barely any props otherwise. Victoria Behr’s costumes suggest Spain and the broader Spanish-speaking world, offering up a fair amount of lurid, kitschy colours.

Günter Papendell as Don Giovani (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)
Act 1’s stage musicians appear in full Mariachi gear (they return in incongruous white tie in Act 2). The chorus shuffle around in their own colourful, over-the-top costumes with a mixture of skip and tiptoe. Lea-ann Dunbar’s terrific Donna Anna, perhaps not entirely inappropriately, presents us with parody of stock opera seria gestures. 

Masetto, Don Giovanni and Zerlina
(Photo © Monika Rittershaus)
Rarely has the ineffectiveness of Don Ottavio (the sweet-voiced Stefan Cifolelli) been more cruelly underlined, even if the character here is given a strangely endearing semi-earnest foppishness. 

Donna Elvira (an impressive Karolina Gumos) is all fierce frilly frock and flounce. A special mention, too, for Önay Köse’s sonorous Commendatore, presented here as yet another ineffectual flounderer.

At the centre of it all there are unflinchingly concentrated performances from Günter Papendell as Giovanni and Evan Hughes as Leporello: the former played, together with grotesque make-up, smiles and grimaces, and straggly blond wig à la Heath Ledger as the Batman Joker; the later as capaciously pantalooned semi-clown.

The energy they communicate together is irresistible: faces in constant movement, their relationship with one another and the audience in constant flux, recits (we heard Sabrina Zwach’s smart German translation) delivered with sped-up objectivity one moment, leaden deliberateness the next. Without such commitment and energy from the performers it would fall flat; here, though, it was impossible not to be drawn in and dragged along with it.

Inevitably, however, this sort of approach reveals only one facet of the opera, and arguably only a small part of that facet. Caring about any of these characters goes out of the window, while things become increasingly problematic the further we get into the second act: this Giovanni’s damnation—sinking into a hole in the stage beneath an illuminated pointy hand—inevitably counts for very little.

I was also surprised that, like Guth’s production, Fritsch had done away with the final sextet, which surely would have fitted, even helped, his approach—although I fully concede that I might not have fully understand the underlying aims of that approach. 

I’d also have thought, especially given the production’s fast-and-loose way with the score (several numbers get stuttering false starts, for example, to underline the various characters’ ineffectiveness), that the director would have opted for the concision of the Prague version. we instead got what was essentially the standard Prague-Vienna mix, conducted with verve by Anthony Bramall, in what can hardly be a straightforward assignment for a conductor.

This certainly isn’t one for purists, then, and clearly a one-dimensional view of this multi-dimensional masterpiece. But in some ways a staging every bit as compelling as Guth’s. They complement each other fascinatingly. 

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