Every time there’s a new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni I have to ask the same question: why is this opera, which 50 years ago was considered an unqualified masterpiece and an invariable success in the theatre, now always a wretched failure when it is staged? I would hesitate to say that the new production by Kasper Holten is the worst I have seen, since the competition is so intense. But it certainly ranks among the worst, and is all the more infuriating because a mainly excellent cast has been assembled. Anyone who longed for the previous production, by Francesca Zambello, to be supplanted will be saying, ‘Come back, all is forgiven.’ Where Zambello failed to cast any light on the opera, Holten shrouds it in impenetrable darkness, metaphorically speaking. It’s the kind of production where you keep forming hypotheses about what it may be getting at, only to be rebuffed by the next scene, and so on to the bitter end.
In the opening scene, for instance, Donna Anna enters, singing in the greatest agitation that she’ll die rather than let her would-be rapist go. Here, the pair entered decorously, Anna not at all dishevelled, Don Giovanni calmly doing his tie and cufflinks, singing their violent music without touching one another, let alone Giovanni’s trying to fight free of her. I concluded that they had been enjoying themselves, and that for the sake of appearances or as a slave to conventional morality Anna was making a fuss. As the opera continued, though, there was nothing to suggest that that was its take on the work.
The set, by Es Devlin, is a two-storey affair, with flights of stairs, much used, and several rooms. Consistently singing from high up is never a good idea acoustically, and rarely dramatically. Holten’s idea here seemed to be that this is a drama, sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, of non-communication. No sooner would one character start singing to another than he or she would mount or descend the stairs, or at the very least wander off, so one got the impression that everyone in the opera regards the other characters as bores. In the magnificent ensembles, especially towards the close of the finale to Act I, and the sublime sextet in Act II, where many interactions should be taking place, everyone seemed incarcerated in a solipsistic capsule. It was a wonder that musically speaking co-ordination was on the whole so good.
Most people would agree that Don Giovanni is, just as much as Figaro, a drama of confrontations. Giovanni himself is constantly meeting people he doesn’t want to, and failing to meet the women he is after. He also has a close but puzzling relationship with Leporello, the surly servant whom he relies on so heavily and seems even to feel some affection for, as he doesn’t for anyone else, and who has very mixed feelings about him. They aren’t explored at all in Holten’s production, though during the climactic supper scene, while Giovanni is indulging his ‘barbaro appetito’, Leporello managed, as he should, to steal a bit of pheasant only to let it slide to the ground, and to burst out sobbing. Why? The statue hadn’t yet appeared, and when it did no one except Giovanni took any notice, though they screamed.
I was always trying to work out what had just happened, the last thing an operatic production should induce. No doubt about the statue, though: a figment of Giovanni’s imagination, his superego going into overdrive. The singer of the role remained upstairs, while Giovanni descended to ground level, so no contact — no fatal handshake — happened. And, though the building had been many colours during the previous three hours, no flames. Giovanni’s being dragged down to hell consisted of his coming to the front centre of the stage and gazing horrified at us, the audience: hell is other people. Didn’t someone else say that?
Musically: after a most promising volley of opening chords, the orchestra under Nicola Luisotti went off the boil, and stayed there. Act I was flabbier than I have ever heard it, Act II mostly much better but not worthy of the singers. Don Giovanni is Mariusz Kwiecien, who gives a magnificent account despite all conceivable discouragement. His Leporello is Alex Esposito, singing well but apparently at a loss as to what he should be doing. The pathetic Ottavio is reedily taken by Antonio Poli, and the non-functional Commendatore is the imposingly boomy Alexander Tsymbalyuk.
The women are powerful. Véronique Gens is a vocally overwhelming Elvira, but is given no chance to develop this complex and desperately sad role. Anna, too, becomes one-dimensional, and that dimension is not vengeance, but Malin Byström makes her Act II aria more vivid than it usually is. Elizabeth Watts is a shrewish, on-the-make Zerlina, her two lovely arias unmoving. The final scene is cut so that there are no individual contributions — the characters don’t exist now that Giovanni has gone — and only the few moments of ensemble, with the lights up. One last thing: this is the least sexy Don Giovanni I can remember.