When Kasper Holten’s production of Don Giovanni was first staged at the Royal Opera in 2014, I disliked it intensely, even more than I have disliked most of his other productions, or for that matter most productions of Don Giovanni. I missed the first revival, but when I saw it this time round my reactions were more complex, though I still think there is a lot wrong with it. In the meantime, I have watched the 2014 production on Blu-ray. Holten and Es Devlin the set designer give a commentary throughout, which at least helped me to understand what was intended, even if it didn’t convince me that most of the producer’s ideas are helpful or even realisable.
Holten’s key idea is that Giovanni, for all his ebullience, energy, charm and erotic power, is desperately miserable, so much so that by the time we arrive at the Supper scene he is mad, wholly divorced from any awareness of the existence of anyone else, so that the Stone Guest is a figment of his crazed mind, and the hell to which he seems to be dragged down by devils is his total loss of contact with reality. Hence during this scene, Leporello, far from stealing his master’s snacks, is sobbing uncontrollably — he would be, since according to Holten he is in love with Giovanni. This is an interesting interpretation, even if it is impossible to enact it onstage in such a way that we grasp it. After all, both Donna Elvira and Leporello hear the knocking of the Stone Guest and scream with fear.
There are moments in which the view of Giovanni as lonely and lacking are effective. For instance, the scene early in Act Two in which Masetto is beaten up and Zerlina comes looking for him and comforts him in the moving aria ‘Vedrai carino’ is a revelation in this production. Instead of making light of Masetto’s injuries, Zerlina realises that he is in pain mainly thanks to her thoughtless flirtation with Giovanni, and bursts into tears as she realises her own wrongdoing. That gives this pair, normally a marginal element in the opera, the position of being the only couple in it who know tenderness; and their reconciliation is witnessed by Giovanni from the upper storey, where he writhes with misery at something that he is looking for but knows he can’t find. And the problem of how Giovanni escapes at the end of Act One, when he is surrounded by enemies, is easily solved: he is actually alone, fantasising.
There are other, similar moments of illumination, genuine or dubious, but they would be a lot clearer if the sets were less elaborate and restless, and there weren’t so many adventitious elements. Holten doesn’t realise that information overload is a threat when the set, a large house, is constantly being bombarded by projections, as well as being often on the move, with Escher stairs and something like a maze of doors and rooms. Besides the main action there is almost always something else going on elsewhere.
It’s a cliché that Giovanni the arch-seducer — the names of all his conquests are projected on the front of the house, 2,065 of them, the exact tally that Leporello recites to Donna Elvira — fails to seduce anyone during the opera. In this production Donna Anna is in love with him and when he first appears they have just had sex. Anna is bored stiff by Ottavio, whose arias she walks out of — she returns for an extra session with Giovanni during one of them. Ghosts of Giovanni’s old conquests roam the stairs, and innumerable points are made that can only be appreciated by people sitting in the first few rows of the stage, or on DVD.
However, Marc Minkowski is a superb conductor, both vigorous and expressive, and he has a team of almost uniformly wonderful singers. By now Mariusz Kwiecien is unquestionably the finest performer of Giovanni since Cesare Siepi, though in a radically different style. His sidekick is Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, himself a distinguished Giovanni, so they are able to play off one another to stunning effect. Rachel Willis-Sorensen is an ideal Donna Anna, thrilling in her outbursts but melting in her great final aria. Poor Ottavio, who gets an even rougher deal than usual, is the dignified Pavol Breslik, and his adorable Zerlina is Chen Reiss. Hrachuhi Bassenz as Elvira acted with intensity, though her singing wasn’t quite so affecting. Willard W. White returned as the Commendatore, and in the Supper scene I was almost as scared as Giovanni. There is a silent role for Elvira’s aid, another successful conquest of Giovanni’s, though Da Ponte and Mozart omitted to include her.
Holten cuts the final scene altogether. It is often taken to show how empty all the other characters are when Giovanni goes missing, but that isn’t the view that this production would want us to take.