Don Giovanni - Royal Opera House, 2 February 2014
If the music's good enough, does the production matter? Judging by the thunderous applause for Kasper Holten's new Don Giovanni, the opening night audience thought not. Or perhaps they were too dazzled to notice. The spinning set, stadium-rock projections and sumptuous costumes are executed with panache and real craftsmanship. The sheer wow factor must make the folks in the posh seats feel they're getting their money's worth. This is the best-looking show at Covent Garden in decades.
But Holten's reinterpretation, original for sure, is frequently at odds with words, music and plain logic. His Don, a world-weary lothario winningly sung by Mariusz Kwiecień, doesn't need to seduce the ladies. They simply throw themselves at him, the classic male wish-fulfillment fantasy. Donna Anna invites him in, watches the murder, denounces him for it, then, mystifyingly, drags him into her boudoir again. Zerlina seduces him, then cries rape. In Holten's book, all women are manipulative, hypocritical nymphos, though neither words nor music give a hint of this. Even if you don't care about the misogyny, the incoherence is baffling.
With sexual politics to the fore, class distinctions remain unexplored. What happened to Mozart's critique of the moral decline of the aristocracy? Perhaps that sort of thing is no longer fair game at donor-hunting Covent Garden.
Musically, the news is much, much better. Even though some of his continuo playing was oddly Webernesque, Nicola Luisotti conducted with perfect pace and balance, extracting an unusually clean string sound. This is an opera that can drag, even for its greatest fans; Luisotti never let that happen.
And the cast is outstanding, top to bottom. Kwiecień's last Don Giovanni here felt underscaled, but he has grown in vocal power and presence, the character's latent aggression never far from the surface. Malin Byström's imposing Donna Anna was his match. With more vocal heft than the average Zerlina, Elizabeth Watts was credible as the calculating minx of Holten's invention. Donna Elvira doesn't fit neatly into the production concept, so the elegant Véronique Gens sang a Mi tradi of mournful intensity whilst making little impact elsewhere. The excellent Alex Esposito was underused as a one-dimensionally clownish Leporello but Alexander Tsymbalyuk made a grave and imposing Commendatore despite his relative youth.
There is little tampering with the score, but a brutal and unmusical cut to the final scene makes nonsense of the opera's full title (Il dissoluto punito...). May we never be subjected to Francesca Zambello's 'barbecue' ending again, but simply raising the lights over the abandoned - but still living - hero is more of a cop out than a conclusion.
If you're thinking of taking the kids/gran/MIL, I must point out something that the ROH website doesn't, which is a brief few seconds of full female nudity.
And if anyone can tell me why the director's wife is credited for choreography, when there appeared (from my seat) to be none, I'd be grateful.
production photos (above) Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House
curtain call photos (below) intermezzo.typepad.com