How local should be the staging of an opera? This is the question director Roland Schwab must have posed himself when the Deutsche Oper asked him for a new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. This is an opera named after one of the characters and although this generally means that this is the main character, that does not mean either that all other characters unimportant. I write that for it seems that a great deal of new staging of this opera has been so absorbed by Don Juan that all other characters are left to imagination, even if they sing a great deal more than the burlador de Sevilla himself. I find it particularly bothersome when this involves messing with the score, as in this case: recitatives have been trimmed to fit the director’s concept and the loss of Il mio tesoro and the final scene has nothing to do with the Viennese edition (no razor duet, to start with), but simply with the fact that Mozart and da Ponte supposedly did not know better.
As staged here, this could be a two-role opera with pauses for concert arias from high-voiced singers. Don Giovanni is some sort of mobster who lives la vida loca in Berlin’s clubbing scene, with a little help of his sidekick Leporello. Although Mozart and da Ponte wrote an opera that reaches its climax in the second act, here this is transferred to the first act finale: Don Giovanni’s party is some sort of night-life inferno with two spiraled neon hell-machines, a boar’s head stuck on a spear, a naked girl with a fixator around one leg, other naked girl hanging from the ceiling, a quotation from Dante and good old Jesus on a stationary bike. Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, Don Ottavio, Zerlina and Masetto seem to be extras from Mike Nichols’s “The Graduate” who have taken a bus to Berlin in the end of the movie. What they are doing there, what they feel, what they think, who they are – these are irrelevant question.
So, the production concentrates on the issues of the addiction to freedom that clubbers experiment only to drive them always to live in their limits, until the never-ending quest for new limits becomes a prison. Point taken. How does the giocoso part fits in the story? In some sort of slapstick broad black comedy that Germans appreciate, basically all turning around Leporello, who licks arms, nipples, face, feet etc of half the cast and some extras, strips to his underwear while doing Beyoncé-like choreographies surrounded by dancing skulls with mickey-mouse ears in the graveyard scene while tossing evil laughs whenever there is time for it. When there is not, no problem – the conductor agreed to press the pause button in the middle of recitatives.
If the idea was to shock or wow anyone who knows Berlin’s underground scene, I guess that the effort was self-defeating. It all looked cutely quirky. Sometimes embarrassingly so. There was nothing truly disturbing going on stage – maybe an ill-humored member of the audience would find the unfunny jokes about Christ offensive, but they are so pointless that I doubt that – and I do not really believe that Da Ponte and Mozart truly give raw material for something blatant. Especially when the conductor is Roberto Abbado, who offered the best-behaved performance of this opera I have ever seen in my life. Vigor, strong accents, contrasts – one should look for that anywhere else. Emptily elegant phrasing, sprightly rhythms and graciousness is all you would find here. I have once read that one shopping-center somewhere in USA has always Mozart pouring from the speakers, because they have observed that this discourages young people from indulging in vandalism. The musical performance this evening seems to prove that. If those on stage seemed ready to let it rip, this must have been because they were paid to pretend.
The saving grace in this evening was Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka, who offered a Mozartian performance in the grand manner. I cannot think of anyone else who could tackle the role of Donna Anna these days as beautifully as she did. With the exception of some wrong entries in Non mi dir, she sang immaculately: unforced, round top notes, crystal-clear coloratura, pure intonation, instrumental phrasing, sense of style, an amazingly lovely tone, you name it, she has it. I have a message for mezzo-sopranos: Donna Elvira is not a role for you girls. Ruxandra Donose is only the next victim of this misconception – she sounded uncomfortable throughout and struggled perilously with a transposed Mi tradì. Her intervention in Don Giovanni’s feast had to do with the optional lower notes. On the other hand, Martina Welschenbach found the role of Zerlina too low, but her voice is so pleasant and her singing is so engaging that one can forgive her that. Yosep Kang was an unsubtle Don Ottavio who still needs to know the art of tonal coloring and dynamic shading. No-one missed Il mio tesoro tonight. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s big, firm bass lacks some variety too and he is not very strong in vocal seduction, but considering what an over-enthusiastic singer could do in this production, his austerity is quite welcome. At this point, I could write a master degree about Alex Esposito’s Leporello. Although his voice is not remarkable in any sense, it is nonetheless quite reliable and healthily produced. His interpretation is now plagued by the sort of mannerisms that appear when a singer sings for too long the same role. He has a Roberto Benigni-like restlessness and clownishness that, framed by a good director, can come through as vivaciousness and funniness. This evening, rambunctiousness and vexatiousness would describe it more faithfully. Finally, Ante Jerkunica did not find problems in the writing of the Commendatore, but having a lighter and clearer voice than Don Giovanni was a little confusing.