La Scena Musicale

Monday, 18 July 2011

Letter From Munich 2011: Don Giovanni

Canada Night at the Bavarian State Opera (l. to r.: Gerald Finley, Erin Wall, Joseph Kaiser, Phillip Ens)

by Joseph K. So

Mozart: Don Giovanni
Bayerische Staatsoper
July 17, 2011 6:00 pm.
Conductor: Constantin Carydis
Gerald Finley (Don Giovanni)
Phillip Ens (Commendatore)
Erin wall (Donna Anna)
Joseph Kaiser (Don Ottavio)
Veronique Gens (Donna Elvira)
Alex Esposito (Leporello)
Laura Tatulescu (Zerlina)
Levente Molnar (Massetto)

This production of Don Giovanni by stage director Stephan Kimmig premiered to divided opinions in October 2010. It's one of those shows that puts one's Regietheater quotient to the test. DG has always been fodder for the Regie approach, going back to Peter Seller's Harlem DG in the 1980s. Of course productions in recent years have been much more radical - I am thinking of the Calixto Beieto one at the Liceu, seen in all its glory on DVD. This Munich DVD topped that by a mile in terms of sensationalism. Last evening the opera house was full - of course, and the reception at the end was interspersed with mild booing for the production - par for the course. But the funny thing is, I actually enjoyed quite a lot of it. Yes, half the cast (four out of eight principals) were Canadian - that's a pleasure in itself. The conductor was hotshot Greek maestro Constantin Carydis, who gave a high energy yet refined reading of the score - he scored an "A" in my book! The orchestra sounded great, however I must say two nights in a row a horn cracked...

This infamous production is known as the "Container Don Giovanni" - a collection of shipping containers arranged in various configurations that move every which way. On the outside, one container is scrawled "Welcome to Espain"; another one has in Japanese - "The Best Mandarin Oranges!" The outsides of the containers open up completely and the insides serve as sets that tend towards grimy, garish - ok I won't mince words - ghastly. I am thinking of the wedding scene - it is in an extra long container with completely Arctic backdrop.... come to think of it, it has penguins so it must be Antarctica! At one point, Elvira and Ottavio started dancing, not with each other but with two stuffed penguins. Why? I haven't got the foggiest idea. While all this was going on, there was a pole dancer of sorts and two semi-nude female dancers making out. What have any of this got to do with Don Giovanni is a mystery. Also mysterious was the presence of an elderly man, stripped totally naked, standing stage front and centre throughout the overture, with involuntary tremors of his left arm and hand. He re-appeared in the final scene. Poor guy - I hope he got paid well....

Not meant to be totally negative as there were a few scenes that worked - the Giovanni-Leporello clothes changing scene at the beginning of Act Two was good. I also liked the Champagne Aria - it must be the first in history that Don Giovanni sings this not with a champagne flute but a meat cleaver! The final scene of the Don descending into hell began with master and servant in chef's clothing cooking - and actually eating - dinner! Not fake food but the real thing. I felt like I was watching a TV cooking show. Also interesting was the arrival of Commendatore to take Giovannni to hell. The Commendatore now looks like a Catholic priest (!), and accompanied by a dozen or so men dressed in various military and civilian costumes. The Commendatore and his entourage linked hands, as if to give him more power to conquer DG. To sum it up - many directorial touches - some humorous, some grim or macabre, a few surprising, more than a few puzzling, and finally some truly outrageous. There were an unusually large number of young people in the audience, no doubt there to see this far-out production.

As to the individual characters. This Don Giovanni is a chameleon - I've never seen so many costume and wig changes outside of a fashion show. It is sung magnificently by Canadian baritone Gerald Finley - an altogether amazing performance. Elvira is a back-packing, downtrodden young woman, beautifully played and sung by French soprano Veronique Gens. She didn't really have a high pianissimo, but she disguised it well - by singing those two high notes against a wall. Overall she was a very fine Elvira. Alex Esposito was a brilliant sidekick of a Leporello, and vocally he was fabulous, getting the second loudest ovation after Finley. Canadian soprano Erin Wall as Anna made the most of a one dimensional character, and she sang some lovely pianissimos in No mi dir. Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser has the right Mozartean timbre to his sound and he was a good partner for Wall. The pair of peasants were very good - Laura Tatulescu was an excellent Zerlina, and baritone Levante Molnar, though somewhat older and a little chubby, was a more interesting than usual Massetto. Canadian bass Phillip Ens has sung countless Commendatores in his career, and he continues to own this role. The verdict? I wouldn't want this to be the first DG for someone new to the opera, but if you want something different, or are bored with the traditional take, this production is certainly entertaining. Oh, did I forget to mention the animal carcasses hanging in one of the containers? Ummm, I will have to see the show again to catch all the nuances....

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