Let’s start with Leporello. He’s played and sung (and cooed, clucked, hummed, shrieked, crooned) by Erwin Schrott who will do anything on stage to enliven his character, and who panders to the audience with such refreshing shamelessness, that his besotted, drug addled, nervous-tick and spasms displaying Leporello becomes a character lovable not for his buffoonish wit or cowardly antics or jester’ wisdom—which is the fate of so many Leporellos when they’re turned into a Sancho Panza character. But an honest soul, not too bright, who shoots up and gets more and more confused, and who cares deeply for his master and friend. All their relationship’s complexity is encapsulated in one, this, touching moment: DG wants to bribe Leporello into further advancing his schemes with four doubloons and—on the ground, in pain, just manages to lob a wad of money at him. Leporello counts, gently stuffs the excess bills back into DG’s pocket, and then, hurt in his pride, puts his money in the little fire they’ve made to warm themselves with through the increasingly cooler forest nights. Leporello—the help for hire!—can’t be bought... because underlying the two men’s economic relationship lies the pure and decent love of two men who have bonded and who need each other. And anyone messing with his Don gets a taste of Leporello’s knuckleduster. (He doesn’t actually need to have, or brandish one; Schrott’s physique does the trick plenty well.)
Don Giovanni K.527, Dramma giocoso in two acts
There are different ways of taking the “giocoso” out of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Think of Peter Sellars’ ruthlessly raping New Yorker protagonist. Claus Guth’s Don Giovanni, seamlessly embodied by a stupendous Christopher Matlman, doesn’t need to rape. He’s too good looking, too strapping, too suave, too vulnerable, too convincing to stoop to that level. But he is still a liar, a crook, constantly deceiving, ruthlessly manipulating, in short: a real jackass to the ladies. You feel for the women; Donna Elvira’s pain is made physically tangible by Dorothea Röschmann who exceeds at these roles of embittered, slightly trampy, strangely alluring women. Flighty, flirty Zerlina’s turn from being enamored to being cross (a willing, eager, perfect-for-the-thankful-part Anna Prohaska) becomes believable. Somewhere along the way, Donna Anna (Aleksandra Kurzak) is wronged, too.
That’s all in the libretto, and that alone wouldn’t be much of an achievement for a director to bring out (even if it is rarely brought out so poignantly, and DG all too often ends up as sexual Falstaff). Yet this Don Giovanni is also a tender man, earnest in his own—admittedly warped—way; and he is, to his best—admittedly limited—ability a genuine friend to his servant Leporello. Don Giovanni, who is hit by a bullet in the fight with Donna Anna’s father and who is slowly deteriorating, dying through the two acts, is tended to by Leporello; his bouts with his servant-friend are in good part expressed helplessness. It is their friendship, affectionate and loving through all the abuse and tussles that surreptitiously becomes the overwhelming focus of the opera. Not the production, mind you, the opera!
Claus Guth gets at the very core of Don Giovanni, and it would be limiting if one focused solely on the fascinating hyper-realistic forest that fills the entire stage (costumes and stage by Christian Schmidt), or the Chrysler Saratoga with which Anna and Ottavio break down on the forest road, or the other many ingenious little touches that, sometimes subtly, evoke the atmosphere of corrosion and eventually decomposition. Guth doesn’t rely on shtick, or heavy symbolism. His production is literal, it is to the point, it doesn’t hide behind abstraction or superficial glare; it just rolls up its sleeves and gets down and dirty with personal relationships, human emotions, broken hearts, broken bones, and a bullet wound. It unveils the essence of the characters’ souls (or at least one cogent interpretation thereof), their struggles. It recreates that with naturalistic, contemporary means that relate to a contemporary audience what was meant to be related to Mozart’s contemporary audience . It does so without shenanigans, superimposes nothing, reveals, entertains, thrills, making the greatness of this opera instantly audible. It is, in a word or three, a near-perfect conservative production.
What about Don Giovanni being shot in the overture (acted out in a slow motion movie sequence that we observe through a peephole in the curtain)? Isn’t that messing with the substance? Nope. Don Giovanni still gets his end meted out by Il Commendatore. And all because he won’t mend his ways; continues to live hard, ignores the warning signs (of his body), does his thing, squeezes the last bit of life out of his body, and never lets up. Now we also know why he never actually has any success with the women on stage; he is wounded—Klingsor-like, almost—and couldn’t quite pull through with it, even if he had the chance. And there is no more suspension of disbelieve necessary when the voices, the Commendatore (just a worker in the forest, digging a grave) are psychological entities, signs of the parallel mental and physical decline of servant and Lord, respectively.
The characters never actually leave the forest, and still Don Giovanni and Leporello end up in the forest again for the final three scenes; an absolutely heartbreaking Dickensian ‘Christmas Carol’ setting for the destitute; making their own feast amid the trees with Spam and canned beers, Leoporello trying to get the spirit right by sprinkling a torn napkin over the nearest little conifer tree as ersatz tinsel; and familiar music bleeding in from afar. Keeping up appearances, amid the dying moments, the hallucinations, and eventually the inevitable dying itself, which is what so scares that sad, lamentable, lovable character of Leporello up to his final, gut(h)-wrenching scream.
Aleksandra Kurzak was a surprisingly indistinct Donna Anna, and in playing it so relegated to a tertiary character. That wasn’t in itself disappointing (nor was the lack of clarity on top notes), because her relative blandness didn’t stand out as something actively missing; it became part of the story. A mild disappointment, perhaps the only one, was the indisposition of Joseph Kaiser. How brilliant would the show have been when even Don Ottavio had been cast with someone of equal stature (literally and metaphorically speaking), someone who acts and sings as naturally as the impossibly charming, ever believable Canadian? Joel Prieto, the substitute (scheduled, anyway, for the last three performances), was fine. His tenor voice sounds very nice, with much room for improvement when it comes to expressiveness and the low range. But his slightly stiff, slightly overacted interpretation didn’t quite gel, and he never didn’t look like the chap who took on his older brother’s suit that doesn’t quite fit him yet. That Schrott and Maltmann are front and center (Röschmann squeezes in there, too) never detracts. Especially the latter has come quite some way from Gentleman Schubert singer (and superb captain in “The Death of Klinghoffer”, where I first saw, heard, and immediately took to him) to macho sex pot Don G., with a gorgeous, resonant, naturally strong voice every bit as well sculpted as his body that shows whenever he doesn’t, err, don the Hugo Boss apparel.
The Vienna Philharmonic, a few sour-tinged violin section moments apart, performed with guts and gusto under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. From a direct and smooth (never homogenized) overture, they worked their way through the two acts displaying anything from meaty verve to gentle touches and syncopations that really brought out how Mozart’s music supports the text, how he appeals to his audience’s ears with popular tunes and dances. This was not civilized Mozartizing—soothing sounds of gorgeous boredom—but brought the craze, the frenzy, the dementedness and rage; helped by a very funky fortepiano in the continuo parts that livened up the partly-improvised recitatives turning them into highlights, rather than chores. It helped make this honest, most cogent of all Don Giovanni productions a definite highlight in my opera-going life.
All pictures © Salzburger Festspiele / Monika Rittershaus