Monday, May 26, 2014

Voglio fare il gentiluomo: Mainz's Don Giovanni

Parasite or political protestor? Don G. on the margins.
Photo © Staatstheater Mainz/Martina Pipprich
In Mainz's new Don Giovanni, opera's most famous amoralist is placed in a dystopian dictatorship that seems uncomfortably familiar to today's newspaper-reading public. Liberty is more of a slogan than an ideal. The production, by Tilman Knabe is very busy, and dark in a literal as well as metaphorical sense, which influenced my sense that the events on stage might have benefited from more stylization, or more specificity. The tensions between different elements of the production sometimes struck me as counterproductive rather than fruitful. The events take place in a heavily militarized society with an unfree press and moral policing that selectively borrows religious trappings (the Commendatore has a huge pectoral cross, and appears on a balcony clad in papal white; but this is no theocracy, as Donna Anna's confidential aides are conservatively-dressed Muslim women.) No one, however, appears to have any trouble accessing machine guns. As my housemate and I discussed at the interval, it was very difficult to determine who was on whose side, or if there were sides at all; everyone is using everyone else with cheerful selfishness. Although Don Giovanni appears as the political ally of radical feminists (!!) the notion that the personal is political is one he blithely ignores, as he continues exploiting (and sometimes assaulting) women for his own gratification. This is a society where the rich have inherited the earth; Donna Elvira's conspicuous consumption shields her (partly) from the violence suffered by the other women in the piece. The indignation against Giovanni rings more than usually hollow, as Masetto routinely beats Zerlina (who is wheeled on-stage in a shopping cart); Ottavio is constantly policing Donna Anna's behavior. Donna Anna arranges the Commendatore's assassination and attempts to take his political position; making Don G. the scapegoat fulfills a double goal. But her gender dooms this endeavor: she gives Masetto the right answers to preserve her feminine virtue in his eyes, but refusing him is a crime for which she is punished through an armed coup. Don Giovanni, having barely escaped death by torture, survives… but for how long? and do we want him to? I really appreciated that Knabe's production took the inflammatory politics of the Mozart/Da Ponte masterpiece seriously; I just wished  the whole had been more coherent.

Donna Anna defends her honor © Staatstheater Mainz/Pipprich
Part of my impression of incoherence was, no doubt, created by the wild mixing of the Vienna and Prague versions of the score, with heavy cuts in recits, and I don't know how the decisions resulting in this final product were made. Hermann Bäumer led the orchestra in an admirably lively account of the score, which seemed responsive to the singers. There were times when I wished for more nuance; but the nuances of Don Giovanni are surely inexhaustible. The harpsichord playing was praiseworthy, and the carefully controlled illusion of musical chaos in the climactic banquet (no sextet here) was well-handled. All of the singers, including the chorus, showed admirable dramatic commitment, supported by fine Italian diction. (And Donna Elvira's silent maid, given lots of stage time as PA and factotum, did a good job too.) José Gallisa sang with authoritative incisiveness as the Commendatore. As the violent, nervous, bitter Masetto, Richard Logiewa gave a multifaceted dramatic performance which was not fully matched by his vocal one; he sounded somewhat pushed and monochromatic. Alexandra Samouilidou was a powerhouse of a Zerlina; her soprano occasionally turned shrill at the top of her range, but she sang with energy and passion, and gave a disturbingly vivid portrayal of a woman who, brutalized, has become cynically willing to use her body as the only bargaining currency she has.

What mixture of desire and denial, constraint and compassion, drives Donna Elvira to follow Don Giovanni to Seville? The production didn't fully answer these questions, but it made an interesting attempt. Patricia Roach sang strongly, if with sometimes wayward intonation; her Elvira is entitled, and deeply conservative (as suggested not only by her use of her aide, but the way in which she uses her pregnancy as a bargaining chip with Don Giovanni and with any other audience she can find.) As Thorsten Büttner's bright lyric tenor is a bigger voice than usual for Don Ottavio, but he seemed to fit the role well, vocally and dramatically. He acquitted himself well (and with ornamentation, as well as precision) in both arias, making of "Il mio tesoro" a dramatic tour de force. Tatiana Charalgina sang Donna Anna so well that it was easy to forget how demanding a role it is. Hers was a Donna Anna of smooth tone and steely determination. Hans-Otto Weiß and Heikki Kilpeläinen made a charismatic duo as Leporello and Don Giovanni; here both enigmatic, but unmistakably the main characters. Weiß' warm bass-baritone and nuanced acting made much of Leporello, whose documentation of Don Giovanni's catalog is a byproduct of his filming everything, creating an alternative narrative to that of the policed press. The friendship of the two men is more conspicuous than the servant-master dynamic. Leporello's emulation is, of course, problematic; but it seems unusually sincere. Each of them idealizes the other, imagining the freedom afforded by the other's social status. As should be clear from this, both singers handled recitative vividly. Kilpeläinen sang a bold, brash Don Giovanni, convincing as a man of insatiable and barbarous appetite; compelling as a man who defies apparently-certain death in the first, as well as the last scene. (His defiance of the living Commendatore is made with two machine guns aimed at his skull and a boot in the small of his back; in the finale, his defiance is made as he writhes under the torture of the same thugs in different pay.) The fierce delivery of the champagne aria made of it another defiance--as indeed it is--while Don Giovanni's more sensual moments ("Deh, vieni"; "Là ci darem") are here almost entirely cynical. As he strolled triumphantly off-stage at the end, I was left with a question: for whom is the liberty of the libertine a victory?

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