Author : Johan Uytterschaut
It applies to all of Mozart’s operas, but eminently so to the three Da Pontes: the music for each of these three operas has a unique character which makes them (within the boundaries of Mozart’s idiom) impossible to confuse with one another. It is not always easy to pinpoint, but the more you listen to each drama, the more unmistakable it becomes. Mozart is not the only one displaying this quality: Giacomo Puccini will write about the “tinta” he had to find in order to start writing each new opera; once he had found that “colour”, nothing could stop him.
The presence of such a unique quality shows the direction a successful production best takes. To put it simply: when a director (and, of course, his whole team) succeeds in giving an answer that is dramatically as consistent as the unique musical challenge in question, well, then he mostly hits a bull’s eye. What remains to be done is being faithful to that concept in filling out the details. Ivo van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld (and the rest of the team) did so in a most honourable way. One single look at the set leaves an impression that is being confirmed consequently and persevered through the entire evening: this Don Giovanni is the limbo of hell.
Transposing the piece to today’s world doesn’t pose a problem; on the contrary. The 18th century conventions forcing this kind of story towards opera buffa do no longer apply. That gives us the freedom to explore the dramatic relief of the libretto. And every era has its own interpretations and comments. The 19th century used to drop the final scene: seeing the villain being swallowed up by hell was too apocalyptic to have it being followed by an anti-climactic morality.
Today, the challenges are quite different. Besides the universal traits of human behaviour displayed by each character, fitting in every possible timeframe, there are some (very) time-bound aspects demanding special attention. E.g. the explicitly 18th century kind of music in the masked ball. And then there are downright absurdities, like the dead Commendatore’s statue, standing erect barely twelve hours after his being killed. Tension between the unity of time and place on the one hand and the compelling presence of “The Stone Guest” as he is being called in a number of titles on the other.
What are van Hove’s solutions? The ball music (with its three small bands playing simultaneously on stage) is being performed by musicians wearing a late 18th century wig. Only the protagonists are wearing period costumes; the rest of the dancers take on a stylised pose and dance a kind of collective dance that was popular some decades ago in parties, but remaining timid, to say the least, thus following the menuets played by the bands. There, solved.
The confrontation with the statue during the “churchyard scene” strikes two birds with one stone. There is no statue whatsoever. The dead Commendatore does appear, but Don Giovanni doesn’t see him (he only hears him) – perfect symbol for his state of mind: he’s blind to the problem. Leporello, on the other hand, does see him, and is given by his boss the order to convey the invitation to dinner. Clearly, Leporello sees very well what kind of guy his boss is. Incidentally: the way hell is brought on in the penultimate scene is hauntingly genius. And as touching is the return to human, warm Seville in the last scene.
I could go on like this. This production is also unabashed in its use of theatrical conventions that don’t want us to believe some illusion of realism but are betting on the psychological veracity of the spectacle. A change of coat, and you’re someone else. Off with your tie, and you’re no longer upper class.
In short: Ivo van Hove and his team succeed admirably in respecting Don Giovanni’s dramaturgical characteristics and giving them a high quality lustre at the same time. The music is at no time being questioned in that process.
Is it being served well in this production? It certainly is. The cast is 90% top grade, and so is the acting. Personally, I was specially impressed by Adam Plachetka’s Leporello and Ana María Martínez’ Donna Elvira; add Ying Fang’s Zerlina to that list. That being a subjective choice based on vocal quality and dramatic intelligence. The rest of the cast is in no way inferior. It also struck me how everyone accepts and defends van Hove’s play director style.
This was my first acquaintance with Nathalie Stutzmann as a conductor. She energetically defends her vocal background in the strongly pronounced orchestral legato. She clearly also has quite personal ideas about the orchestral details in this score. Absolutely legit. My only doubts lay with her sometimes very ambitious tempos, which resulted (early in the evening) in a few “differences of opinion” with the people on stage. But let that not be a reason not to go watch (once more) this magnificent production.
Conclusion: I am rather proud of a compatriot being able to handle a “monstre sacré” from the great repertoire with such courage and personal input. You have to get it done. Hats off for the New York Met having scouted this talent.
Have to mention, in terms of this website in particular, Nathalie Stutzmann's superb conducting of the Paris version of Wagner's 'Tannhauser' in French. (Jose Cura in the title role.) The performance is on YouTube and is available from private sources as both a DVD and CDs. (Acknowledging that Wagner didn't think much of the French translation!)