Don Giovanni

  • Opera
  • By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Director: Keith Warner
  • Conductor: Ivor Bolton
  • Cast: Nathan Gunn, Erwin Schrott, Jonathan Lemalu, Jane Archibald, Saimir Pirgu, Martin Mitterrutzner, Lars Woldt
  • Theater an der Wien, Vienna
  • Until 31 December 2016
  • Review by Katherine Syer
  • 17 December 2016
Don Giovanni
4.0Reviewer's Rating

Keith Warner’s strongly conceived production of Don Giovanni (in revival with assistance from Michael Moxham) remains a public success in crowning ten years of post-renovation theatre and music-making at the Theater an der Wien. As the proprietor of a slightly dated hotel with a penchant for hosting costume parties, this Don Giovanni is not just a serial womanizer. Leporello hints that his tastes extend in the direction of pedophilia, while flashes of violence and mental imbalance accrue throughout the evening. Leporello is meanwhile the head of the cleaning staff and bellmen (the peasants, including Zerlina and Masetto), superbly performed by the Arnold Schoenberg Choir. Everyone is ultimately under Don Giovanni’s command but seemingly willing to partake in his twisted behind-the-scenes games, with the hotel’s sub-culture taking on a surreal tone in Es Devlin’s ingenious designs.

As the action launches, Donna Anna is clearly eager to enjoy more sex with the man who had easy access to her room, and she removes a sword mounted to a wall and passes it to Don Giovanni when he is confronted by her father. For self-defense, perhaps. Her response when she returns to find her father dead is complex, and Martin Mitterrutzner as Don Ottavio appears as a man of the cloth, but it is not a costume. Immediately we grasp her world up until this night as anything but sexually liberated, and her potential violation and/or transgression are all the more serious matters as a result. Her later reflections on what transpired in her room take the form of a real confession. Remarkable is the moment when Don Ottavio, convinced of her guilt, seems to abandon her, and Jane Archibald unleashes the ending of Donna Anna’s “Non mi dir” with unbridled enthusiasm. There’s no returning to her earlier life plan. Archibald’s luxurious, highly nuanced tone and compelling stage presence will remain memorable for a long time, as will Mari Eriksmoen’s rewarding performance as Zerlina.

There are plenty of laughs in this otherwise dark reading. The production follows the score of the Viennese premiere, so lacks the closing sextet, but Don Ottavio’s “Il mio tesoro” is literally cut off: he steps into an elevator and begins to sing the opening notes but the doors promptly close. Masetto is a notably hapless fellow–well sung and enacted by Tareq Nazmi–while Zerlina and and Jonathan Lemalu as Leporello also embrace the dynamic, lighter-hearted and physical sides of their roles. Jennifer Larmore is stretched in her upper range as Donna Elvira, but she plays the part of an older, desperate woman well. Nathan Gunn performs the title role in unnervingly smooth movie-star fashion, taking advantage of his privileged command of the hotel and all of its inhabitants at every turn. One wishes for more vocal authority at times, but “Deh vieni alla finestra” showcases his seductive lyrical powers.

The clever handling of the Act I ball as an S&M themed adult party alludes more to Mozart’s contemporary the Marquis de Sade than to Casanova. With Zerlina and Masetto drunk at the outset, the male and female choruses both uniformly dressed, and Don Giovanni fluidly relying on date rape type drugs, the chaotic layering of dances unfolds in dizzying fashion and masks the couple’s departure perfectly. The detailed musical contours of both finales are somewhat smoothed out in this stage handling, but elsewhere Ivor Bolton shaped lively, energetic gestures, and the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg really leaned in on the weightier moments toward the end. “Dalla sua pace” was sublime. Throughout the second act, traces of the 18th-century costumes linger, and Don Giovanni shuts off the power to the hotel, so that candles come into play and the deceptive role-switching unfolds mostly in the dark. It’s quite a shock when the stage switches back to the hotel foyer. The final scene highlights Don Giovanni’s pathetic end as an old man, serving dinner to blow-up doll versions of his former cohorts and dying of a heart attack in a bloody mess. The Commendatore’s condemnation of him is presented as a figment of his imagination, or manifestation of his guilty conscience, with Lars Woldt’s searing delivery making it all seem very real.

Although the audience was asked to take into consideration Jonathan Lemalu’s poor health before the curtain rose, his performance was admirable. It was unfortunate, however, that a cart of Donna Elvira’s luggage that he pushed aside tore off the wooden barrier at the edge of the stage and toppled into the orchestra pit, landing just behind the timpanist. Nobody was injured, but the cast was clearly a bit rattled for a stretch, and the doors to one of the elevators in the set design started to malfunction soon after. The cast regained their bearing, however. Nathan Gunn ad libbed a joke when he maneuvered the luggage cart away from Leporello in a later scene, and there was added irony when Zerlina chained him to the runaway prop in Act II.

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