Notes and Editorial Reviews
A production that interweaves thought provocation and fun.
It would be fun to write a dissertation about this production rather than a review, but a flavour is required not a line-by-line or note-by-note analysis. So let us start with where we are and when. Depending on which source you use, Mozart set the opera in a Spanish town (Seville) in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. Here, we are in Western Europe with no more precision than that. We are firmly in the twentieth century: 1920–1930s Art Deco with the Charleston or post-the second war with rock and roll, twist and dance suggestions of Zorba the Greek and West Side Story. Yes, dear reader, I am writing about a production of a Mozart opera – remember the words
‘fun’ and ‘dissertation’ and that is not an oxymoron.
The sets - what sets? - require some knowledge of the opera and a strong imagination: wicker chairs, airport upholstered benches, a small moveable cocktail bar (the last a risible arbour for Masetto/Zerlina/Giovanni and later becoming Elvira’s platform for her window/balcony) and finally a small African-style portable statuette for the marble statue of the Commendatore - worse than risible. Conversely there is a very effective use of a huge rear-stage mirror reversing the early events on stage and repeating them backwards apparently ad infinitum – nothing is new; all is repeated down the generations? Very smooth curtain movements cover scene-changes, dead body removal and character separations.
And dancing? Yes, dancing mixed with stage movements and tableaux. For most of the time I am not sure what they add. Occasionally I am certain that they subtract: by diverting attention away from the central events; the worst their gyrations at the end of Act II, the best the West Side Story-style finger clicking gangland peasants in formation moving down stage during the Masetto/Zerlina wedding festivities.
Which brings us to the class problem which riddles the da Ponte/Mozart writing. Dinner-jacketed peasants - the flattening out of twentieth century society? Although the Donna Anna and Donna Elvira costumes are clearly up-market or perhaps from and earlier era – a flattening out of time? See what I mean about a dissertation?
Open-necked white shirt hanging outside his pinstripes – the butler of Leporello has fallen on hard times, serving a master not above some dirty street fighting to bring Leporello to heel. Indeed Keenlyside is the action-packed Giovanni exhibiting his now almost trademark strong physicality of movement: enjoying a well directed opening fight, leaping over benches or onto the ‘cocktail’ bar to direct the Masetto mob in the chase of himself. He enjoys his role and acts with wit and verve to involve his fellow characters and sometimes also the audience.
Watching him it is necessary to remind oneself of the first phrase of the opera’s title: Il dissoluto punito. Keenlyside dissolute? Now there’s an oxymoron. Chisel features and body strength indicative of a work-out in a gym rather than a bed or bar. Equally, there can be no doubt of the vitality of his singing. A firm focus, some delightful phrasing and a silky tone of seduction second to none, reserving for Leporello a mercurial instant change from charmer to aggressive dominance.
Anton Scharinger sings and acts the role of Leporello with confident ease. His gloriously resonant baritone seems to caress the words as he sings them. Strong acting is required to convince himself and us of the efficacy of the role-switch and believable fear and pride in his master’s exploits. Scharinger is so very polished that he seems to have untapped vocal and acting reserves. He almost plays with his Catalogue aria so effortless does he make it seem.
Eva Mei is the haughty Donna Anna: although does the farewell kiss of the opening scene suggest more the ‘hell hath no fury’ woman rather than the defiled woman? Thereafter this is the conventional Donna Anna whose early vocal lines always seem to carry an innate intemperate (even dissonant) touch. When allowed to settle she produces passion and clarity of note and word. If her Or sai, chi l’onore of Act I is good, her Non mi dir of Act II is excellent.
In this production she has heightened and studied indifference to her Don Ottavio who does not seem to project himself towards her. This Don Ottavio is the young Polish tenor Piotr Beczala – more Beczala in a dinner jacket than Beczala in love. However he has a strong voice with a distinctively pleasing timbre. In Dalla sua pace he demonstrates admirably his full open-throated sound; the effect of the aria being reduced by the distraction of some of the background female dancers removing outer garments and a few then grouping themselves down stage around him for the final bars. And when in close up you also have the bra of the female behind him it does nothing to enhance the aria directed to heaven to comfort his true love. In similar vein Il mio tesoro commences being sung to Elvira, Zerlina and Masetto. Then Elvira momentarily resting her head on his shoulder (dissertation: discuss and develop). The aria concludes with the female dancers who have assembled behind him carrying him aloft off the stage.
Malin Hortelius is Donna Elvira. It cannot be put more simply. The name is new to me and I shall internet search for her other recordings to see them and whether she really is as good in other roles. Strong acting, glorious singing and very easy on the eye. The periodic neat suggestion of character fragility contrasting the total vocal security and an apparently effortless throwing of notes at any pitch or volume.
Martina Janková as Zerlina has two notable arias. Here she has to sing most of the first to an empty stage thus making a bit of a nonsense of the instruction to Masetto to beat her. Whilst she takes her dress off in the second aria - relax, there are respectable undergarments appropriate to the era - she is left hidden on stage until the discovery of the Leporello/Giovanni switch during which she has to redress, unconvincing if not downright silly. She has a beguiling voice with note security and clarity. She sings the ‘peasant’ of the music with totally persuasive simplicity.
Here Masetto is sung by Reinhard Mayr, a part he despatches with ease. Alfred Muff’s wonderfully magisterial deep-brown bass is indeed the Commendatore of the condemnation to hell.
Without a weak vocal link, it is the ensembles that have enormous strength of vocal and acting skill. I particularly enjoyed the Hartelius/Mei/Beczala brief trio after they unmask (or in this case take off their ‘shades’) - gentle runs and note floating of great dignity. The finale of each Act gives a lesson in vocal combination.
My only musical reservation relates to some variable tempos and the occasional lack of orchestral dynamics. Although on sporadic occasions the orchestra wanted to compete with the singers Welser-Möst just manages to hold them back. Those are comparatively small points in a performance where otherwise the orchestra supports and follows the excellent vocal stage performances.
The two Acts conveniently fit onto a disc each. There are a good selection of tracks – but no information about them in the accompanying booklet which consists of a George Hall brief essay. Track details are in the Chapter List to be found from the opening screen but no times.
Know your Don Giovanni and enjoy this. If you do not know it then just lie back and enjoy it – but be prepared for some surprises when you see your first conventional production.
-- Robert McKechnie, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Don Giovanni, K 527 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piotr Beczala (Tenor),
Malin Hartelius (Soprano),
Martina Jankova (Soprano),
Simon Keenlyside (Baritone),
Reinhard Mayr (Bass),
Eva Mei (Soprano),
Alfred Muff (Bass),
Anton Scharinger (Baritone)
Zurich Opera House Orchestra,
Zurich Opera House Chorus
Written: 1787; Prague
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