Sunday, June 24, 2012

Bravo, Giovanni!

Last night I went to the Staatsoper, for the first time. For all my operatic activity and writing in Berlin, up till now, has been centred on the Deutsche Oper. The occasion was the season's premiere of Don Giovanni which I was covering for the Dutch Opera Magazine and its website Place de l'opéra. It wasn't a home-grown production. The Staatsoper one wouldn't fit into the splendid but smaller temporary home of the company at the Schiller-Theater, so they imported one from Salzburg. Good fishing!
Great show! I arrived home at 11pm, in warm drizzle, and flung myself straight in front of my computer, bubbling with the need to recount my splendid evening, and post off the text to Amsterdam. Where, of course, it will appear in Dutch. So I'll put the English version here, for we who aren't skilled in Dutch


'I never want to see Don Giovanni again. Never. Ever. Because I just want to remember the production I saw tonight, at the Staatsoper in the Schiller Theater, Berlin. I can’t imagine it being better done in the future.

I know Don Giovanni has been cited as the perfect opera, but for 21st century audiences there are a lot of theatrical conventions in its make-up which make it interesting as a period piece, but hardly viable as a modern ‘comic drama’. Well, I reckon tonight’s production came very near to achieving that unlikely transformation, from classic to tragi-comedy for our times, without in any way damaging the fabric of the opera, dramatic or musical. Casting director, director and designer have worked together wonderfully to give us a Don Giovanni for today, which is still the Don Giovanni of always.

I am the first to complain when operas are staged out of period, out of style, and not in accordance with the librettist’s instructions. But tonight I’m going to contradict myself largely. The whole action of the night takes place on one revolving forest set – and these characters are, as we know, thoroughly ‘into the woods’. All the wretched shuffling from one box set to another is done away with, and the Dons and Donnas romp in the grass and bushes in a most believable way, making absolute sense of their episodic story and their multiple exits and entrances and ensembles. Very little is forced to make it fit, and the ultimate climax with the ghostly, stalking Commendatore was stunning.
One more ‘thank you’ to director, Claus Guth. Unlike opera directors in far-too-general, everything he made his characters do had a reason, a sense to it. The piece had been thought through. O! how rare.

But I mentioned the casting director first, and rightly so. I was one of those once, and I know how difficult it is to perfectly or even adequately cast every role in a show. This one was much nearer to perfect than adequate. Everybody could act effortlessly, everybody looked right, moved right and of course sang stunningly.

Christopher Maltman seems made to play and sing the Don. Suave, sexy, the very essence of a serial man-who-can’t help-himself when a woman is of layable age. His charisma flowed over the footlights, along with his beautiful big baritone, and he looked quite delicious in pain: for this Don is slowly dying from Act I, winged by the wounded Commendatore. I know! It’s not da Ponte, but it works marvellously.

If the Don is the hub of the show, he shares – or should -- that place with Leporello. It would take this Don to share anything with the Leporello of Erwin Schrott. This was an anthology performance. His acting is so natural you almost don’t expect him to sing. But boy! can he sing. Rich, fluid, crisp tones … no silly old-fashioned buffo he, but a real singing comic actor. And the relationship built up between Leporello and the Don becomes here totally explicable, natural and even touching. Alain Delon being mothered by Robert Lindsay. Dazzling.

It often depends on which of the three ladies is the strongest performer as to which of them seems central to the opera’s action. In the old days, stars liked to play Zerlina and Elvira was given to a comprimaria. Not tonight. Tonight it was a joyous triple dead-heat. How to choose between the Sloane Ranger Anna (Maria Bengtsson) with her delicate ‘Non mi dir’ and her cigarette, the naughty country Zerlina (Anna Prohaska), hot out of puberty, who made old ‘La ci darem’ into a piece of sweetly sung sexual temptation, and poor, funny but longing Elvira (Dorothea Röschmann) whose ‘Mi tradi’ roused the audience to as much applause as her foolishnesses did laughter. And, oh joy!; all three ladies slim and sexy – ripe meat for Giovanni – and without any shadow of ‘I am a prima donna’ about their performances. Elvira (I always have a soft spot for Elvira) actually SKIPPED on for her curtain call with Leporello.

Even the less grateful roles were given fine performances. Stefan Kocan made Masetto into a believable ‘bloke’ with a rich, unforced basso; Alexander Tsymbaluk lent his powerful voice and presence to the final chilling, deathly scene, and … well, I don’t suppose anyone will ever make Don Ottavio much more than a singing cipher, but Giuseppe Filianote had a good go, making him a geeky fellow who has got himself a blonde soprano for a fiancée, and can’t really cope. He came a little to grief in ‘Dalla sua pace’, which showed up once more (to me) tonight as a non-essential. I would rather have that cut than the final ensemble (which we didn’t get). Actually, I could do without Ottavio altogether, but then we couldn’t have ‘Non mi dir’.

Daniel Barenboim’s orchestra were wonderfully unobtrusive (that is a compliment) and supportive, the chorus did their little bit in similar manner, and a good time was had by all. Especially by me.

Well, I suppose I owe it to factual reporting to state that a clique greeted the director and designer with boos at their curtain call (this is, after all, Berlin), but I reckon we who were cheering defeated them. If anyone can boo the Staatsoper’s Don Giovanni of 2012, they should give up going to the opera house, and just stay home and listen to records.

It was my favourite night at the opera in a long time.'

And so it was.

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