Sunday, 25 December 2011

Don Giovanni alla Scala

Booking Christmas holiday travel a couple of months ago, I decided to make a stopover in Milan to catch La Scala’s new Don Giovanni. There’s a long tale of ticketing woe (you don’t want to know) that ended – very luckily – in a Regiekarte. This cost $$$ that I didn’t pay so I shouldn’t complain, but six boxes away from the stage you miss stage right entrances/exits by a whisker, and as far as I could make out (I only watched the first half of the ARTE broadcast), some of Leporello’s antics. And the angle of the sightline isn’t great. I did however get to see and follow facial expressions in a way that’s tricky with opera glasses and the sound was excellent, so it wasn’t all bad.

The production is not Robert Carsen’s strongest work, but coming from his Turn of the Screw – which, for Carsen, struck me as oddly close to incoherent – it compared favourably. A rogue this lovable shouldn’t have to repent, so Carsen suggests, and when things get meta the Don is shown as the star and director of his own Truman Show. The clothes-switching and other contrived events of Act II get staged as his private entertainment, and he revels in turning the tables on Donna Anna et al. at the end. It’s Christmas so I went along with this, and besides Peter Mattei sells it with a smile and twinkle in his eye that deserves its own credit on the programme. But implying a moral equivalence between insufferable righteousness and attempted rape/murder? That’s the conclusion Richard Taruskin would jump to.

The real strength of this production lies not so much in its ideas but rather Carsen’s talent for crafting credible stage action. Scenes are planned down to the last detail and run like clockwork with fluidity and momentum. Carsen chooses just the right moment to interpose scenes from the Commendatore’s funeral and small touches – like the Don handing Leporello a mask as the servants encounter with Elvira is already underway – make the drama’s more manufactured elements run slickly without making their artifice markedly explicit (the meta notwithstanding). Nearly all the Scala metareferences – using mirrors, scenery wagons covered to look like the house curtains, and red velvet costumes the same colour as the fabric on the seats – are put to similarly effective narrative use, particularly during the Catalogue aria and the appearance of the Commendatore’s statue.

Peter Mattei’s performance was the musical highlight. Unlike on the broadcast, I didn’t worry that his silky-smooth voice would make things sound too unvaryingly sublime; there were plenty of darker shadings and more of the part sung either in chest or a more full-voiced top than I expected – a true carattere Giovanni. I don’t know how audible the second strophe of his serenade was elsewhere in the auditorium, but I imagine his sotto voce – which had a lot of tone for a sound that really was unusually quiet – didn’t project badly. Mattei’s way with the music, suggesting that the promised intimacy will be something special indeed, was pitched perfectly; as much an act of self-deception as seduction.

Anna Netrebko was scheduled to sing at this performance but cancelled due to illness. I have heard her Donna Anna before (in London), but it’s been a few years and she’s in a completely different place vocally now. Tamar Iveri seemed ill-advisedly determined not only to give us a taste of that but also to ape Trebs in every other respect (‘pushed up’ barely begins to describe them, though her pouting was spot on). The final phrase of ‘Non mi dir’ was formidably dispatched, carrying all before it, and the only moment in which Iveri established a genuine resemblance. But she rather pecked the start of the runs, and top notes tended to curdle in this aria and elsewhere.

The last few times I’ve seen Barbara Frittoli it’s been in Verdi, which seems to be more her repertoire these days. But this wasn’t a bad Elvira, with Frittoli making up for flexibility and consistency difficulties with flair, intensity, and committed acting. Just a little more strength in ‘Ah, chi mi dice mai’ was missing, but her ‘Ah, fuggi il traditor’ was solid (though I don’t understand why Barenboim had the orchestra play this in such hushed tones). Giuseppe Filianoti came in for some grief from the loggione for starting notes that weren’t quite centred (though astonishingly some rather more serious tuning problems in ‘Non ti fidar’ passed without judgement). But I liked his Ottavio, one of the most Italian-sounding I’ve heard. And he took the most risks of anybody in the cast, particularly with phrasing, which was smooth and lyrical but pointed at times in interesting musical ways. Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s Leporello was vocally agile, sharp-witted, and good on details like cowardly whimpering; Štefan Kocán’s Masetto and Kwangchul Youn’s Commendatore were similarly reliable. I liked Anna Prohaska’s bright, lyric Zerlina, even if her ‘Batti, batti’ didn’t quite come off (Prohaska clearly wanted to go faster than Daniel Barenboim was going to allow her).

But for much of the evening I didn’t have a problem with the slowness (I am unmoved by Gardiner, puzzled by Norrington, and don’t know whether to laugh or cry with Jacobs). I found the only cases where Barenboim’s tempi didn’t work to be the aforementioned Prohaska moment and the middle of the Catalogue aria, which didn’t drag so much as suddenly threaten to come to a standstill. So about five minutes of a performance which Barenboim stretched out for longer than the broadcast, though I do think that what he pulled off seemed more concerned with slowness for its own sake than underlining the work’s seria elements. Incidentally, he was conducting without a score and at times could have given Richard Strauss a run for his money in the sitting-back-and-looking-bored-stiff stakes. Not to suggest this is necessarily a bad thing – less is more can go hand in hand with well-rehearsed performances – but there were moments that cried out for intervention, and which Barenboim simply neglected.

No Wiener Staatsoper curate’s egg, but a performance of some very good parts which failed to come to anything more than a capable whole.

Image credit (production photos): Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano

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