Thursday, May 25, 2017

Don Giovanni as “unlimited myth” at La Scala
Renato Verga

In 2011 Robert Carsen's Don Giovanni inaugurated the La Scala season amid disputes about its outrageous modernity. The same production now returns at the Milanese theatre and it looks hyper-traditional in comparison to what has been seen in the stagings by Calixto Bieito, Martin Kušej, Claus Guth, Dmitri Tcherniakov or Krzysztof Warlikowski, to name just a few.

On the first notes of the overture, and with lights still lit in the auditorium, Don Giovanni comes out of a stage-box and breaks onto the scene by pulling down the curtain, revealing a huge mirror that reflects the hall and its audience. Here Don Giovanni is the theatre, where he lives and acts – the parterre, the stage-box, the Royal box too, as we will see – and Leporello is a stagehand, wearing the same suit as the technicians who create the fictional world we are going to witness. The action we see on stage is often meta-theatre, with Don Giovanni a spectator from his seat.

Michael Levine's scenic elements consist of red curtains on sliding screens. Donna Elvira's repeated “Ah chi mi dice mai” are actually her exits, followed by her waitress with suitcases, from doors cut in different screens. The scenery will transform itself into multiple visions of the proscenium in a bold mise en abyme, an infinite perspective that seems to be referring to Don Giovanni's "unlimited myth" as defined by Carsen in his directorial notes.

The setting in modern dresses gives way to vintage costumes in red velvet, the same as the stage curtain, for the masking scene at Don Giovanni's home, the most theatrical moment of this gorgeous mise en scène, when Carsen finally gives meaning to that often incomprehensible "Viva la libertà": for a brief moment on stage all hell cuts loose before the turbulent finale of Act 1, one of the finest endings of this opera never seen on stage, when Don Giovanni flees his assailants letting the curtain drop on their swords.

Another coup de théâtre is the Commendatore's appearance, an iconic moment often badly staged: here we see his distorted image in the mirror reflecting the singer standing in the distant Royal box. And then the finale, when the characters are all dressed up for the opening of the opera and have the programme of the evening in their hands – the nobles, at least, as Masetto and Zerlina are sort of social climbers in white and Donna Elvira is always wearing her black satin négligé. If so far Carsen's dramaturgy has followed the booklet more than faithfully, now there is a surprise: his Don Giovanni cannot burn in a hell in which he does not believe: he is struck by the Commendatore's sword, but his antagonists are the ones who end up underground amid red fumes, as he reappears at the last minute, with a cigarette in his hand, mockingly and more alive than ever. We are prisoners of our own mortality, while Don Giovanni is a myth that tends to everlasting life and his first words in the opera, "Chi son io tu non saprai", were addressed to Donna Anna, but to us as well, an audience of the 21st century, who will never know who really Don Giovanni is, this "unknown" free thinker, light years away from our daily lives.

Thomas Hampson recorded his Don Giovanni with Harnoncourt in 1991 and again in 2006 with Harding, when his voice was already a bit worn out. Now the situation hasn't improved: his timbre is dry, his breath is short and his expression is more spoken that sung. Despite these vocal means, however, he was able to define the character thanks to his great stage presence. As Leporello there was his son-in-law, Luca Pisaroni, a debutant at La Scala, a first class singer whose recitatives and the catalogue aria revealed all the possible shades of the text.

Donna Anna is a more sorrowful than vengeful character here and Hanna Elisabeth Müller easily solved the agility required by the role. At her side she had a less anemic than usual Don Ottavio in Bernard Richter. Anett Fritsch was a Donna Elvira of great temperament, while Giulia Semenzato and Mattia Olivieri were two very effective performers as the peasant couple. Tomasz Konieczny had impressive volume but poor diction as the Commendatore.

Paavo Järvi conducted the opera with unostentatious, if not solemn, tempi and was respectful of the singers on stage, though succeeded in highlighting the orchestral preciousness of the score.

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