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2006-3, Don Giovanni, Audience reviews of Vienna and Munich

The following are reviews of Don Giovanni at Vienna and Munich in January and February 2006. They are written by members of the audience, several of whom attended both productions. We would like to thank Lucy, Gesine, Petra and Gwyn for allowing us to print their comments here.

Don Giovanni: Vienna and Munich, by Lucy Turner

Vienna: At the Wiener Staatsoper on 18 January 2006 I saw Simon Keenlyside’s Don Giovanni for the first time. I was not disappointed.   His performance was characterised more by subtlety than power, which was very much as I expected, and his singing used to full effect the full palate range of colour which Mozart requires of Don Giovanni.   Simon has the capacity to immerse himself totally in any role (that “chameleon quality”) and this was no exception.  And yet, I felt that his performance was somewhat muted, at least in the earlier scenes – though at the time I was inclined to attribute this to the difficulty of actually seeing him underneath the volume of plumes in his enormous hat and his wig’s massive cascade of curls, both of which appeared to be setting the scene for a Restoration comedy!  On the whole, his costumes and wigs became less cumbersome as the evening progressed, though the amazing white number in which he seduced Zerlina looked as though it had been created for the purpose of transporting Lohengrin along the river, and the long and heavy dressing gown in the final supper scene may have looked elegant but was in danger of tripping him up at every turn.

The surrounding cast were, to be honest, not particularly distinguished overall.  Ian Bostridge, in his house debut, sang Don Ottavio’s music absolutely beautifully, and was deservedly well received by the first-night audience, but I don’t think his best friend would claim that he looks a natural on the stage, and he was not helped by his costume and the lack of direction.  Kwangchul Youn sang Leporello very well and scored full marks for effort (the director had given him a funny walk which at times made him look like a show pony on speed), but the relationship between Leporello and Don Giovanni, which is such a vital element, never really carried conviction.  As Donna Elvira, Melanie Diener’s very musical but restrained performance belied the expectations created initially by her rather racy travelling outfit.  And I already have no recollection of the remainder of the cast, which says it all, really.

Munich: Then, at Munich on 30 January 2006 (less than two weeks later) I saw Simon Keenlyside’s debut in the Nicholas Hytner’s production, and I could not believe the transformation in one person’s performance. This Don Giovanni was electric, his whole game raised several notches (apologies for the mixed metaphors). So, what had made such a difference? Well, two factors were very apparent to this spectator:   the quality of the direction and of the cast.

First, let’s get the conducting out of the way. It has to be said that Ivor Bolton’s conducting at Munich lacked distinction – so, no change there – but he did at least fulfil the most basic requirement of keeping stage and pit together, a skill which momentarily deserted Philippe Jordan on the opening night at Vienna when he and Simon nearly parted company in Fin ch’han dal vino.

Kurt Moll is luxury casting as the Commendatore, but it is a part that really needs all the weight that he brings to it, and any Don Giovanni would be rightly fearful of this particular man of stone. Steven Humes’ (new to me) Masetto presented a very sturdy presence in his defiance of the aristocratic seducer; and I fear that at the end of the opera his problems with the feisty Zerlina of Alison Hagley have certainly not ended! The Donna Anna of the American soprano Margarita De Arellano was very well sung though perhaps just a bit on the small side vocally, but I should be interested to hear her in other roles.   Toby Spence was unfortunate in that Dalla sua pace was cut (apparently standard at Munich, but it does mean that for Don Ottavio Act I is rather a non-event) and the conductor hustled him unnecessarily through Il mio tesoro, but he has a positive stage presence and the makings of a Don Ottavio with warm blood flowing through his veins, unlike the many who are simply tenor voices in costumes. As Donna Elvira, Veronique Gens presented a truly tragic figure, a gentlewoman who found it impossible to understand that Don Giovanni (or any gentleman, for that matter) would desert her after having dishonoured her.   She eschewed the hysteria which is so tempting in this role, and her Donna Elvira combined dignity and bathos with really lovely singing.

But it was the Leporello who surely made the biggest impact on Don Giovanni himself, and the excellent rapport between Jonathan Lemalu and Simon Keenlyside undoubtedly brought out the best in both of them. It was easily the best thing that I have seen Lemalu do, and his singing was excellent and all of a part with the character. The camaraderie in this relationship went just as far as Don Giovanni allowed it, and it was clear that this Leporello was perpetually wary of his master’s volatile temper but at the same time was totally in awe of the style (and success ratio) of his conscience-free conquests!

The other ingredient which helped create the conditions in which Simon was freed up to give us “his” Don Giovanni at Munich was the direction of Nicholas Hytner. He works “with the grain”, so that everything we see is part of the organic whole as handed down to us by its creators; there is no “business” inserted gratuitously to fill in a perceived gap in the action;   he provides a classic illustration of the truth that “less is more”.   One particular comparison comes to mind:   at Vienna, Roberto de Simone had Don Giovanni and Leporello juggling oranges between them at some point in the first act for no reason that was apparent to the casual observer, other than as “something to do”;   whereas, in the supper scene at Munich, Hytner inserted an episode of bread-roll-chucking between the two which brought to mind a certain Oxford dining club and was absolutely in keeping with the behaviour of an aristocratic yob whose decadence was rapidly descending into depravity, and Elvira’s entrance interrupted this with a real jolt. The Commendatore’s subsequent entrance deserves special mention: he walked in for supper accompanied by his horse, on which was mounted a spectre of the Grim Reaper  –  a very dramatic and spooky touch, and one which I’m sure Da Ponte and Mozart would both have enjoyed.

So, these were the conditions at Munich in which Simon Keenlyside showed us the full range of Don Giovanni’s mischievous humour, his cynical lechery, his irresistible attraction to (and for) women of all sorts, the bully just below the surface, and the sheer recklessness with which he defies whatever threatens him – even hell itself.   Oh, and did I not mention how superbly it was sung?   It was a great evening.

Notes on the Munich Don Giovanni, by Petra Habeth

I also saw the opening night in October 1994 and another performance of this production with Hampson some years ago.

As you can see second photo on the performance page, Giovanni is well dressed in the first act and in the second too until the last scene “at home”. Not only the stage but all the dresses of the women are in red and black – Anna and Elvira more black then red; Zerlina more red. Red being the colour of  blood AND love!

Giovanni is somehow “driven” to seduce every woman he sees but is bored by it at the same time – he is in the second act singing the “deh vieni alla finestra” more for his own entertainment than to the woman at the window (she appears briefly but he nearly does not see her).

The director wanted to leave the characters without moral judgement – he said in an interview that Mozart (as he understands him) does not judge (in contrary to Verdi with his Jago) and so he does not want that either – then the audience, each person, should make his/her own judgement.

In the duet with Zerlina, DG showsthat he is bored: if Zerlina is not looking he is looking elsewhere, rolling his eyes impatiently, blowing his checks. When Zerlina turns back to him, he is totally with her again, smiling, caressing.

The only time – as I saw it – that he was really attentive and moved/touched is at the graveyard – there is something he can’t control, influence, foresee – he is both scared and curious.

In the last scene he is in rags – he does not care about traditions and manners – I think that’s what the director wanted to show in the last scene: why should he dress up for a dinner with no one to impress – especially no woman? And he is eating his spagetti with the hands: why good manners with nobody looking (Leporello does not count of course). DG is trying to live his life excessive in every way! And to end it in the same way – for me he is rather “happy” to die – his boredom is ended then no matter what will happen afterwards (If something is happening afterwards)? Hell?

Three Don Giovanni’s in a row, by Gesine Menardi

Having seen 3 Don Giovannis in a row within 13 days ( 2 in Vienna, 1 in Munich) I must admit that I could easily see even more. It is always a wonderful experience to see and hear the changing nuances, the different stagings, the different daily state the singers are in.

Vienna had this bombastic stage concept with pillars and gobelins and stairs and paintings – Munich had an impressive empty stage, yes, red, flaming red, but this is a colour to attract interest. Costumes: too many in Vienna, normal ones in Munich except the rather disgusting look of Don Giovanni being “at home” (barefoot, dirty long shirt, ugly long white-hair wig.)

Conductor: (Vienna) Young Philippe Jordan, a rising star, but not at ease with this Viennese orchestra or the singers, at least not in the first night. (Munich) Ivor Bolton: good solid touch, everything went fine.

Leporello: (Vienna) Kwangchul Youn, voicewise an almost ideal Leporello, in acting just missing this nice touch of humour Terfel so brilliantly showed in the Ferarra DG. (Munich) Jonathan Lemalu, trying without success to be active and witty, not a voice to remember. He looked a servant, not the witty and sometimes agressive companion he should be. And the scene imitating DG was just awful!

Donna Anna (Vienna): Ricarda Merbeth, a young star in Germany and Austria. Beautiful voice, OK. (Munich): American Margarita de Arellano, beautiful voice, acting as if in “Fledermaus” or another operetta, throwing her arms up, smiling all the time…

Donna Elvira (Vienna): Melanie Diener, beautiful voice ( forgive me for repeating this – they sounded all alike, good voices but no special timbres), no acting, none at all. (Munich): Veronique Gens. Countess (wife to our SK in René Jacobs “Nozze”). The only interesting voice between these ladies, nice acting, but she is very tall. It it doesn’t help the plot, if DG looks like a child hugging his Mommy, when SK embraces her. (In Vienna Melanie Diener was just as tall, but they had stairs and could adjust the difference).

Don Ottavio! What a treat to have Ian Bostridge in Vienna. I think, many people just came to see how he did it. Well, fine! His arias very absolutely perfect. He didn’t seem interested in the rest of the play, but who cared. It is a special talent to look sooo absolutely bored. Toby Spence (Munich): Handsome. Fine singing. Trying to imitate Bostridge in not acting. How wooden can one be! It was a pity that he only had to sing one aria.

Zerlina (Vienna): nice looking, normal singing. But: no interest in DG, no flirting, no smiling, nothing. There seemed to be no attraction, she looked as if she wanted to go home. Masetto: a Korean baritone, no reason to remember his name. Zerlina (Munich): Alison Hagley: Fine, everything as it should be. Masetto (Munich) American Steven Humes: somebody to look for in the future. A bit like Terfel, fine voice, fine acting.

Komtur (Vienna): to forget. Komtur (M): Kurt Moll, still a wonderful bass.

Mr Keenlyside (Vienna) First night: Apparently not enough (probably not one!) rehearsals – many troubles – terrible lighting – stupid stage directions – poor man. But still, in spite of the horrible costumes he fought bravely. And he had more applause than Bostridge. Hearing the “Claque” up at the amphitheatre after Bostridge’s aria I was praying for a similar applause for SK. He had more.

The second night was so much better! They must have come together, eradicated many faulty stage directions, were placed in better positions, it was just 100:1. Instead of jumping onto a little table to sing his so-called champagn aria (and ending almost 3 seconds before the orchestra) he just went forward and sang. Beautifully. Instead of hanging around in the middle of the stage singing his aria to arouse the interest of the maid of Elvira, he most cleverly started in the middle of the stage BUT then came foreword to almost address the audience in the most softest tones I have ever heard. I overheard a critic say that he never saw such a clever move.

Poor Don Giovanni has only 3 short pieces (they are not even arias): La ci darem in Vienna was ruined by this uninterested Zerlina, the champagne aria was spoiled by being too fast the first time; the second time it was excellent; the serenade fine both times, but more refined the second time.

Mr Keenlyside (Munich) All went well and was “normal” until his appearance as some kind of vagrant. The wig! That shirt! Vanity must be a foreign word for him. I really wonder how a singer can swallow the outrageous wishes of a director. But we all know how SK reacts: he is great, munches the spaghetti with both hands, drinking wine in between, mopping his mouth, starting eating again, throwing bread at Lemalu (quite funny scene: they arranged some kind of play – Lemalu wasn’t bad in catching). His death was, well, normal. A lot of smoke, a dragging to a certain point (trapdoor), going down. Nothing special.

I liked best the churchyard scene: red stage – about ten white horse monuments – Giovanni and Leporello moving between them, coming to the front, explaining clearly everything they had done, then being shocked by the voice of the Commendatore: Seldom saw such a clever and clear directing.

See you at the next DG in Zurich!

Notes on the Munich Don Giovanni, by Gwyn Davies

The end of Don G was just amazing – SK sang it brilliantly and I was quite overcome by it! I didn’t find the rest of the production as impressive as I’d expected – the visuals of the red give a bit of a false impression really – during the whole of the first Act it’s mostly lit to look either pink or mauve and is actually rather blank. There is no scenery or props, so nothing for SK to leap on, jump off or hang on, which cramps his usual Don G performance somewhat! His singing was fine in the first half, though I had a few problems hearing him – I was on the right side of the “Balkon”, slightly off centre, and the percussion seemed overloud. (Others said they had no problems hearing him from where they were.) But the Leporello of Lemalu was rather dull and there seemed to be some problems between singers and orchestra.

However, the second half was much better and for the banquet scene (the ratty wig and the long johns!) SK seemed to move up a gear and the end was just stunning (of course the Commendatore was also terrific, which helped!). It was the first time the Don seemed to have a fully rounded character – he suddenly sprang into full defiant life before the audiences’ eyes and he became mesmering…

Notes on the Vienna Don Giovanni, by Janet Woodall
I thought the costumes and the number of changes was going to annoy me, but I actually found it worked rather well – once I caught on to the “timeless” aspect, the idea being that the story is relevant for all times. Somewhat unnecessary for them to point that out I thought, and totally unnecessary for that to be the main concept in the staging! – but at least the silly frilliness was largely lost in Act 2.

The costumes went from 17th century foppishness in the first Act to 19th century austere. In one scene SK wore a huge, enveloping brown wig and red frock-coat, completely obscuring the man; in the wedding scene DonG and Leporello wore pure(!) white along with the Zerlina/Masetto wedding party – SK’s frock coat trimmed with white feathers making him look for all the world like a shuttlecock. Donna Anna and Ottavio, however, when they appeared were bedecked entirely in black – a very effective contrast. In the second act SK was much more naturally dressed in late 18th to 19th century trousers and shirt – and in the final scene I swear he was wearing the same red dressing gown as he wore in the Vienna nozze.

There was no getting away from it – SK was the only one who could really act, although for me Melanie Diener (Elvira), whom I do not favour as Countess Almaviva, was surprisingly good and looked ravishing in her first costume – leather trousers and high boots.

It seems that they had so few rehearsals that the first performance could be counted as the final dress rehearsal, so I was fortunate in seeing the second performance. Even so, there were still some problems between performer and conductor. Leporello in particular, who was charmingly played by Kwangchul Youn, seemed to be racing the orchestra on several occasions.

Ian Bostridge sang Dalla sua pace incredibly well – the best I’ve heard – but Il mio tesoro was disappointing. He is such a “mannered” singer, too individual and intense to blend with the other singers and actors.

The staging of the final scene was marvellous (despite the very poor Commendatore) and SK postured and suffered to great effect before being enveloped by horror and smoke. Interestingly, it was real smoke and not dry ice, and having swallowed up SK it tumbled onto the stalls – do you think they were trying to tell us something?

I would be interested to know the rationale behind the two statues in the graveyard: one was on horseback and nodded but didn’t sing; the other sang but was motionless! I’m just glad that it was the latter who came to dinner.

SK was simply wonderful once he got into his stride. Totally believable and by turns seductive and menacing. And vulnerable (well it wouldn’t be SK without that now would it) – when he was thwarted in his Zerlina-quest by Elvira, and later when the maskeraders didn’t believe his trying to frame Leporello, he was in total astonishment that it didn’t work and that he wasn’t in control. He was in agonies of “this just doesn’t happen to me” and I actually felt sorry for him!

It is true that where I was sitting, his voice was drowned out by the orchestra on occasions at the beginning, but no one could doubt the beauty of his voice or the quality of his acting. La ci darem la mano and Deh vieni alla finestra were breathtakingly beautiful and complex, by which I mean that there were many thoughts and emotions going through the seducer’s head, including “this is too easy” and “here we go again”!

For me, Don G at its best has the man spiraling out of control (to paraphrase SK “a man with his foot on the accelerator of his Porsche, heading toward a brick wall”), and although there are better productions, I still got that impression from SK in this one – all other characters were just there to “hang” his performance on as far as I was concerned.

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