Sunday 1 July 2018

Coming into focus: Kasper Holten's production of Don Giovanni returns to the Royal Opera

Mozart: Don Giovanni - Mariusz Kwiecien, Hrachuhi Bassenz - Royal Opera - (C) ROH. Photo by Bill Cooper
Mozart: Don Giovanni - Mariusz Kwiecien, Hrachuhi Bassenz - Royal Opera - (C) ROH. Photo by Bill Cooper
Mozart Don Giovanni; Mariusz Kwiecień, Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Hrachuhi Bassenz, Pavol Breslik, Chen Reiss, Anatoli Sivko; dir: Kasper Holten/Amy La e, cond: Marc Minkowski  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 June 2018 
Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A vintage revival which brings Kasper Holten's 2014 production into focus

Mozart: Don Giovanni - Mariusz Kwiecien, Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Pavol Breslik  - Royal Opera - (C) ROH. Photo by Bill Cooper
Mariusz Kwiecien, Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Pavol Breslik 
(C) ROH. Photo by Bill Cooper
Revivals of productions can have an interesting effect. Sometimes a stunning production can fail to catch fire second time round, whilst sometimes a rather ordinary production can come into real focus. I caught the first revival of Kasper Holten's production of Mozart's Don Giovanni (revived by Amy Lane) at the Royal Opera House in 2015 [see my review] and was rather disappointed. So I was fascinated to find my reaction to the latest revival (29 June 2018) rather different.

This time around, Mariusz Kwiecień returned to the title role, having sung it at the premiere of the production, and Ildebrando D'Arcangelo sang Leporello having sung the title role on tour with the Royal Opera in Japan in 2015. The remaining singers were all new to the production, Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Donna Anna, Hrachuhi Bassenz as Donna Elvira, Chen Reiss as Zerlina [making her stage debut in the role, see my recent interview with Chen], Pavol Breslik as Don Ottavio, Anatoli Sivko as Masetto and Willard W. White as the Commendatore. Marc Minkowski conducted the Royal Opera Orchestra, with fortepiano continuo from Christopher Willis.

Mozart: Don Giovanni - Hrachuhi Bassenz, Mariusz Kwiecien, Ildebrango D'Arcangelo - Royal Opera - (C) ROH. Photo by Bill Cooper
Hrachuhi Bassenz, Mariusz Kwiecien,
Ildebrango D'Arcangelo
(C) ROH. Photo by Bill Cooper
The focus of the performance was striking from the first notes of the overture, the strong texture of the opening chords contrasted with scurrying notes which come after, fast yet crisp and tight. Marc Minkowski's performance was one which kept the music tight and impulsive without being over driven, he drew fine playing from the orchestra and had a period performance trained musician's ear for the delights of the different textures in Mozart's score. The overall running time was a little shorter than advertised, and this helped enormously to keep the drama moving. The recitatives were similarly impulsive, and I found overall the performance very gripping.

Sitting in the Stalls (previously I had seen the production from the  Amphitheatre) might have affected my ideas about Es Devlin's designs with Luke Halls videos. This time round I found the results far more absorbing, and much less restless than before, and I was far less troubled by the way the production has a tendency to tell us what to think. Perhaps because the central performances were so wonderfully engaged.

Mariusz Kwiecień made a charming and very sexy Don Giovanni, delighting in the mayhem he causes and careless in his approach. I loved the way that Kwiecień brought out the way Mozart's music makes the character, chameleon-like, change depending on who he is interacting with. Kwiecień's voice has a firm, dark quality which rendered the Champagne aria rather hard-edged and insistent, but overall gave a darkness, and intensity which counterpointed his devil-may-care attitude. The final scenes, where we become aware that Don Giovanni's way to hell is in his own head, was a stunning tour-de-force from Kwiecien, a riveting and mesmerising performance.

Mariusz Kwiecień and Ildebrando D'Arcangelo developed a finely funny yet disturbing relationship as master and servant, quite physical at times. D'Arcangelo sang with a darkly focussed, full voice, giving a dazzling account of the Catalogue Aria, yet combining this with a physical presence which was a sort of sad clown, a rather down-at-heel Chaplin-like figure. The beauty of the performance was that it was funny, very physical, finely sung yet with that edge of violence and anger too.

Mozart: Don Giovanni -  Anatoli Sivko, Chen Reiss - Royal Opera - (C) ROH. Photo by Bill Cooper
Anatoli Sivko, Chen Reiss - Royal Opera - (C) ROH. Photo by Bill Cooper
Rachel Willis-Sørensen was a revelation as Donna Anna, [we last saw her as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier], she sang with a lovely brightly flexible voice which gave a clear indication of her lyric background, but she added a firm almost steely core (perhaps more silver than steel) to create a real dramatic firmness to the voice. It is a long time since I have heard Donna Anna's Act One aria sung so well and with such a dramatic element to it. This was quite a cool Donna Anna, but then the production makes her complicit from the start, but Willis-Sørensen also erupted wonderfully with the moments of anger when considering the death of her father. And her Act Two aria was finely controlled, yet rather moving.

Pavol Breslik made a surpringly sexy Don Ottavio, and gave a hint of steel to his voice, his lyric tenor taking on a nice firmness which gave purpose in a way that does not always happen with this character. Both his arias were nicely burnished, and whilst touching you also felt that this Don Ottavio would actually do something.

Hrachuhi Bassenz really brought out Donna Elvira's dark intensity, pushing her at times to the edge of madness. Bassenz sang with warm and a sense of hauntedness in her tone, but the arias gave you no doubt at all that this women was really feeling. Having a soprano singing the role meant that moments like 'Mi tradi' had a lovely freedom to them too. By pushing Donna Elvira so close to the edge, we came to understand why she keeps falling for Don Giovanni's seductions each time, and cannot let go.

Mozart: Don Giovanni -  Willard W.White - Royal Opera - (C) ROH. Photo by Bill Cooper
Willard W.White
(C) ROH. Photo by Bill Cooper
Chen Reiss was a poised and very self-possessed Zerlina, much less girly than some and one who knew what she was doing, so you could see her calculation in the way she played off the two men in her life, Kwiecien's suave Don Giovanni and Anatoli Sivko's rather intense, boorish Masetto. Reiss's lyric voice is quite full in the middle range, yet still light and free, so we got a richer sound in the arias whilst retaining the character's essential lyric, buffo nature. A fine stage debut which will undoubtedly develop, and I hope we see her returning as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro.

Anatoli Sivko was firm of purpose and a bit unlikeable as Masetto, he partnered Reiss finely in the duet, yet I felt he had not quite got the measure of the Royal Opera House and wanted him to project a little more, to be a bit more bravura.

Willard W. White made an imposing Commendatore. Whilst his voice lacked the edge in cavernous amplitude which some singers bring to the role, his combination of firmness of purpose and sheer implacability gave this Commendatore a stunning dramatic purpose. And I have to say that the effect of the white ghost makeup over White's dark skin was very striking.

The version of the opera used is a slightly unusual one, for most of the piece we have the usual Vienna/Prague mash-up that most opera houses do; Donna Elvira gets 'Mi Tradi' (written for Vienna), Don Ottavio gets both arias (one written for Prague and the other to replace it in Vienna), the Leporello/Zerlina duet is cut (written for Vienna), but instead of the longer Prague ending we get the shorter Vienna one, ending rather aptly with Don Giovanni's descent into hell. So that we finish with Mariusz Kwiecien alone on stage, moving into dementia.

Mozart: Don Giovanni -  Mariusz Kwiecien - Royal Opera - (C) ROH. Photo by Bill Cooper
Mozart: Don Giovanni -  Mariusz Kwiecien - Royal Opera - (C) ROH. Photo by Bill Cooper
As I have said, the orchestra were on stunning form, playing in a stylish manner for Marc Minkowski who drew what I found was a highly impulsive and engaging account of the score from them.

For me, this was very much a vintage revival and I made me understand what the original production was aiming at.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • A great big present: Stephen Medcalf on returning to Buxton to direct his favourite piece, Idomeneo  - interview
  • Handel's finest arias for base voice - Christopher Purves, Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo (★★★★★)  - CD review
  • Story-telling in America: Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at Grange Park Opera (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Each a world unto itself: Arvo Pärt The Symphonies (★★★★) - CD review
  • Intimate, candid and completely fascinating: The Tchaikovsky Papers - unlocking the family archive (★★★★) - book review
  • Notable debuts & a veteran director: Die Entführung aus dem Serail from the Grange Festival - opera review
  • Vivid drama: Handel's Agrippina at The Grange Festival  (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Rip-roaring fun: Elena Langer's Rhondda Rips It Up! (★★★★) - music theatre review
  • Debut: Soprano Chen Reiss sings her first staged Zerlina for her Covent Garden debut  - interview
  • Powerfully uplifting: Bach's Mass in B minor from the Dunedin Consort (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Home

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