The flamboyant new production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” a drama giocoso in two acts, was the brilliant ending of the 2016/2017 season of the Opéra de Lausanne. This was a remarkable event for the town, located in the French-speaking part of Switzerland on the picturesque shore of Lake Léman also known as Lake Geneva. Despite being one of the world’s best-known works – according to Operabase, Mozart’s masterpiece was the world’s ninth most performed opera during the 2015/2016 season – “Don Giovanni” had not been staged in Lausanne for 26 years.
The long-anticipated production, directed by Eric Vigié, a hugely experienced opera director, who has led the Lausanne institution for 12 years, provided a colourful, explorative, and thought-provoking finale to a rich season, which had opened in October 2016 with Claudio Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo,” beautifully staged by Robert Carsen, and had featured seven operas, three ballets, three concerts, and a show for children.
Back to basics…
Vigié has chosen to go back to basics and has used Spain as his main source of inspiration. Of course, this is where the first written work dedicated to Don Juan (as he was originally known) first appeared in 1630. It was the creation of a Catholic monk, who went by the nom de plume of Tirso de Molina, and had “El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra (The trickster of Seville or the stone guest)” as its title.
The strong Spanish theme is central to the entire production and has been the creative inspiration behind the figure-hugging costumes designed in contrasting black, white, red, and purple hues in accordance with the fashion beloved by Sevillian matadors.
Donna Elvira, a long-suffering noble lady from Burgos, who has been seduced and abandoned by Don Giovanni, and who in this production has suffered the ultimate dishonour and is pregnant out of wedlock, is constantly followed by a small white Madonna, who, in true Spanish fashion, is represented carrying the Christ Child in her arms resting above a pillar.
“In Lausanne, we are fortunate to have a very educated, receptive, and multi-cultural audience,” Eric Vigié says. “Some of the elements of this production would not have been possible in many places.” Using our Lady of the Pillar, who is the patroness of Spain, as a toy, who glides behind a fallen female character, and is the source of much fun, might be one of them.
…and Back to Baroque
The other visual theme, which unifies the work, is baroque, the numerous elements of which appear throughout the production. Artist Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, arguably the best-known representative of Spanish baroque, was also born in Seville and produced his paintings during the Spanish Golden Age, at same time as Don Juan’s adventures were taking shape. The great master himself appears on numerous occasions played by a dwarfish actor, who seems to have stepped directly out of Las Meninas and who engages in the chorus or strives to complete an element of “The Adoration of the Magi,” the rich red mantle of which provides baroque inspiration throughout the opera.
Life in Pursuit of Death
“Don Giovanni,” a supposedly playful drama opens in a haunting manner. The famous overture begins with a thundering D minor cadence, announcing the theme of death, followed by a short misterioso sequence which leads into a somewhat lighter D major allegro. This memorable start, unique among Mozart’s contemporaries, is mimicked on stage where dark spasmodic figures are falling into a pit. They are shaded by a semi-transparent curtain on which words such as “violación”, “inquisición”, “bastardo”, “Antichristus” and “sexo” are projected in an aggressive graffiti-like manner. The words gradually come together to form a dancing figure, which twists and turns to finally disappear into the unknown.
Death was very much on Mozart’s mind in 1787, the year when Don Giovanni was composed. Even though at the time he was a young man of 31 who was happily married, loved to eat, and had a widely recognized if not sufficiently lucrative career, on 22 April 1787, he wrote the following letter to his recently ill father, “As death (when closely considered) is the true goal of our life, I have made myself so thoroughly acquainted with this good and faithful friend of man, that not only has its image no longer anything alarming to me, but rather something most peaceful and consolatory; and I thank my heavenly Father that He has vouchsafed to grant me the happiness, and has given me the opportunity, (you understand me) to learn that it is the key to our true felicity. I never lie down at night without thinking that (young as I am) I may be no more before the next morning dawns. And yet not one of all those who know me can say that I ever was morose or melancholy in my intercourse with them.” Leopold Mozart, arguably the most important figure in Mozart’s life, passed away a month later.
The entire opera is haunted by death, which in the Lausanne production is emphasised by the fact that Don Giovanni, who in Act I, scene I is disturbed by Donna Anna’s father Don Pedro, Il Commendatore of Seville, as he attempts to rape her, chooses to kill him by stabbing him in the back. Il Commendatore, the city’s commander, gets his authority from the King of Spain, who is a divine representative on earth. Don Giovanni has risen his hand against God himself and in a baroque Spain, such a crime cannot go unpunished.
Lithuanian baryton Kostas Smoriginas, the embodiment of male pride emphasized by a doublet made of leather, delivered a convincing debut in the title role.
“Smoriginas has performed Don Escamillo more than 150 times on the world’s most prestigious stages,” Eric Vigié explained, “and it has taken time to have him in Lausanne. We are really lucky to have him”.
The Toreador from Carmen, another opera set in Seville, has perhaps contributed to Smoriginas’ somewhat temperamental show-off interpretation of Don Giovanni. It worked very well for the tongue-twisting Champagne aria in Act I (“Finch’han dal vino”) in which the character emerges above the stage from the same central square where the Commendatore was murdered in Scene 1 and, caressed by hands of invisible women who also juggle with golden bottles, jovially celebrated his love of chaos and declared that he will devote the rest of the day to pleasure and partying.
The Canzonetta in Act II (“Deh vieni alla finestra”), when Don Giovanni, disguised as his manservant Leporello, serenades Donna Elvira’s pretty maid on his mandolin, was delivered in a brilliant yet rather stereotypical way and lacks tenderness.
Discretion is Better Part of Valor
Italian baritone Riccardo Novaro delivered a funny yet subtly measured performance of Leporello. Novaro is no stranger to the Lausanne stage, where he gave a magnificent performance in the title role of “Le Nozze di Figaro” 10 years ago. The catalogue aria, the opera’s longest and most complex musical solo, was sung masterfully with a remarkable diction but in a rather contained way. Novaro’s Leporello was clearly the domestic and, although constantly complaining and reluctant to serve, he gladly left the leading part to his show-off master.
Belgian soprano Anne-Catherine Gillet, who two years ago was a beautiful “Manon” in Massenet’s opera on the Lausanne stage, was a fiery Donna Anna. Gillet’s interpretation in her debut in this role was highly theatrical from the get-go, when in Scene 1 Don Giovanni virtually had sex with her on the central spot of the stage, designed to look partly as a four-poster bed, partly as an altar. She remained a powerful dramatic presence throughout but the highly challenging coloratura at the end of Act II in “Crudele! Non mi dir,” in which she implores Don Ottavio to cease talking about marriage and be patient until she has recovered from the loss of her father, and especially the final Allegretto, was somewhat laborious and mushy. Interestingly, the trills in this aria have not always been to everyone’s taste. French composer Hector Berlioz thought they were hideous and utterly deprived of elegance.
Italian mezzo-soprano Lucia Cirillo was an unusual Donna Elvira. Always dressed in white, heavily pregnant, she was a desperate and almost pathetic figure constantly followed by her maid and an animated toy Madonna. However, the comedy generated by her sanctimonious demeanour was reversed by the rich and masterful vocal interpretation and a particularly moving “In quali…Mi tradi quell’alma ingrate” in Act II, Scene 3 during which she reflects on Don Giovanni’s sins but is unable to stop loving him.
The best surprises of the production are perhaps Italian tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani as an exceptionally moving Don Ottavio and French mezzo-soprano Catherine Trottmann as an unexpectedly mature and eager Zerlina.
Zorzi Giustiniani, who sang three roles in “L’Orfeo,” Robert Carsen’s opening production of the season, was a loving, long-suffering Don Ottavio and his two major arias, “Dalla sua pace” in Act I and “Il mio Tesoro” in Act II, were delivered with great sensitivity, emphasized by the deliberately slowed-down tempi.
Trottmann, who was nominated as the Lyrical Revelation of the Year in the French Victoires de la Musique 2017, has an interesting and rather low voice, which is almost at odds with the youth and naiveté of country bride Zerlina. Visually, she is made to stand out in a flowery knee-length outfit, which is much fresher compared to the sartorial sophistication of the other leading ladies. She proved to be a sexy vixen who was eager to succumb to the temptations offered by Don Giovanni’s, which was beautifully expressed in the deep delivery of Zerlina’s simple melodies.
Epitome of Decadence
The opera’s crucial scene, in which the dead Commendatore’s stone statue returns among the living only to take the sinner to the underworld where he belongs, is an epitome of decadence. Don Giovanni wore a purple robe is riding a gigantic skull, while Donna Elvira’s beautiful black maid, naked from the waist up, was in the middle of a striptease. Gigantic platters of food were delivered until the stone guest, performed with impressive depth by Spanish bass Rubén Amoretti, turned up. As Don Giovanni fails to repent, all the visual splendour was devoured by the darkness underneath.
In a way typical of Mozart, the final scene in which the surviving characters come together, was an attempt at some form of normalcy. They all search for the future: Leporello is on the lookout for a new, hopefully less evil master, Donna Elvira is to retire to a convent, Donna Anna asks Don Ottavio to wait for a year, while peasant bride and groom Zerlina and Masetto are seemingly reconciled. Yet, despite the bright colours, darkness has not subsided. Don Giovanni’s age of baroque had seemingly come to an end and Mozart’s own troubled 18th century was about to painfully disintegrate and take Europe into decades of chaos.