Opéra National de Paris 2018-19 Review: Don Giovanni

Philippe Jordan & Ivo Van Hove Lead Perfect Team In Glorious Interpretation of Mozart Masterpiece

By David Salazar
(Credit: Charles Duprat)

Great opera still exists. The kind where we see a strong cast buoyed by a clear staging and even better musical direction.

That argument was strongly made and felt on Wednesday, July 10, 2019 at the Palais Garnier with Ivo van Hove’s new production of “Don  Giovanni.”

The interpretation, which is headed to the Metropolitan Opera in future seasons to, fortunately, relieve the current “staging” of its duties, updates the action to more modern times, but presents the opera with the utmost respect to its source material.

Breathing Life & Color Back Into The World

Three rotating constructions dominate the proceedings, seamlessly shifting about from scene to scene, their movements almost imperceptible, but the new positions constantly giving the opera sense of freshness and expansiveness in its visual realization. The color palette is grim and dark, dominated by grey hues with the black and white of certain wardrobe adding the only major contrast. In fact, the only real color in the entire show comes from the blood of the Commendatore and a red and yellow flower that Donna Anna places at the front of the stage; this small symbol seems innocuous enough at the beginning but pervades the drama and creates quite a powerful payoff in the opera’s final moments, when, after Don Giovanni’s death, the stage blocks rotate back into their initial positions to reveal a plethora of flowers and fully-realized environment. In the context of this production, the meaning could not be clearer: with a parasite like Don Giovanni out of the world, life and beauty can return.

That theme, while bordering on the obvious and simple, actually plays perfectly into van Hove’s vision for the opera. Unlike other interpretations, the comedic factors in the opera are rather subdued. It’s not that van Hove doesn’t manage some good laughs from the viewer (his incredible cast can’t be resisted), but in his hands, the darkness of the work comes to the fore. Don Giovanni is a monster. Wearing a black suit and tie, you could see him as a mobster, politician, Wall Street business executive, or even one of those Hollywood moguls, that are all being taken to task in the current climate of the #MeToo movement. Men like him can’t possibly bring any joy to this world. Furthermore, Giovanni carries a gun with him throughout the opera, a motif that dominates the visual world. Whereas other characters point guns to threaten others, no one is actually able to pull the trigger, except for Don Giovanni. At the climax of Act one, all of the characters onstage, save Leporello, surround the titular protagonist, pointing firearms in his direction. There simply seems to be no way for him to get out of it. And yet, he just runs right at them and the characters, all unable to pull the trigger for fear of its consequences, can’t stop him. Giovanni never cares for such consequences, and as such, commits murder and repeatedly gets away with it.

Powerlessness & Lack of Violence

This notion of the powerlessness of the real world over evil is furthered by the fact that everyone sees Giovanni for who he is, and yet is unable to resist him. As the opera commences, Anna and Giovanni are engaged in a physical battle; he wants to escape and she won’t let him. He is wearing no mask, so when she seizes him by the throat, she looks right into his eyes. He responds with the same exact action; whereas hers comes off as a sign of strength, his is one of savagery. But the fact that she sees him creates some confusion until later in the evening, Leporello and Giovanni’s change of appearances amounts to a swapping of jackets and a tie; Elvira stares Leporello right in the face and yet can’t tell it’s him. In the sextet, all the characters see Leporello but can’t identify him until he takes off his suit and jacket. On some level, van Hove points out the opera’s own dramatic leaps, but points to the theme of all the major characters in the work being somewhat lost for any sense of direction in how to take down this monster. Much like today’s society, we know about these monsters and have known for some time about their deeds, but simply can’t take them down – the world, as the opera’s production, is one of shadows and darkness where evil is allowed to lurk without any impediment.

Van Hove’s vision also suggests the characters seeking to move away from violent action. When Anna runs over toward attack Leporello during the sextet, the others restrain her. When Don Ottavio’s agitation comes through in “Il Mio Tesoro,” the others come to console and calm him down. When Leporello seems ready to finally confront his boss during the dinner scene at the end of the opera, Elvira bursts in and drops to her knees, pleading for an end to corruption and evil. Don Giovanni is the only violent character and his acts, which include a very visceral beating of Massetto against a staircase (how he survives the assault at all is rather shocking), are further accentuated by the other characters’ either restraint from violence or failure to pull the trigger (literally and figuratively).

So does this mean that only spiritual forces may take down this evil? Mozart’s opera certainly supports this notion and Van Hove doesn’t seem to question the work in this regard. That said, the Commendatore doesn’t appear as a statue or some gimmicky costume – he’s the same person that we last see fall to the ground after Don Giovanni shoots him down (the fact that there is no duel in that scene only adds to the cold-blooded nature of the murder). So on some level, he is both human and inhuman at the same time and his physical contact with Giovanni injures the opera’s protagonist repeatedly. When it comes time for him to be taken down, the stage’s rotating blocks connect to form a closed-off space on which even more claustrophobic surrealist projects materialize. The ensuing smoke further clouds the space, adding to the overwhelming sensation that the audience experiences. When suddenly the pervading smoke dissipates quickly and the blocks open up to allow the other characters to enter, a swift lighting change suddenly creates a new feeling of renewal and openness.

Generating Suspense From Familiar Ideas

Lighting itself is so crucial to the visual language of this production. As designed by Jan Verseweyveld, there are only a handful of obvious lighting changes throughout the evening, but they come at crucial dramatic points and constantly allow the audience to feel like they are changing scenes, environments, and most importantly, moods. The opera itself whips to life with a light turning on in the middle of the stage, illuminating a dark alleyway. For the entirety of the overture, nothing else happens, and yet this one moment creates a sense of danger, mystery, and suspense that has the audience anticipating and waiting for the action to unfold.

Van Hove manages to create this level of suspense throughout the work, particularly with the relationships between the characters. We see this in the development of Anna’s final aria where her relationship with Don Ottavio and its challenges are developed through gorgeous stop and start action. Ottavio runs from Anna and lays on the floor. Standing on the opposite end of the stage, she sings her opening lines, creating a sense of fracture between the two. Then slowly, she walks over and lays beside him, almost as a gesture of unity. But he can’t quite manage to understand her attempt at comfort and instead sees it as an opportunity to put his hands all over her in a sensual manner. She never stops him and as she gets up alongside him, the sexual tension seemingly ramps up until she looks to the flower on her father’s grave. He notices her change of mood and shifts his body to block her view of the flower, essentially asking her to choose. When she won’t relent, he gets up and walks all the way downstage away from her, angry. Their relationship doesn’t survive this scene and suddenly the opera exits the scene with a sense of tension between the two lovers. They eventually reunite in the final scene, but even then there is a sense that not everything is alright until the very final seconds of the opera’s musical coda when they walk together to what looks like their new home.

Paying Off In Big Ways

There are a lot of plants and strong payoffs littered throughout Van Hove’s production (including, quite literally the plants at the start and end of the opera) but his vision also leaves room for working in a lot of touchstones of other Giovanni productions. The instrumentalists come on the scene during the Act one finale to perform. Elvira is on a balcony for the second act trio. There’s an actual dinner scene with real food. The difference here, unlike other productions that utilized these stage directions, is that there is conviction with the use of each one. The energy around them is full of life. Nothing feels like it is thrown in there to use up space.

Take the dinner scene. Giovanni isn’t just eating. He is playing with his food, ravaging it like an animal, and then throwing it around because he can. This serves to further distance the audience from him, but to also take up Leporello’s perspective in the scene. Here the servant (though he seems more like an assistant) gets fed up with his master’s behavior, another development that has been simmering throughout the production, and starts to play his master’s game. Leporello essentially stands up to Don Giovanni in this moment and tells him – “I am not afraid of him.” He even levels the entire table in the heat of the moment.

In sum, this production is fantastic with Van Hove bringing every moment in the opera to brilliant life through strong vision, direction, and ultimately execution. Even the moments that might seem questionable (everyone seeing Don Giovanni’s face) allow for deeper thematic introspection from the audience member rather than being a poorly constructed choice that makes little sense.

Of course, Van Hove’s vision is impossible without the strong partnership he has created with the singing actors and the maestro Philippe Jordan.

In His Special Place

Let’s start with the Opéra de Paris’ music director who was fantastic on this evening in bringing Mozart’s score to life.

Not only was Jordan directing the orchestral forces, but he was also at the harpsichord accompanying the singers. There was a seamless quality about the entire musical sweep of the night with Jordan ornamenting his obligato passages to create seamless transitions to the formal numbers. As a result, pauses between arias and recitatives became minimal, and the lack of subsequent applause created a sense of unity for the whole, but a propulsiveness that allowed the opera to speed by. Act one of “Don Giovanni” is a lengthy piece, but it has a tremendous musical and narrative drive that can whip by quickly. Act two, by contrast, meanders and seemingly gets lost in its plotting, the characters trying to find answers to questions they don’t even know or comprehend. As such, it can often drag in places. But Jordan’s cohesiveness here allowed both parts to work together toward a greater narrative whole; this only bettered Van Hove’s vision.

The orchestra was on point throughout the evening with a tremendous sense of balance in all of the sections. Jordan occasionally allowed certain instrumental sections to really come to the fore, all to dramatic effect. This was best seen in the overture’s climax where the brass instruments rose above the rest of the ensemble, creating a sense of foreboding. But there was never a sense of bombast in any such interventions, the orchestral balance always preserved in the hall.

Jordan was always in control, but always flexible, even in moments where things seemed a bit off with the singers. For example, it didn’t seem like soprano Elsa Dreisig and Jordan got off to the right start in “Batti, batti,” and yet, moments after the start they found each other seamlessly.

What was most impressive however of Jordan’s musical direction, was how he managed to get the singers to create a seamless unity between the drier parlando recitatives and the sung arias and ensembles. In bigger houses, singers tend to sing out all the time, the focus being on projection. But here, there was nuance and more clarity in the turn of phrases with equal level of detail in both recitatives and musical numbers. It elevated the musical quality of the entire evening and truly brought the characters to deeper and richer life.

A Snake

At the core of it all was Étienne Dupuis as the eponymous villain. His Don Giovanni had none of the charisma that some productions give to him, taking out all of the ambiguity about how Van Hove wanted audiences to feel about it. He was violent, especially in how he grabbed Donna Anna, bullied and threatened Donna Elvira in the quartet, and shot the Commendatore. He was snake-like in his seduction of Zerlina. He uttered the recitative with delicate line that slithered more than it fluttered, creeping up to her slowly and putting his hands over her. He displayed arrogance in his gait, his appearances always pulling the energy in his direction. His stare was a menace and it seemed that as the night wore on, his beast-like qualities became more and more unleashed, especially in the voracious manner with which he grabbed and chewed on pasta before throwing it around.

His singing only added to his omnipresence and power. Dupuis’ sound resonated potently in the Palais Garnier and there was a crispness in his diction that only added to his sense of presence. The smoothness of his legato line, especially in passages like “Laci darem la mano,” provided great contrast to the more aggressive “Fin ch’han dal vino.” Both famed passages were thrown off with a sense of ease, adding to his Giovanni’s omnipotence; it seemed like nothing, such as the rejection of a girl or the speediest of arias, could faze him.

His two finest vocal moments came in the second Act. The first of these was an example of his glorious singing during “Deh, vieni alla finestra.” As staged by Van Hove, Giovanni disappears from the stage and we can simply hear the aria sung from afar. It is a haunting effect, adding to the feeling that Giovanni and his exploits haunt and pervade the world of the opera. It’s harder to find more glorious singing in this moment, each line delicately woven into the next. The reprise was sublime piano singing of the highest order, made all the more effective by the obvious hurdle of having to project from the wings. But Dupuis already had you hooked from the first stanza, making it easy to follow his sound as the second one commenced from afar. It was hypnotic and if there was one moment where Giovanni’s evil dissipated, it was this musical touchstone; it was likely also wise that Van Hove avoided having him onstage lest he risk audiences suddenly feeling that he might be a romantic anti-hero during this aria.

The second vibrant moment was during “Meta di voi qua vadano.” Hardly Giovanni’s shining musical moment, the baritone managed to create a thinner texture in his voice to imitate Leporello, contrasting with the fuller and more generous quality that he had given to Giovanni throughout. In the final moments of the aria, Giovanni repeats “E già vedrai cos’è” four times with the same exact notes and phrasing. Each one grew more and more accented, creating a sense of dread and suspense; you could feel his rage being channeled through those repetitions and could only imagine the violence that would result in the ensuing moments. It was a strong musical interpretation that setup the ensuing actions to perfection.

The two confrontations with the Commendatore, interpreted by Ain Anger, were seminal climaxes of the opera, allowing for the bookend nature of this relationship to truly come to the fore. Anger, a bass with a booming voice and thick vibrato, easily matched Dupuis’ own vocal power, amplifying the conflict of these two rigid figures. The final one was particularly thrilling in how Anger’s voice seemed to grow as the scene developed and the Commendatore won out. But of course, Dupuis, even in his final moments, could not exit the stage without giving Giovanni a perfectly executed high note with which to end the show. Even to the end, he was a force to be reckoned with.

Conflicted Lovers

The roles of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio were essayed by Jacquelyn Wagner and Stanislas de Barbeyrac. The two characters are inseparable dramatically and, as noted, their love affair is delineated with greater detail by Van Hove.

De Barbeyrac, who performed the role earlier this year at the Metropolitan Opera, portrays Don Ottavio as a hothead that becomes increasingly frustrated with Donna Anna’s rejection of him. As such, the tenor’s own vocal portrayal amps up its own forceful nature with his “Il mio Tesoro” full of high notes that might sound a bit pushed in some moments (especially the high A on “vogl’io tornar”). It was a similar situation at the Met where the tenor tended to push his way through most of the evening, making Mozart’s music sound like that of a more romantic composer and losing the elegance and purity of line. A lot of those issues re-emerge here, especially in that very aria, but they seem to serve a dramatic purpose. Ottavio’s accented singing in “Dite le chei suoi torti,” while increasingly sloppy in the coloratura (he skipped some notes and seemingly ran out of breath on some of the longer runs), expressed Ottavio’s burning rage coming to the fore; other characters would come to calm him down in these moments, leading to more relaxed and gentle approaches on the opening and repetition of main melody “Il mio Tesoro.”

Perhaps it is that particular musical number that doesn’t quite suit De Barbeyrac’s vocal abilities because he otherwise performed admirably in “Dalla sua pace,” the trio in the Act one finale, the sextet, and especially “Or che tutto” in the finale of the entire opera. “Dalla sua pace” featured some truly elegant legato with the tenor crafting the aria while laying on the floor. The repeat of the passage was sung with increasing pianissimo, giving it an ethereal and sublime quality. It was breathtaking not only in its execution, but in the intimacy with which it framed the famed aria. Given the context of his relationship to Anna in this opera and the rejections he has faced, there was almost a sense of heartbreak and desperation in this reprisal, making the aria not only an expression of love, but a desperate cry for its reciprocation.

The object of that affection, Wagner’s Donna Anna, would have none of it, and it was clear that the trauma of her father’s death dominated her portrayal. She simply didn’t seem all that interested in romance at this particular moment with fury and vengeance seeping through her every action and vocal declamation. Many analysts posit that Donna Anna and Don Giovanni are a strong match emotionally for one another with their forward drive and this productions depiction of Anna undeniably supports this idea, at least with regards to Anna’s thirst for vindication. As such, Wagner’s singing was very pointed, even harsh in the upper reaches. At times, this could come off as a shrill, especially throughout the entirety of “Or sai chi l’honore,” but it was supported by a tremendous stage presence and energy that simply made her the center of attention every time she was onstage. But she seemed to open up to Ottavio’s needs as the show wore on, though not completely conceding to him outright. As noted, her actions in “Non mir dir” suggested her seeking to comfort him and even assure him of her love, and her singing supported this notion. She delivered her purest lyricism in the first half of this aria, the voice gently weaving through the phrases. But as Ottavio pushed her and, ironically, rejected her own attempts at compromise, her singing developed increased angst, which suited the Allegretto section “Forse un giorno.” The coloratura runs, which a bit rough in their execution, became her own cries of desperation for understanding from her man. There was increased agitation as the aria moved to its climax, Anna growing frustrated and hurt at the same time. This sense of pain lingered for her in the opera’s final moments as she stood at a distance from Ottavio throughout his own attempts at making amends; her withdrawal from him gave the scene the essential tension it needed to make their reconciliation strong in the opera’s closing beats.

A Woman Scorned

Nicole Car’s Donna Elvira was far from the joke that she is often portrayed as. Portrayed here as a woman desperate for some respect, we see her stand up for herself on repeated occasions, even if she still falls for Giovanni’s own sense of power. This creates a more complex portrayal of the character because she isn’t simply a needy person trying to win back her lover. Her aria “Ah, fuggi il traditor” was sung with poise, the jagged rhythms all delivered with precision of diction and vocalization; the coloratura runs, which came off as attacks toward the Don, were perfect in their articulation and delivery. In the quartet she was similarly imposing, forcing Dupuis’ Giovanni to his own authoritarian limits and creating some truly tense drama between the two; their interaction here was so gripping that in their stares you could sense that there might be some physical violence from either of them at any moment.

Compare this with the gentler qualities of her opening aria “Ah! Chi mi dice mai” or the Act three trio, where her elegant instrument shone through to create the portrait of a more gentle woman.

Her touchstone moment was the famed aria “Mi tradi” where her Elvira seemed to come to terms with her fate. The aria itself can come off as rather bland in many interpretations, with singers unable to truly give it a sense of emotional shape in its repetitions. But Car did that and more. The opening recitatives and opening passages of the aria itself were full of rage and fury, the soprano pushing her instrument to its maximum vocal resources and truly gripping the listener with the intensity of the singing. She grew in these passages and even the first iteration of the eighth note runs had a jagged and angular quality to them that expressed a sense of frustration and fury reaching its breaking point. And just as she seemed to be at her most intense, the reprisal of the main melody was sung with a whispered pianissimo sound that took us from the world of anger to one of intense pain. When the eighth note runs returned, they wept. The soprano would build up her sound again and the final passages seemed to force her into increasing breaths in the middle of phrases, but there was a true cathartic sense in the renewal of her strength and the resolve it emphasized. In just five minutes, Car took us on a powerful emotional journey that proved one of the emotional highlights of the entire evening.

The Fall Guy

In the role of Leporello was the incredible Philippe Sly. The Canadian singer is far from a buffo Leporello, but more of a sly man in the mold of his master. He came off as a disciple of sorts, sporting a full beard like the Don and a similarly colored attire, sans tie. Even if he was at odds with his master from the get-go, the exquisite banter-like quality of their recitative suggested not only a closeness between the two men, but even a mirroring of sorts.

Sly is an elegant stage performer and was perfectly suited to this particular take on the character. As such, the comedy comes less from exaggerated gestures and more from subtle actions, such as when he attempts to woe a local girl with similar body language to that of Don Giovanni.

There was pride in his delivery of “Madamina, il catalogo è questo,” the bass-baritone relishing every single line of dialogue; they almost seemed like pointed jabs at Elvira in her own disappointment. The second section of the aria, “Nel la bionda,” his sense of line really came to the fore with Sly building each description to a climactic crescendo on the high D of “Maestosa;” it was an eye-opening vocal moment.

In the Act two trio, his imitations of Giovanni were spot-on, the bass-baritone giving his voice greater fullness to contrast the more delicate approach of the character overall. 

His Leporello’s relationship with Giovanni grows more and more complex as the opera unfolds, the bass-baritone showcasing increased weariness toward his master as the night wore on. This all climaxed with the previously mentioned dinner sequence in which the two men are about to come to blows before Elvira’s intervention. That he genuinely feared for his master’s life throughout the final confrontation with the Commendatore suggested that even Leporello was capable of forgiving the villain.

Troubled Coupling

Elsa Dreisig and Mikhail Timoshenko demonstrated strong casting as Zerlina and Massetto respectively, mainly because they seemed like such a poor pairing. Dreisig’s Zerlina was a flirtatious girl looking for fun, while Timoshenko’s Massetto was full of controlling machismo. While the former sang with silkiness, the latter was more prone to brusque outbursts. It worked to perfection because it gave the relationship, like Ottavio and Anna’s, room to grow and for the conciliation for these two characters to come from a place of understanding.

As Timoshenko blasted out sound throughout his aria “Ho capito, signor si” in an exciting portrayal that really emphasized his desire for control over his fiancée, Dreisig seemed overwhelmed and even appalled at his behavior. They reconciled during the Act one finale, only for his insecurity and jealous to create another momentary fissure. The two are back together again at the start of Act two, but Massetto still has his lesson to learn and he amply does after getting beaten by Don Giovanni. After this moment, the two seem to come to terms with their respective personality, Zerlina gaining the upperhand.

Dreisig’s interactions with Giovanni in “La ci darem la mano” emphasized her sense of discomfort and it never seemed that she was really all that interested in him; that she gives in at the close of the duet was more a suggestion of his power than her desire. This was furthered during the finale of the first Act during which Dreisig was actively trying to get away from him, only to find herself more and more trapped by Don Giovanni. She eventually ran off stage full of tremendous fear and desperation, adding to the stakes of the scene and its violent ending.

Her two arias were exemplary of her sweet sound, but the latter, “Vedrai carino” was the true highlight. Here, Dreisig set out to not only console her injured Massetto, but then to seduce him. Particularly notable were her suave and sensual repetitions of “Sentirlo battere,” the latter word gaining a disembodied pianissimo sound that drew you in more and more each time.

From top to bottom this was a truly great night at the opera. Where most directors impose their own stories on operas these days, Van Hove trusts the source material but simply finds ways to further develop its themes and ideas in simple but effective ways. But he could never have executed his game plan to perfection without the perfect team of players and a maestro that knows how to weave all of the glorious musical interpretation into a cohesive whole. This “Don Giovanni” was a reminder of the team effort that is the realization of opera and how glorious it can be when the right pieces are working together toward the same goal.


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