Teatro Regio Di Torino 2017-18 Review: Don Giovanni
Carlos Alvarez, Daniele Rustioni Lead A Performance of the Highest OrderBy Alan Neilson
The Stone Guest, standing at the back of the stage, offers Don Giovanni his hand and demands that he repent for his dissolute life. Staying true to his nature, Don Giovanni refuses and, amid the flames and screams, is dragged down to Hell, bringing the scene to an end. As usual, many in the audience assume the opera has finished. The libertine has got his just reward, there is no more to be said. But as we all know, this is not the case! Onto the stage come the rest of the cast and, after a brief consideration of what the future holds for each of them, they deliver the moral of the story, “The death of the sinner always reflects his life.” The audience can now leave the theatre happily reassured. Yes, maybe, but more likely they leave the theatre emotionally unfulfilled, having witnessed one of the biggest anticlimaxes in opera, thanks to a dramatically lame and totally misplaced ending.
However, for this production at Turin’s Teatro Reggio, the director, Michele Placido, reprised by Vittorio Borrelli, included one tiny gesture that changed everything.
Making a Change
Placido took a fairly traditional approach, in which he successfully played up the work’s comedic elements, whilst at the same time highlighting the violence, and threats of violence, which run through the opera. There was no attempt at portraying Giovanni as a cocaine addict, or setting it in bedsit land, full of takeaways and prostitutes, or introducing “relevant” themes, such as the #metoo movement. It was a production, more or less, as one would expect; set in a clearly defined stratified society, consistent with European society before the French Revolution, with strict behavioral distinctions existing between the classes and the sexes, one in which an amoral, licentious Don Giovanni, portrayed with the airs and graces of a man of the upper class, abuses his position to satisfy his carnal desires.
The single deviation from a traditional presentation being the costumes, designed by Maurizio Balò, which were largely fashioned on the late Victorian/early Edwardian period. This, too, was a success, as it helped bring a sharper focus to the nature and status of the characters, for example, Don Ottavio and Donna Elvira were dressed in slightly older formal attire, typical of a middle class couple, with dull, staid personalities, desperately seeking to conform to bourgeois values. Don Giovanni, on the other hand, dressed in a long white coat, created no such impression, he was flamboyant, confident, a man of means, and had no interest in conforming.
However the sets, also designed by Maurizio Balò, were less successful. Too often, the singers were positioned in front of a dark curtain, with no scenery, or with the curtain slightly open, revealing fairly mundane scenery, for example a wall with a yellow light hanging on it. Even worse, for those members of the audience who were not sitting in central positions, it was not always possible to see the sets at all, or even the characters. Despite these failings, Balò did fashion two excellent settings. The first was in the final scene of Act one, in which Don Giovanni hosts a party set in a large room in his villa. Balò created a large space for the revelers, surrounded by simple, blood red walls which captured the orgiastic heat of the party. The second was the graveyard scene in act two. Large statues dominated a dark set, a raised platform ran across the front of the stage, on which Leporello and Giovanni played out the scene. Again, Balò managed to create the perfect atmosphere; this time, one of deadly foreboding.
Aided by some splendid acting from the cast and excellently choreographed movement, arranged by Anna Maria Bruzzese, the scenes were well-constructed, dramatically taught and emotionally engaging. In particular, the comedic elements were always cleverly done and elicited genuine laughter from the audience; Donna Anna, especially, was always a great source of amusement, as she never failed to materialize from somewhere, just in time to frustrate Giovanni’s plans. Moreover, Placido was able to turn a single scene into powerful statement. Again the party scene was a good example, which was more akin to a dance macabre. Semi-naked party-goers danced in an uncoordinated riot, dressed in 18th century fancy dress, an amusing nod to the original setting of the opera. Towards the end of the scene, they all join hands, along with Giovanni, in a big circle and danced round and round and round, before eventually he had to make a break for it as everything descends into chaos.
The musical side of the production was in the hands of the conductor, Daniele Rustioni, and it would be fair to say that he created a presentation of the highest standards, leading the cast and the Orchestra del Teatro Regio in a detailed, elegant reading. The orchestra, always alive to the onstage drama, played with vibrancy, balance and flair, and highlighted the subtle contrasts within the score. Moreover, Rustioni produced a wonderfully integrated sound in which the soloists, who all put in consummate performances, were complemented magnificently by the orchetra’s masterful playing.
Carlos Alvarez, in the title role, played the part with a great deal of style and panache, a real charmer; for his Don Giovanni is not a testosterone-fueled youngster, but an older, sophisticated version, although one still capable of dishing out violence when necessary. Fundamentally always true to himself, and totally unconcerned about the judgements and opinions of others, he successfully embodied the life-force and, as such, made an attractive and engaging character. He has a warm and colorful baritone, which he employed with great skill in creating a compelling portrait of the aging libertine. His recitatives were intelligently crafted, and clearly conveyed their meaning and his emotional state; he was by turn, angry, sneering, seductive, demanding, pleading, courageous and amusing, certainly callous, but never frightened, never cowardly. His champagne aria, “Finch’ han dal vino,” was wonderfully delivered, his quick patter lines, capturing his joie-di-vivre, and his love of conquest. All this was supported by an excellent acting performance.
His servant and the want-to-be Don Giovanni, Leporello, was essayed by Mirco Palazzi, and it is not an exaggeration to say that he produced an absolute stunning performance. He created a subtly drawn portrait, in which every aspect of his character was carefully brought to life, through his forceful (if occasionally overstated) acting and splendid singing. His most famous aria, “Madamina, il catalogo è questo,” in which he cruelly taunts Donna Elvira about Don Giovanni’s many women, was executed with style and a great deal of flair. Palazzi demonstrated his wonderful vocal control and flexibility, layering the voice with an array of subtle colors and dynamic shadings, and attractively constructed embellishments, which captured, not only the pride he had in his master’s conquests, but also the enjoyment he derived from the pain he inflicted upon Donna Elvira.
In the role of Donna Elvira was the accomplished soprano, Carmela Remigio. The intelligence she brings to her singing, backed by her superb acting skills means that her characters are always well-crafted, and her Donna Elvira was no different. Remigio’s portrayal was a sympathetic one; rather than coming across as a mentally unstable harridan, her Donna Elvira was a forceful woman, with a brittle underbelly, which of course, Don Giovanni exploited to the full. The accomplished ease with which she was able to play up the comedy contained within the role ensured that the audience remained on her side. There is so much to admire about her voice, such as its strength, its flexibility and its range of colors, especially the attractive, dark quality of the lower register. She produced a polished, nuanced performance, founded upon her excellent technique, which she used intelligently to spin out delicately constructed phrases, full of subtle ornamentations.
Pathetically Wonderful Pair
In the roles of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio were Maria Grazia Schiavo and Juan Francisco Gatell. They cut a pathetic pair, indeed. Rarely out of each other’s company, Donna Anna expected Don Ottavio to avenge the murder of her father, of which there was clearly no chance whatsoever of the limp Don Ottavio even attempting, let alone succeeding in. However, there was nothing pathetic at all about their singing. Schiavo used her sparkling soprano to delightfully characterize the ambiguous nature of the Donna Anna in a dazzling performance. Her aria, “Non mi dir,” in which she chastises Don Ottavio for daring to hint about marriage, was pitch perfect, and allowed her to show of her scintillating coloratura and vocal agility. Gatell’s portrayal of Don Ottavio was so successful that one completely understood why, following Don Giovanni’s demise, Donna Anna preferred to postpone the wedding for a year – no doubt in the hope he would disappear into a monastery somewhere. He possesses a delicate, light sweet-sounding tenor. The aria “Il mio tesoro” in which he sings of his romanticized version of love for Anna, and his equally unrealistic intention of avenging her father’s murder, was beautifully delivered; it was graceful, elegant and displayed a fine technique. Their portrayals certainly raised questions about whether Don Giovanni really did try to rape Donna Anna. Her mouse-like nature was difficult to take seriously, and her continual insistence on revenge suggested some underlying guilt on her part. Don Ottavio’s presentation as a spineless dullard, brilliantly represented everything that Don Giovanni was not, and as such added to Giovanni’s attraction.
Rocio Ignacio in the part of Zerlina, convincingly portrayed the part of the young peasant girl, who quickly finds herself her in trouble, having been too easily seduced by Don Giovanni’s easy-going charm and sophisticated manners, although not so naïve that she is unable to understand how to manipulate Masetto. Ignacio has an expressive soprano, perfectly illustrated by her aria, “Batti, batti o bel Masetto,” which she sang with a great deal of subtlety and finesse. Her Masetto was played by the baritone, Fabio Maria Capitanucci, who looked every inch the big-boned peasant numbskull. He essayed the role well and made a good impression.
The Commendatore played by Gianluca Buratto, put in a commanding performance. His stentorian bass resonated with a clear dark firm quality, and underlined that he alone was the only one capable of exercising authority over Don Giovanni.
Overall, this was a musical production from the top draw. It would be difficult to imagine how it could be improved upon; individually, every singer put in a first class performance, and together they created a masterful ensemble, supported by an excellent performance from the orchestra, and well-executed singing from the Coro del Teatro Regio, under the direction of Andrea Secchi. The stage direction, too, despite suffering from some weak set designs, was compelling; it had an engaging dynamic, and the characters were depicted boldly, convincingly and clearly.
And, of course, there was the tiny gesture that changed the whole ending: Don Giovanni descends into Hell, amidst screams and flames, which is immediately followed by the self-satisfied chorus from the soloists, happy that he has received divine punishment, for they themselves certainly do not possess the courage to administer it! Then as the curtain falls, with the audience applauding, this time correctly taking it to be the end of the opera, the curtain starts to twitch, and out pops Don Giovanni’s head, laughing maniacally…
…and for sure he is not only laughing at the naive stupidity of Donna Anna, Don Ottavio, Zerlina, Masetto, Donna Elvira and Leporello, he is laughing at all of us!