Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Staatsoper Berlin: Don Giovanni

Staatsoper unter den Linden, 13 January 2018

It’s sobering to think that Claus Guth’s Don Giovanni is now a decade old. It was first unveiled in Salzburg in 2008, made it to the Staatsoper (im Schiller Theater) in Berlin in 2012 and has now made it to the Staatsoper (unter den Linden) as one of a first clutch of revivals in the renovated house.

Don Giovanni at the Staatsoper (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)

This was the first time I’d seen the production in the flesh. It had bowled me over on Blu-ray (filmed at Salzburg), but critical reaction to it in the theatre had seemed a little more muted.

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Perhaps the staging’s cinematic nature—shades of Shallow Grave, Blood Simple and any number of films I dimly remember featuring holes dug in woods by the light of headlamps—made it especially effective on the screen, where the detail of the acting of Christopher Maltman’s Giovanni and, in particular, Erwin Schrott’s tic-addled, jittery Leporello could be shown in compelling close-up.

It seems the intensity and detail of the production has meant several principals have stuck with their roles over the years (in contrast to conveyor-belt one has seen in Covent Garden’s recent productions, for example), and it certainly feels unusual to find three veterans from Salzburg in the cast here.

Maltman’s Giovanni remains a dangerously compelling presence. He’s still in good shape, and the voice, which has tackled several larger roles in the interim, was probably the most authoritative and imposing on the stage.

It’s an impressive characterisation, even if he didn’t here quite manage the same hushed interiority he brought earlier to the Serenade, memorably staged as a touching reminiscence of earlier happiness—an idea pinched in at least one subsequent production that I’ve seen.

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Dorothea Röschmann, another Salzburg veteran, sings with her usual intensity and commitment as a Donna Elvira irresistible as characterisation if not as a character. Her state, very much as woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown, is cleverly underlined throughout, not least when she first appears, impatiently checking a bus timetable, desperate to get on with a journey heading, one suspects, nowhere in particular. 

This Donna Elvira reflects the production itself brilliantly: everyone is stuck in the spinning forest of Christian Schmidt’s set, a space from which there’s no escape (and which would incidentally do excellent service in an especially nightmarish production of Hänsel und Gretel).

Anna Prohaska (Zerlina), Dorothea Röschmann (Donna Elvira) and Maria Bengtsson (Donna Anna)
(Photo © Monika Rittershaus) 
Some of the rest of the casting was a little less persuasive. Maria Bengtsson was stretched as Donna Anna, and though Mikhail Petrenko does a very good job as Leporello, he can’t quite match Schrott’s charisma in a characterisation tailored to the Uruguayan bass’s talents. Petrenko’s voice, moreover, is short on the buffo fruitiness and basic volume that the role requires. Jan Martiník’s gentle bass, similarly, is not ideally suited to the Commendatore’s granitic pronouncements.

I’ve admired Paolo Fanale in Mozart before—particularly in the Deutsche Oper’s Così fan Tutte last season—but he was also stretched here as Don Ottavio, the lovely openness of the voice often turning to rawness. Grigory Shkarupa unveiled a healthy bass voice as Masetto, while it was a luxury to have a Anna Prohaska bringing intelligence, subtlety and sparkle to Zerlina (she was the third of the Salzburg veterans).

Don Giovanni at the Staatsoper (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)
She was not the only one, however, who seemed to be held back by Alessandro De Marchi’s conducting, which favoured lucidity above weight and drive, drawing playing from the Staatskapelle Berlin that was often short on dramatic thrust and fire—until the Supper Scene, at least. And in this production, of course, the Supper Scene is also the Final Scene, with the concluding sextet apparently deemed incompatible with Guth’s fiercely concentrated vision.

It’s a decision that raises all sorts of questions: a return to a 19th-century tradition that itself feels incompatible with certain aspects of the production—the lack of any visual response to the famous chords that announce the Commendatore’s arrival, for example—as well as the conducting, which certainly short-changed us here on big-r Romanticism. I’d not been too bothered by the omission on the small-screen, where the drama on the whole had felt more intense; here I was left feeling a great deal more unsatisfied.

Inevitably, too, the production itself has lost some of its striking contemporariness, as well as some of its sharpness, over the years. It remains in many ways, though, an exciting and superbly executed piece of theatre.

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