Simon Keenlyside, Kyle Ketelson, Eric Hallvarson, Marina Poplavaskaya, Joyce DiDonato, Ramon Vargas, Miah Persson, and Robert Glendow star in this Royal Opera production of the Mozart opera conducted by Charles Mackerras on 2 DVDs.
For this opera to succeed in all its moral, emotional, and rhetorical complexity, it needs a Don Giovanni who's sufficiently appealing that we feel at least some ambivalence toward him. Otherwise, Zerlina's attraction to him, much less Elvira's attempt to redeem him even at the end, makes no sense. That need is especially pressing when we have an Elvira as strong and spirited as Joyce DiDonato (no discarded dishrag here) and when Masetto is shorn of his bumptious goofiness (as he is when portrayed by Robert Gleadow). The Don's fundamental charisma, unfortunately, is singularly absent from this production, especially when seen close up on video, where every grimace registers more forcefully than it would from back in the hall.
Granted, Simon Keenlyside is an experienced exponent of the role; but his approach seems to have changed over the years. Ralph V. Lucano found him "a gentleman" on the Abbado recording (22: 3), while Raymond Tuttle found him rather neutral in his 2006 Zurich account (31:5). Here he's gone completely over to the dark side: from his sadistic torment of the dying Commendatore (he glares maliciously into his eyes, and then gives him a mocking kiss), we know we are watching a sociopath, a man driven not by hedonistic enthusiasm but by an undisguised and unquenchable desire to cause pain. There's little fizz in "Fin ch'han dal vino," little sensitivity to the serenade, and, more generally, no charm to counterbalance the cruelty. When, at one point, he threatens to castrate Leporello, you feel he might really do it. No surprise that the production fails to cohere as a dramatic whole.
Still, as a series of operatic numbers, there's much to enjoy. Yes, Halfvarson lacks heft as the Commendatore; and Poplavskaya, a rather tight and unsympathetic Donna Anna, lacks the tonal panache and virtuoso conviction to bring off the ending of "Non mi dir" (in her defense, she was suffering from a throat infection during at least one of the performances that were coalesced into this video). But Ketelsen, who looks enough like Keenlyside to make the identity-switch credible, is a perversely sympathetic Leporello, and Ramón Vargas (vocally at least) makes Don Ottavio a plausible suitor, strong-willed and passionate (his awkward stage presence is another matter). Better still are the sweet-toned, finely controlled, and musically flexible peasants, Robert Gleadow and Miah Persson. Superbly matched singers, they have the kind of relationship--and the kind of underlying purity--that make you think Masetto and Zerlina could grow up to become Figaro and Susanna (in fact, Persson has taken on the role of Susanna with distinction; see 32:1). Best of all, though, is the fiery DiDonato, who enters with rifle in hand and who continues to dominate whenever she's present: this, in the end, is Elvira's story.
Mackerras conducts with his accustomed clarity, although I found that the energy level tended to drop here and there, especially in the first half of the second act. The orchestra, as we've come to expect, plays magnificently. As for Francesca Zambello's production: originally premiered in 2002, it has come in for years of criticism, mainly from the British press. But in today's climate, you have to give it a kind of negative credit, if only for its lack of disrespect for the music and the libretto. It's generally colorful, and it evokes the 18th century without turning stiff or fussy; the pyrotechnical display in the final scene is fairly impressive. Yes, the men are having a bad hair day (never has a production so insistently called out for more shampoo), and yes, there are some odd moments: why does Ottavio walk off in the middle of "Non mi dir"? Then, too, the staging is often cramped. But unlike so many productions these days, it doesn't go out of its way to spit on the ideas of the composer and librettist. There's one major exception, though, and it's a big one. After the final sextet, the curtain opens to show us Don Giovanni in hell: there he is, in triumphant naked glory, holding a glamorous (and also, of course, fully unclothed) woman in his arms. So much for punishment.
The video quality is first-rate, especially, of course, on the Blu-ray version; excellent sound, too. There's also a lengthy and provocative essay by David Nice in the booklet. The only complaint about the production is Opus Arte's decision to issue the Blu-ray version on two discs: it would easily have fit on one, which would have given the release an economic edge.
Recommendation? This DVD is a compilation of two performances in September 2008, and readers with sharp eyes for details in headnotes and a good memory for cultural trivia might have noticed that the first of them is the notorious performance that was reserved for readers of The Sun. Those who were present, or those interested in the fascinating intersection between tabloids and opera over the years, may well want this set in their collections as a memento of the event. Others, though, should turn elsewhere. Among recent performances, I've been most taken with the Jacobs SACD (I've not yet seen his video account) and Kreizberg's Glyndebourne DVD, although neither has entirely alienated my affections from long term favorites presided over by Walter, Rosbaud, Krips, and Giulini. -- Fanfare Archive, Peter J. Rabinowitz, Nov/Dec 2009
Some scenes, like certain recipes, look so simple on the page yet turn out to be next to impossible to stage credibly. Take, for instance, the end of the first act of Don Giovanni. We all know what has happened; the Don has accused Leporello of assaulting Zerlina, but nobody is buying his story. Somehow or other the Don gets away scot-free at Leporello's expense, as Leporello will complain at the beginning of the next act. But how? (This being the stretta of an opera buffa finale, there are no stage directions to guide us.)
Usually the Don strikes some dashing pose or other center stage while everyone else mills about aimlessly, which doesn't get us from here to there. In the new DVD of Francesca Zambello's Covent Garden production of Don Giovanni from Opus Arte, Simon Keenlyside as Don Giovanni, having casually disarmed his enemies of their swords and pistols during the stretta, makes his escape by climbing the wall on a red rope dangled by one of his red-clad servants. It gets us from here to there, after a fashion, but rather crudely; which kind of summed up my feelings about the production.
Red is a very important color in this production (sets and costumes, the latter fantastical late eighteenth-century, by Maria Bjornson). Don Giovanni is dressed all in red and reddish-brown, which flatters Keenlyside's complexion rather nicely. The ballroom of the palace of the Act 1 finale is all in red, with matching lackeys. This contrasts with the virginal white of Donna Elvira's Act 1 wedding gown and Zerlina's shift (a very unflattering garment for poor Miah Persson). Clearly we are meant to liken Don Giovanni to the Devil.
There is plenty of fire in the final scene-none of it connected to the Commendatore, who rises from below looking just as he had when alive, and whose statue is represented by a hand-like structure made of blue lights at the back of the stage, scarcely visible at all in the previous graveyard scene, which moves to the front to the stage at last to cast the Don into hell. (Eric Halfvarson's wobbly singing as the Commendatore didn't help make him seem any more threatening.) But in a final touch, the last thing we see in the Epilogue is... Don Giovanni in hell holding a naked woman in his arms. What kind of punishment is this?
Under the circumstances, Keenlyside literally climbs the walls a lot-the first verse of "Deh vieni alla finestra" is sung while hanging with one hand off Donna Elvira's garden wall-but piles on the soft legato charm with the ladies, achieving genuine vocal and physical elegance in "La ci darem la mano". The Devil can be a gentleman, as goes the old saying; but he can also be a positive ruffian with the men, as "Meta da voi" revealed-the duel with the Commendatore is rendered as a mugging pure and simple (not even with Don Giovanni's sword, but Leporello's dagger!)
But this is a very violent production by traditional standards (props to fight director William Hobbs); even Donna Elvira in her opening scene brandishes a musket, though to no good use considering that just by pulling the trigger she could have dispatched Don Giovanni then and there. Also a very touchy-feely production; when during "Mi tradi" Zerlina and Donna Anna wander in and began taking things away from Donna Elvira, we seemed to have wandered into a group therapy session.
Of the three ladies, vocal honors go to Joyce DiDonato's Donna Elvira. I was surprised at how large and how comfortable with the higher reaches of the music her voice seemed. What with her unremitting vocal and dramatic intensity throughout the first act, the notion that some misguided early-music conductor suggested the Fidelio Leonore to her seemed less crazy. (And having heard her in the Curtis Alcina, I marvel all the more that she can adjust her vocal approach from the delicate nuances of period-instrument Handel to the broader strokes of big-house Mozart.)
Persson, as Zerlina, has the sort of light lyric soprano that projects as solidly in its lower octave as it gleams above the staff; she was the most enthusiastic adder of ornaments among the cast. Marina Poplavskaya threw herself into Donna Anna's plight with plenty of gumption, but the music doesn't show her voice to advantage; declamatory passages too often came out dark and foggy, and anything above the staff thinned out.
Kyle Ketelsen, as Leporello, offered an exceptionally nuanced vocal performance matched to a smooth and ringing bass, without milking the audience's attention even though he rather overdid the physical awkwardness shtick. (I especially enjoyed his handling of the multivolume encyclopedia of Don Giovanni's conquests-did I tell you this is a prop-heavy production?) Ramon Vargas, as Don Ottavio, has vastly improved his posture since I last saw him as Ramiro in the Met Cenerentola back in 1998. He played the role as a properly manly aristocrat rather than the stereotypical wimp, to the point of rather barging his way through "Dalla sua pace" so that you realized what a difficult aria it was ("O mio tesoro" fared well, though).
Robert Gleadow, the Masetto, sounded right, but he could have restrained his temper a little- or at least directed it to some object other than Zerlina- to dramatic advantage. Sir Charles Mackerras, in the pit, conducted with his usual energy; few of his patented added ornaments made it into this performance, but appoggiaturas abounded.
So should you buy this performance? It's not one for the ages. There are better traditional Don Giovanni productions on DVD out there. Still, it's pretty well sung and conducted; it may not be worth preserving on DVD, but it would I imagine be an enjoyable evening in the theater. -- Partererre Box, Indiana Loiterer III, November 5, 2009
TC has reviewed seven DVD versions of Mozart's Don Giovanni (Issues 115,137, 179, Arthaus; 160, 186, Opus Arte; 173, TDK; 197, EMI), but the eighth, from the Royal Opera (Covent Garden) in 2008, is the only production that treats the work as a tragedy with comic moments, according to the work's designation as a "dramma giocoso" (1009 D, two discs). The singing is terrific; Simon Keenlyside (Don Giovanni), Kyle Ketelsen (Leporello), Marina Poplayskaya (Donna Anna), Joyce DiDonato (Donna Elvira), Miah Persson (Zerlina). In addition, Ramón Vargas brings star-quality singing to the usually colorless role of Don Ottavio. Charles Mackerras leads the excellent orchestra in one of his most dynamic performances. All three female leads look their roles; the Don certainly would find them attractive, which is not always the case in performances of the opera. High definition video and great sound in all three formats. Several short bonus interviews are provided. -- Turok's Choice, Paul Turok, November 2009