Sex and Violence
Graham Vick's 'Don Giovanni',
reviewed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
reviewed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
There are times when even a Commander of the British Empire can lose a battle. Graham Vick, winner of eight Abbiati Prizes (the Italian music critics' award) was booed for his Don Giovanni at the 27 September afternoon performance at the Teatro Sociale di Como and also at the performance I attended, on the evening of 4 October 2014, which inaugurated the opera season at the Pergolesi Theatre in Jesi. The boos were clearly addressed to Vick and his set designer Stuart Nunn, because the small orchestra (I Pomeriggi Musicali di Milano), the conductor José Luis Gomez-Rios and the young cast were all warmly applauded.
The basic idea of the production is sound: to entrust it to a well-known stage director — Vick has signed five different productions of the opera over the last twenty years — and to a well-selected young cast on a cost-sharing basis between ten theatres (eight in Northern and Central Italy and two in France) with the intention of showing high standard performances even in provincial theatres. The same approach is being applied to Jacques Offenbach's Les Contes de Hoffmann ... hopefully with better results.
Don Giovanni is often reviewed in this magazine — most recently in Existential Tragedy, 24 May 2014 — and so this dramma giocoso ('playful or joyful drama') needs no introduction: it is an apologue of a long day's journey towards the death of a rake who, in his desperate loneliness, attempts unsuccessfully to seduce three women before being dispatched to hell. The key note is D — major for Don Giovanni and his main antagonist (the Commendatore) and minor for all the others, still linked to Italian seventeenth century operatic conventions.
Vick sets the plot in our own time — as is often done — and more specifically in a sordid banlieue of any big town where sex and violence are the name of the game. The production photographs are quite explicit.
All the protagonists and the chorus are sex starved, and attempt to satiate their appetites in all possible positions — especially in the party scene at the end of the first act. The protagonist is so obsessed that he even has sex with Don Ottavio and touches the front and the back of Leporello any time he has the opportunity. Especially lurid is the violence towards women.
This is all the more surprising because at the time of composing Don Giovanni, Mozart was a member of a rather strict Roman Catholic association. Thus he really meant to show how a dissolute life is damned. Even though the Prague version is chosen for the production (where the rake's indictment by the whole of society is more explicit), at the end, whilst the other singers undress themselves in front of the audience, Don Giovanni sits comfortably, and smiling, among the spectators.
I may not have understood the inner meaning of the staging, but I was not alone. I cannot accept Vick's often-repeated statement in interviews that his direction is addressed to the younger generations with a view to bringing them back to opera houses.
Fortunately, the music was quite good. The orchestra mirrored that of the first performance in Prague, and José Luis Gomez-Rios obtained excellent sonorities and a good balance between the pit and the confusing stage — and that's being polite. In the cast, the men — Gezim Myshketa as Don Giovanni, Giovanni Sebastiano Sala as Don Ottavio, Mariano Buccino as the Commendatore, Andrea Concetti as Leporello and Riccardo Fassi as Masetto — were a couple of notches better than the women — Federica Lombardi as Donna Elvira, Valentina Mastrangelo as Donna Anna and Alessia Nadin as Zerlina.
The tour is long, and a true commander will adjust his strategy if the first battles do not go as well as expected.