The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Monday, January 10, 2011

BBC: New Staatsoper Wien Don Giovanni (Martinoty) falters to indecisive leadership, second-tier casting. Franz Welser-Most. December, 2010.

This is part of in effect inaugural staging of the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas, regarding start of Franz-Welser-Most’s tenure at the Vienna State Opera. Jean Louis Martinoty’s staging of Nozze di Figaro had, as played by ‘period’ Concerto Koln, under Rene Jacobs has already been seen at the Champs-Elysees in Paris and preserved forthright this way on dvd. What one may have thought of this would of course color what one makes of elaboration cited below on both new Don Giovanni and revival of Nozze in Vienna.

Nevertheless, Likely Impossibilties (blog) hardly makes either production seem compelling. “There are few operas that offer a more comprehensive overview of the intersection of love, sex, and class than [Nozze], but Martinoty’s new Wiener Staatsoper production irons out this complex into a rush of pure teenage hormones. Everyone gets some, but what it means, I don’t know” This blogger felt equal befuddlement coming across the new production of Don Giovanni last December, not complaining much about its modernism per se, but with most of all instead there being no focus to so much clutter on the raked stage Hans Schavernoch’s sets provide.

We’ve all seen some production by now of these comedies that makes low, broad comedy of them - with much hyperactive jumping, mugging and blithering about. In favor of the new production, it can be said that it probably looked, sounded less distracted than last time Houston Grand Opera put on Don Giovanni – originally intelligently produced by the late Goeran Jarvefelt, but mauled by Harry Silverstein to extent of being no longer recognizable as Jarvefelt’s work.

Given however that this Don Giovanni sounded most of all musically confused, plus theatrically eager to distract from what the music tries to say, I find myself ready to take above blogger’s word for it. The action is moved to post-war Spain, 1950’s or perhaps aocording to costuming, slightly later, according to what I read. For finale to probably Act One, things switch over to ‘period costuming’ – some of the cast that remains this way into Act Two. One apparently did have “a milquetoast evening’ with reminder that there is indeed “no worse Don than a boring Don.” Martiooty, he says, has failed to tell anybody who Don Giovanni is – or who any of the other characters are.

“And Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s Don seems like a good guy. He’s friendly, maybe a little aggressive on the romantic side of things, but basically decent.” Even including some “consensual S&M thing going on between Donna Anna and the Don, - one’s typical Perrier water drinking occasional yuppie diversion ‘when the feeling is right.’ such is there to hardly detract from basically not such an aggressively modern production of Don Giovanni as one, (co-opting) along yuppie lines, faceless and glib. At the end of the day, who must be able to care about any of the above? I make all such evaluation of what has been written already to say that with what complex social distinctions get spelled out so thoroughly by both words and music in the Mozart, it then becomes very difficult for music and text to exist alone in a vacuum from each other here.

Ildebrando d’Arcangelo made saturnine presence again felt as the Don, but with less specificity of character plus hint of casualness beyond norm for his type of interpretation than at the Staatsoper last year (reviewed also in this blog). The Don’s brief anger, stern warnings to Leporello, became less credible -as almost telling him that all will blow over in seconds anyway, which it always does; the Leporello however should not become so cynical. For one, one did not have anyone close to formidable as Rene Pape - for previous match-up at Staatsoper - and then there was the character of this new production – or lack thereof. Even in the di Simone having cross-period stylized costuming, it presented scenario sticking closer to traditional roots, moreover more unified idea as to what Mozart’s drama giocoso is about than does this. Figuring how to help maintain order, working with Franz Welser-Most also intermittently proved a challenge. Welser-Most yielded well to d’ Arcangelo wanting to nobly sculpt his seduction of Zerlina before, during ‘La ci darem’, and then yielded to d’Arcangelo intervening to command pacing through the Champagne Aria - to it ending convincingly.

D’Arcangelo added extra nuance to second verse of the Serenade to help achieve a firmer grip on things - with Welser-Most and increasingly the Leporello (Alex Esposito) it temptation to sideline matters during finales to both acts and graveyard scene as well. All the compromise obviated on occasion several low notes for d’Arcangelo emerging slightly weak. Rushing d’Arcangelo through several passages became almost more compromise than d’Arcangelo could overcome. Still, as evident under better conditions, we still have an interpretation of the Don with which to be reckoned. Albert Dohmen, though uncivilly placed back for ‘dinner scene, conveyed Il Commendatore with suitable dark toe, gravitas, firm resolve and simply expressed outrage.

Same can hardly be said about Alex Esposito. In early scenes, including during deftly accompanied Catalogue Aria, even though dry, baritonal – practically a Masetto cast as Leporello - one could not help but notice a certain stage savvy, making much, if broadly, of some good lines. Increasingly frequent willful engagement of (quasi-) parlato during Act Two, along with obvious pouting for mercy during the Sextet was self-defeating. Esposito’s very broad antics during the graveyard scene and while placed on stage too prominent during especially the Statue’s stopover for dinner were more ruinous. We had a Leporello– no help unstable pacing from Welser-Most especially during final portion of the Sextet – for entirety of Act Two in free-fall to between second and third tier in quality.

Making the overall dramatic and musical situation seem still more weightless was light casting of all three female leads – Constantinescu (Elvira) partial exception – and as Ottavio. Sally Matthews, albeit with warm, even mezzo-ish low notes, sounded like good type-casting for Elvira as Donna Anna. Especially while not challenged by notes above the staff, Matthews conveyed much tragic feeling convincingly, her impassioned racconta leading into “Or sai’ (Vengeance Aria) no less – darkening of her timbre therein affected, remindful perhaps of Martina Arroyo (also cast as Donna Elvira) in this years ago. Her sustained high A’s during ‘Or sai’ sounded attempted being reached as though at interval slightly higher, more free of the break than they are, thus their going sharp. Squally A’s while entering soon before the Masks Trio led Matthews to place back during the trio. With no support from Welser-Most for hearing color for expressive modulations during noble entrance for the Sextet, she still affected well making something expressive of her lines therein, if at some strain. She attempted noble profile of ‘Non mi dir’, but negotiation between a light top and extra weighing down of warm middle register, especially while near the break, became ungainly, putting control of intonation at risk.

Partnering Matthews was Saimir Pirgu as Don Ottavio, indeed with good attempt to make fully likable character of Ottavio – Pirgu an artist of naturally musical expressivity. One wanted to like Pirgu better than one could entirely. Attempt at compensating with nuance what the voice lacks in weight – with it evident during ‘Dalla sua pace’ some tightness around the break – tended to falter. Pirgu managed to trumpet out something affecting heroic of a high A during ‘Il mio tesoro’, if somewhat deteached placement wise from runs to follow – Welser-Most detached as well. Even so, apart from a little fiddling with placement, agility for runs was good as was the noble grace with which he infused the aria’s opening phrases. It was only during epilogue sextet that Pirgu fully relaxed vocally and therein most assuredly made fluidly pliant his lines. Ear for harmonic change, coloring such with good nuance was frequently evident evening long – even while at some strain to make all properly connect.

Mezzo-ish Elvira Roxana Constantinescu, hardly at all distinct from Matthews in timbre at times, distinguished herself more from Matthews in terms of characterization, making somewhat the ingénue out of Elvira – similar as to how slightly lighter, but more secure Soile Isokoski did as Elvira year previous. What good acting ability, insinuation emerged thereof got compromised by support issues, including for bland, coy ‘Ah, fuggi, il traditor.’ Shaky negotiation of register shifts afflicted her for quartet and masks trio to follow Tremulous sound and scooped reach above the break during trio to open Act Two accompanied acting that her for whatever convenience turned too glibly ingénue ‘In quail eccessi’, though expressive, lacked weight. Runs during ‘Mi tradi’ flowed well – compromised by shaky, unpleasant top notes. Even slightly more so than with Isokoski, Elvira came across practically so deferential to all about as to be anonymous.

Sylvie Schwartz, thin as Zerlina, showed suitable restraint in first interaction with the Don, but thereafter quickly became too arched, too coy, all nuance that way worked in with voice of unattractively thin quality. She and the dry voiced, conventionally hectoring Masetto of Asam Plachetka both very nearly go drowned out by the Vienna Philharmonic during the Sextet. Attempt at getting warmth, including with breathless pauses made recitative and especially Vedrai carino’ unusually distancing – similar to what one might expect of one’s school nurse. ‘Batti, batti’ came across mildly more genuine, but including with support helter-skelter from Welser-Most - cello obbligato glibly blended in with all else - weak low notes and tendency to sharpen above the staff.

With Welser-Most mentioned so much already, there is little left to say. The Vienna Philharmonic, while playing together, sounded good, but conception here overall was indeed more orchestral than operatic, including from ironic streamlining of moderately running scales during introductory part of the Overture off bombast made of its framing opening chords. With mention made of occasions Welser-Most was deferential to his singers on stage, there were just as frequently numerous instances during which it seemed like task for the singe to follow him. I did not find too much in way of odd tempos, but simultaneously not consistently a solid grasp of what it might mean to set them. Streamlining of both extended finales turned ungainly, uncomfortably so.

Lack of support for his cast of singers also showed up remarkably during both the Act One quartet and Act Two sextet. Rushing of re-transition Ottavio starts during ‘Non ti fidar’ (quartet) was merely one example. Sense of shape for the Sextet remained loose, flaccid all to vanish – following discovery that it is Leporello before all the rest – for what should be the reinvigorating recapitulation therein. Menace with the Commendatore scene waited all the way until chorus from beneath manifested itself. Capacity to let all loose rhythmically, formally, expressively for the Sextet showed lack of sensitivity altogether for both what an orchestral conception of conducting Mozart might logically mean and for providing by same token his singers good support. Half-committed affectation of ‘period’ accenting, including during rushed start to Elvira’s recitativo accompagnato in Act Two, did not help.

Why Welser-Most conducts this opera, other than to show how the Vienna Philharmonic can play Mozart - that is, not always assured, while able to play together – is as unclear as it was to blogger mentioned above whether or not new production in question could be expected to have anything to say.

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