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.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Carmike (EP): La Scala. il dissoluto punito (?) Don Giovanni ossia the Temptation of Robert Carsen. La Scala, Milan. Daniel Barenboim. 07.12.11.

... reporting from Nacogdoches, TX.

Momentous current events over this past year concerning Italy, Europe seemed to provide Robert Carsen invitation both to go a little over the top, affect high seriousness doing so with indeed quite an important event – opening of new season at La Scala. There seemed much to offer with this new production of Don Giovanni, including a well diversified international cast and this Canadian producer – having rightly earned respect for good handful of operatic projects so far. Daniel Barenboim is an experienced Mozartean with strong reputation for choosing excellent modernist productions; traditional repertoire effectively emerges on the cutting edge this way. Scare up for instance his fine (and underrated) Nozze di Fgaro on dvd from Staatsoper Berlin. Needless to say, little went well here.

Barenboim disapproved of previous Don Giovanni that never had musically leading it anybody strong leading it toward filling out lopsided perspective it provided. In fact, several of Mussbach’s ideas got taken slightly further here with Carsen than Mozart’s music would ever invite them. Carsen thereby narrowed perspective in place of broadening it instead. Impetus behind how characters interact in Mussbach’s dark vision - with Don Juan wannabe of an Ottavio and as according to other writers, Leporello sole likable character (presented with much savvy by Ildebrando d’Arcangelo - in second cast this season as the Don) is sexual - neurotically so with the motor scooter riding Elvira. Mussbach had though, insightfully, with Da Ponte’s text, double meanings abound; he also trusted Mozart’s music, its suggestive power, to leave open room for mystery to fill in perspective, involving both Don and much else.

Judgment of situation into which to cast Mozart’s Don Giovanni never really factored in, for muddle before us here. Libertinism of the Don, or for that matter of anybody else really became open to question, with game of make-believe engaged in that any solution can be found to such, toward answering what abuses on different social levels occur. Situating Kwanchul Youn in Mario Monti’s box to answer the Don’s invitation to supper thus became insipid.

This new production of Don Giovanni billed itself as ‘a tribute to La Scala', with its traditional curtain, varied portions, assortments thereof omnipresent its major prop. The libertinism of the Don is entity to have engulfed society, sent its inhabitants down into its vortex – through ever apparent narrowing of perspective. How the other characters would engage with this world varied from Leporello’s ruffian, clumsy, vulgar emulation of being the Don himself, and being clearly attracted, like the women, to the Don as well - through Zerlina’s sadomasochistic games with Masetto – likely also inevitable between her and the Don.

World then before us is one self-perpetuating bunga-bunga party, quite misogynistic at that and almost looking like the action of this could have all taken place on a long frozen sheet of ice. All three female leads here are totally complicit with the Don in being reckless. Chambermaid the Don serenades, looking well underage, seated with him practically from prompter’s box perspective for action onstage with him through grand sextet, is found right afterwards stripped completely naked quickly making her exit. Classical Iconoclast (blog) mentions the situating of the three maskers during Act One finale for their sublime trio along center auditorium aisle as empathetically with us taking (unclear what Carsen might have dreamt up) some moral stance. After ‘Penn State’, what then is one underage prostitute?

The Commendatore has the ability ‘to live beyond the constraints of death’ - as both Classical Iconoclast and (implicitly) Carsen has explained - thus becomes sole challenge to the Don. Carsen, in pandering his new production of Don Giovanni as tribute to La Scala equivocates the Commendatore with what hopes might be for position new prime minister might take, regarding progress to eventually come. I am not particularly optimistic. The fear of death, thus of judgment is something Carsen explains interviewed better to live without, lest it paralyze any of us. Humanly then it is possible to live with total sexual freedom, just as long as each one among us takes responsibility – without necessity to fear there being consequences.

Obstructing the way however is Mozart’s music, regarding such a thoroughly unfunny, unsexy, dramatically flat-line production of Don Giovanni. Musical tension building up through assault on Zerlina toward end of Act One is negated by there being inserted in effect a giant ‘so what.’ The Act Two sextet becomes a great concert-in-costume for the Don and his gratifying child service to applaud right afterwards. Charred image of La Scala’s auditorium arises at end of scene in which the Don is stabbed – to only as learned from the Commendatore live beyond suffering same mortal wound as the Commendatore himself. Society that has made La Scala possible is also expendable, perhaps La Scala itself as well. The other six characters descend below, in Don Giovanni’s place. After much equivocation, our condemnation – in world of constantly ratcheted up sexual tension – is to remain here the living dead.

One ‘out’ is for there to be more irony with what Carsen presents - some frisson to develop then not only with Da Ponte’s libretto (partly accomplished) but with Mozart’s music. In the music, as much tension develops, most of all in interaction between the characters, there is always a sense of eventual resolution to provide it meaning. Note the chromatic lines that undergird a giocoso passage, such as trio between Elvira, Don, and Leporello early in Act Two, for how Mozart interweaves dramma and giocoso. Carsen’s world of ongoing games played between well dehumanized individuals might better be served by a Philip Glass soundtrack.

Peter Mattei was the elegant playboy for the title role, no less a monster for being so sleek, suave. He sang much of his part close to his usual high standard, barring scooped opening to several lines of ‘Deh, vieni.’ Sotto voce taking on serenade’s second verse this time unfortunately thus emerged affected. What nobility, emulation of restraint thereof, poise all came across as pointless. Any sense of menace mostly waited until opening of the final supper scene with Leporello to emerge. Mattei’s acting here, for so little expected overall, was competent, including light pointing of irony, i.e. during Act One banter with Elvira. One among numerous varied screwing machines on stage for this, Mattei at least seemed to have more fun at it than Donald Sutherland as Casanova in late period Fellini.

Suppurating frequently open injury was the Leporello of Bryn Terfel, who almost emulated being as stiff as the above. Other than softly singing several lines during the Catalogue aria that Donna Elvira silently played as nymphomaniac touchy-feely psychodrama duet with him, Terfel sang the part dry, choppy non legato, with little charm. Hard to tell what might have been worse – his unmusical, dramatically unresponsive portrayal of the Don (now on dvd) from the Met, or this vulgar Leporello. Terfel has before been one of the best Leporello’s around - likely occasionally too an effective Don Giovanni. New lows were reached here with Leporello salaciously in duet with the Don for Champagne aria tacitly practically drooling over the Don singing it, or the two 'getting it on’ during recitative opening the ‘graveyard’ scene.’ At least, other recitative banter between the Don and Leporello came off quite effectively.

Anna Netrebko, beginning Donna Anna as urging ahead the Don’s opening assault, started the part by singing it quite evenly, but acting same passage conscious of how the camera must be picking up how both outrageous and enjoyable Netrebko wants to make it look. She conscientiously held voice back to blend well with her colleagues mostly through Act One, but the greater hurdles of ‘Or sai’, then moreover of a loudly sung ‘Non mi dir’ completely out of tune, with bench pressed two note figures fully detaching the line toward its conclusion, increasingly grated upon the ear. Her assignation to top line through epilogue practically made it a howling fest of sorts. What loggionisti of yore might have made their voices heard to answer all this seemed absent without leave. This Donna Anna, as an aside, made it evident how well she suspected from start of quartet during Act One that it might be her father’s assailant greeting her and Ottavio – concept as derived from recent Cosi Fan Tutte productions, nothing original here.

Barbara Frittoli vocally provided qualified success at singing Donna Elvira and excess of ridiculously acting the part, called for here. Nuerotic tendency to strip down to dark colored negligee became prevalent; red velvet garb she often wore enhanced her posterior a little much as well. Idea of ‘divertirci’ in confronting the Don in front of Zerlina had to do with how Zerlina might compete with her for the Don’s sexual favors. All of such a moment could have been halfway clever, had Carsen’s hand been lighter. Some of the middle register of Frittoli’s voice has hollowed out by now, compromising intonation wise several lines during ‘Mi tradi.’ Still, she provided some of the more supple agile singing and acting one encountered here.

Anna Prohaska almost made it a complete lie how sluttish, kinky a Zerlina she presented acting wise by how very well she sang the entire part. She never disallowed Mozart’s music from working its own charm even while being disallowed acting it with any. Power of suggestion in place of making too blatant the S&M between her and Masetto for the always musically consoling ‘Vedrai carino’ thoroughly escaped Robert Carsen; given how well Prohaska sang everything, this number only halfway succumbed to such degradation.

Giuseppe Filianoti as Ottavio offered a more conservative countenance than other members of this cast. He sang most of this with good lightness, shape phrasing it, other than perhaps partly to emulate Netrebko’s heavy vocal production, a heavily underlined ‘Dalla sua pace.’ Among all the men here, Filianoti emerged with fine musicality and very supple acting, even well emulated noble profile. ‘Il mio tesoro’ emerged with mostly fine shape, halfway decent agility for its lengthy runs, and well inserted dramatic accents.

Stefan Kocan was the animated, dark-toned Masetto, acting the part well. He fortunately got his only aria ‘Ho capito’ taken up a whole step to its original key (of G Major), just as Michele Pertusi did twenty years ago on Erato (see below). Kwanchul Youn (Commendatore), the very fine Bartolo on Barenboim’s underrated Berlin dvd of Nozze, emerged with fine nobility, sense of choked outrage at the outset, yet waiting several lines into appointment with the Don to achieve sufficient fortitude, firmness to make it what confrontation it should be.

Facing much interference - frequent reconfiguring the set (only effective with major prop relegated to outer left and right edge of the stage, emphasizing dark deep void far back, mirrored that way too), changes of garb, supernumeraries given increasingly cliched tasks - the then equivocated musical leadership remained up to Daniel Barenboim.

Erato release of Barenboim Don Giovanni I purchased two decades ago revealed best his eclectic mix of the Romanticism of Wilhelm Furtwangler and heavy, more stoical approach of Otto Klemperer, letting in where readily obvious the sunlight of what appreciation especially Furtwangler had for the Italianate lyricism therein and for deep psychological probing of the human psyche available as well. Several friends of mine would remind me I was buying Mozart not quite ‘period’ up-to-date; not to be intimidated, I shrugged them off – and am still glad I did.

Tempos at La Scala still tended to be slow, but with Barenboim less decisive, perhaps more deferential than ever before. Luster, especially from La Scala woodwinds, emanated very well, sweetly from the pit, abetted by lush strings, their nuance. Half the time however, things tended to course along flat-line, disengaged, likely distracted by much traffic moving back and forth onstage – and occasionally threatening how well in sync orchestra pit and stage remained. Important transitions, contrasts within the great Act Two sextet glibly got somewhat smoothed out. Both Terfel and Barenboim lacked firm grip through its vigorous coda, recapitulation. Though La Scala’s orchestral forces seldom embarrassed themselves, their playing to (help) define all at stake here came up short, at least until closing scenes of Act Two. One by pure happenstance got reminded here of (not always) sluggish late-career Bohm with Mozart. Barenboim’s sudden affectation of grandeur with Elvira’s In quail eccessi' came across very stodgy.

Egregious here though was woodwind band playing from the orchestra pit instead of onstage to accompany supper just past full orchestra vigorously opening the final scene. Barenboim, very qualified to put together a well performed Don Giovanni, should withhold rights toward publishing this one. For what maybe got billed as ‘tribute to La Scala’, we received La Scala tribute to Robert Carsen instead.

The evening in a very weakly attended cinema finals week in charming college town of Nacogdoches, started off with watching Santa Claus imbibe a Coke Zero to Italian national anthem being played to help ease us into what would follow. Two things to believe in, according to Woody Allen, are sex and death, " ... but at least after death, you’re not nauseous." Better yet perhaps this Woody Allen quote: “Hey, don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.”

This all resembled quite an undertaking.

Special thanks to both Emerging Pictures and Carmike Cinema for making this presentation, others from La Scala possible.

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