Wiener Staatsoper Review: Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni is, unequivocally, one of the most cherished canonical operas in existence. It is a drama in the Shakespearean style, a mixture between comedy and tragedy. These factors present two difficulties to any company mounting a production. The first, which has always been, is maintaing the balance between tragedy and comedy. The second, which becomes more true every year, is how to make the beloved opera feel fresh. This production, though not without its foibles, accomplished both.
General information & synopsis:
Cast information:


 |Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    Diese Produktion wurde ermöglicht mit Unterstützung von LEXUS

  • Patrick Lange | Dirigent
  • Jean-Louis Martinoty | Regie
  • Hans Schavernoch | Ausstattung
  • Yan Tax | Kostüme
  • Fabrice Kebour | Licht
  • Sandrina Schwarz | Bühnenbildassistentin
  • Adam Plachetka | Don Giovanni
  • Myrtò Papatanasiu | Donna Anna
  • Pavol Breslik | Don Ottavio
  • Dinara Alieva | Donna Elvira
  • Alex Esposito | Leporello
  • Albert Dohmen | Il Commendatore
  • Tae Joong Yang | Masetto
  • Anita Hartig | Zerlina

  • The set and costume design followed a similar style to the one that I had just seen from Falstaff, a mixture of some period with a lot of modern. In this case, however, modern was late 19th, early 20th century. The set was dark throughout. Though lacking gears or technical equipment, I would almost describe the set as having a Steampunk feel to it. Intriguingly, however, there were very few "hard" set pieces. The main axes of the set were the tilted square floor, like a giant, slightly off-kilter slab of stone, and a variety of backdrops that came in behind it. These backdrops also came in at odd angles, whether looking like a church, cellar, or other location. For the bar scenes there were additionally some counters and a back room, but primarily the floor, backdrops, and the three solid legs off to the side with doors in them. I would normally fear odd angles would be jarring, but in this case it worked well and added to the dark, moody atmosphere that suffused the production.
    The slatned platform with one of the odd-angled backgrounds
    The costuming was a mix of period and modern. Many characters pranced around in flashy suits with open-necked shirts (Masetto, for instance, with his white double-breasted suit for his wedding). Don Giovanni and Masetto frequently would be wearing dark clothes of a semi-modern feel (for instance their entrance was with ninja-like masks and dress shirts). Nonetheless, the women were wearing more traditional dresses, and for upscale occasions, the men would wear more robes and flashy outfits. All in all this added to the feel created by the set of a seemingly otherworldly, amorphous time period.
      The costuming mixture
Don Giovanni, powerfully front and center,
after escaping his fate in the first act
    The stage action was also modernized, insofar as stage acting can be said to be modernized. That said, this was one of the places where the production failed to live fully to its potential. Some of the stage direction was quite inventive. For instance, the use of multiple books for the catalogue aria (as well as the hip thrusts), the use of the table against the statue for the Commendatore's return at the end of the opera, or the interplay between the Don and Leporello being on or off the platform of the stage. Throughout however, and particularly in the beginning, the staging felt frenzied. This gave an atmosphere that perhaps it felt underrehearsed or that the singers rushed to get done the business prescribed to them. Nonetheless, the ideas were excellent, it was just a question of whether they all fit.
On the whole the singers involved in this production were excellent. For this however, a good deal of credit is due to the casting director and director who not only picked excellent singers, but also knew how to play with the image of Don Giovanni and the interplay between him and the variety of characters. Also, each of the three women with whom Don Giovanni consorts throughout the opera had voices and characterization that fit their individual characters aptly.

Fascinating staging, lackluster singing
Of this esteemed cast Albert Dohmen felt like the weakest member. His short time on stage at the beginning of the show left me with no complaints. He rushed headlong into the Don's trap, his pride leading to his demise. Still, this was one of the scenes that felt frenzied, and unmemorable singing brought this home. The Commendatore's more important role is, of course, at the end of the opera. Dohmen had a voice that carried over the orchestra (though I believe it was amplified, and in fact over-amplified, when he was leaving the stage). Despite this, it lacked sufficient menace and emotional content to bring home the horror of the moment. Here he felt more like a mere messenger to Don Giovanni, than an incarnation of hell itself in the Don's eyes.

Tae Joong Yang struck the perfect balance between lyricism and pointed, accusatory jealousy. It was this success and appropriateness of tone that made him believable both as a man passionately in love with Zerlina as well as a man driven almost mad with jealousy over her. His physical build, neither tall, short, nor fat, but solidly built, worked well in this context, as well. Props again go to the casting director and the director for selecting a voice that differed sufficiently from those of Adam Plachetka and Alex Esposito so as to make Masetto unique from Don Giovanni and Leporello.

Anita Hartig could not have been more appropriate for the role of Zerlina. She had a soft, light voice. This voice communicated timidity (though not timid singing), vulnerability, and naïveté. Happy as Masetto's bride, she was easily lured into the Don's traps unawares. The innocence in her tone throughout "La ci darem la mano" demonstrated this. Her "Vedrai carino," however, was staged in a very sexual fashion, with her straddling Masetto and pledging, essentially, to heal him with her body. This gave her vulnerability a new twist and completed her characterization. She's a young woman who is timid, but nonetheless likes to have fun. Ultimately, however, she's communicating that she wants to have that fun with Masetto, not with Don Giovanni, a fact apparent from her tender, heartfelt rendition of "Bati, bati."

Not an accurate photo,
but a close approximation of Donna Elvira's
 last attempts to save Don Giovanni

(same production, different year)
The great coup of Donna Elvira is her character development through the opera, from a mixture of outraged fidelity to pitying fidelity. Dinara Alieva brought this to the fore primarily by focusing on anger as her main emotion. Her tone was decidedly harsher and more pointed than those of Anita Hartig and Myrtò Papatanasiu. In another context this might have limited her, but it felt appropriate for Donna Elvira. Spurned as she is but remaining faithful, the harshness executed the potent emotion of righteous fury. "Ah, chi mi dice mai,""Ah, fuggi il traditor," and her part in the trio right before the Act I finale demonstrated how appropriately the piquant tone fit her character. In Act II, however, she did take on a sweeter tone. Some of the pointedness is inherent in the voice, but her Act II opening aria, "Ah taci, ingiusto core" demonstrated through softer yet emotional singing her undying affection for Don Giovanni in spite of his infidelity. This tone continues as she sheds pity on Don Giovanni in "Mi tradì quell'alma ingrata," and ultimately, in "L'ultima prova dell'amor mio," her final, sweeter expression of love and pity as she tries to convince Don Giovanni one last time to change his ways.

Myrtò Papatanasiu exhibited, by far, a voice with the most pathos filled, vibrant sound of the three sopranos in the production. Do not mistake, the other two sopranos, as mentioned, had excellent voices for their parts. Still, it was the quiet zeal of the first act blossoming into unrestrained passion in the second that brought home the sympathetic nature of Donna Anna. "Non sperar, se non m'uccidi," and "Ah, vendicar, se il puoi, giura quel sangue ognor!" perhaps in spite of their content, were relatively restrained. Though a banal, negative explanation might be that she was warming into the performance, interpretively this reflected the shock of her father's death. This continued even to through the aria, "Or sai chi l'onore" and through the end of the act. I was, however, a bit underwhelmed at that point. It was not until the second act that the voice blossomed and won me to sympathize for Donna Anna. Throughout the act the voice had a larger projection, a slightly wider (appropriately so) vibrato, and a warmer sound, radiating sadness, vengeance, and love. The pinnacle of this was probably Papatanasiu's rendition of "Non mi dir," greeted with ringing applause by the audience.

Pavol Breslik's Don Ottavio got the job done, but was a schizophrenic oscillation between Mozart-tenor and Romantic heroic tenor. Throughout the majority of the opera he remained in the stylistically appropriate, reinforced mixed register expected of a Mozart tenor. On his high notes however, into the passaggio, he would frequently pop into a lyrico-spinto mechanism, creating a sound more suited to Verdi than Mozart. I have heard Don Ottavio's arias sung entirely in a Romantic style by tenors such as Jussi Björling or Richard Tauber. While not stylistically appropriate, because the sound is uniform it works. Unfortunately, the hybrid sound felt odd both because switching between mechanisms degraded the quality and ease of the high notes (even if Breslik might be able to use the mechanism well in a heavier opera) and because the oscillation sounded out of place. I would love to hear him if he settled on a mechanism because both a heavier or lighter voiced Breslik would produce a pretty tone.

While Don Giovanni's relationships with the three women and his killing the Commendatore are what drive the plot of the opera, it is his relationship with Leporello that drives most of the comedy in the show and really moves it along. It was this dynamic that made this production so strong. Adam Plachetka possesses towering height and an excellent build, made reasonably tall Alex Esposito seem dwarfed. This worked well because when together, Esposito was able to play the plaintive, whipped servant, but when he was alone, he could play a little bit more with boldness, while remaining true to his timid character. Esposito's smooth, pure voice worked well throughout the show. He did an incredible job with the sexually charged staging of "Madamina, il catalogo è questo" involving briefcase and multiple volumes of conquest records. Later, his "Ah pietà signori miei" also rang with pathos and a smooth, sweet sound. Adam Plachetka possesses a larger, slightly rougher voice than Esposito. This wasn't quite as desirable for "La ci darem la mano" or "Deh vieni alla finestra" but for his other arias and throughout the show, it gave him a sort of reckless, careless bombast that was alluring and enthralling. It worked particularly well in an unusually fast  "Fin ch'han dal vino," "Metà di voi qua vadano," and during the finale. His use of his body and even his face to act also gave him this roguish impression. It is important for the character of the Don to be both likable and also dastardly. If he is not both, we do not feel some remorse and pity when he is dragged to hell at the end. He must be the man every woman secretly wants to seduce her and the man whose conquests and verve every man secretly wishes he could emulate. I walked out of the Wiener Staatsoper's Don Giovanni filling inexpressibly fulfilled. Adam Plachetka, with the help of his superb castmates, gave a performance leaving us questioning our own thoughts and feelings about the Don, even as we applaud for the justice of his damnation.


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