Royal Opera House Director of Opera Kasper Holten’s first dive into directing a production at Covent Garden was a belly-flop Eugene Onegin. He was been more successful with the current Don Giovanni, at least to the extent that seeing and hearing it is an enjoyable experience. If his staging contains no new insights into the piece or its title character, it is good to look at, and sung and played with gusto and charm.
Anja Vang Kragh’s costumes set the action in mid-19th century, with the don top-hatted and swathed in a covetable fur-lined frock coat. Es Devlin’s sets consist of a mostly wooden house on a revolve, which opens up revealing interiors of rooms and Escher-like staircases, but the real look of the production comes from Bruno Poet’s lighting and Luke Halls’s video designs projected onto the set. Some of these are terrifically effective – and entertaining.
As we hear conductor Nicola Luisotti’s orchestra play the first notes of the score, we see graffiti appear in white on the exterior of the house. It takes a few seconds to grasp that they are the names from Leporello’s list. The joke is a good one, though it wears thin with repetition. A better use of projections is when the plans of the garden appear around the house, and our eyes zoom into the ever-enlarging details, until the patterns are completely abstract. Between the lighting and the projections, the stage looks like a John Piper lithograph of exteriors crossed with a Cy Twombly painting.
Mr. Luisotti’s graceful reading of the score allowed us to hear some of Mozart’s exquisite detailing; but his own contribution of an occasionally dissonant pianoforte continuo for the don’s recitatives was clunky and uncharming. The singing, though, was uniformly fine (except for a wobbly Ottavio), with Mariusz Kwiecien sounding and looking like cock of the walk as Giovanni, and the women in excellent voice, all appearing to fall for him. One unusual feature of the production is that Donna Anna seems to have an understanding with him – they appear complicit throughout; and Elvira and Zerlina have the hots for him as well. The trouble is that this view of the women positively enjoying sex with Don Giovanni (and Mr. Kwiecien is sexy enough to make this credible) plays against Mozart’s music, which gives us no reason to doubt Donna Anna’s claim of attempted rape.
Another crux occurs in this staging after the stabbing of the Commendatore, when Donna Anna neither looks at nor touches the body of her father. Mr. Holten’s decision to make her lust for rather than repulse the Don means that she pays no attention at all to the meaning of the words she is singing, an alienation effect too far.
Mr. Holten’s Onegin was ill-served by him, in defiance of Occam’s Razor, doubling the principal singing roles, so that dancers portrayed their (other) halves. This was otiose and got in the way of the story and the staging. He’s done nothing so silly with Don Giovanni, but though this is the first new production of the piece at the ROH for a decade, and though the previous one by Francesca Zambello was no milestone in the history of opera productions, I also remember the one before that, in 1992 by Johannes Schaaf, as being in many ways superior. (Better still was Deborah Warner’s production at Glyndebourne.)
I suppose there’s an idea here and there in this new piece. At the end the Don doesn’t go to hell, but is alone by himself on the stage, isolated and having an existential crisis of some sort. To reinforce this, only a tiny bit of the final sextet is sung off-stage – most of it is – outrageously – cut. The notion that for the Don, hell is not other people à la Sartre, but himself alone, is not exactly novel.
So far Mr. Holten’s productions at the Royal Opera raise the question: why should the House go to the huge expense of making new stagings when there’s not a hell of a lot new to say? This poses a genuine cultural question. These are austere times, and while spending what is, in effect, public money producing, say, a new piece by Thomas Adès, is justifiable and commendable, is it really right to spend large sums to replace opera productions just because they’re a bit long in the tooth? And another question: why should we demand that Mr. Holten prove himself worthy of his new job by directing productions at the ROH anyway? If a new production of Don Giovanni is really needed, why not, for example, give the really great director Sir Jonathan Miller another crack at it, following his long-ago 1985 staging at the ENO? Just asking.