On Saturday night with D to Opera Australia’s new production of Don Giovanni, directed by (and we weren’t allowed to forget it) Elke Neidhardt.

Don Giovanni has always been the Mozart opera which has most excited the commentariat, starting with (to take celebrated examples) E.T.A.Hoffmann, and Kierkegaard in Either/Or (see also here). Of all the Mozart operas, this is one which unavoidably must have a Konzept. You can play other operas basically straight with perhaps emphasis on one aspect or another (though that really means you conform to the concept inherent in the tradition subject to these emphases), but with Don Giovanni it has beome obligatory to take an overt position.

Enter Elke Neidhardt, director of this production, and resident Australian champion of Regieoper.

The production has been the subject of extensive pre-emptive publicity, as well as detailed commentary by Sarah Noble and others (this link obviously not exhaustive).

The headline of the production, then, is that it is contemporary. There is no statue coming to life and dragging the Don down to hell: all this is a drug-fuelled vision which we in the audience only get to share to the extent that Don G and Leporello relate it to each other. Leporello is apparently in on this because he, too, has partaken (in improbably large quantities).

It’s easy to take issue with such temporal re-placement of a classic. We all know times when texts have referred to swords but guns are wielded. I never worry when this is a mere matter of detail, but it can become problematic when it impinges on more fundamental issues. In this case, it is the Don’s status as a toff which translates with difficulty into the modern era – that’s not just a question of having Leporello as a servant, but being able to intimidate Masetto and to act with general impunity. He does have a big house and he does throw money around, but he doesn’t really look rich or powerful or glamorous.

I very much doubt if many in Mozart’s era took seriously as a literally possible truth the arrival of the stone guest, and for that matter I don’t think anything much hangs on its supernatural possibility. So saying there is no statue come to life is not as novel a step as might be thought. The problem with having no Commendatore’s statue coming to life is that watching somebody have a very bad drug trip is not terribly interesting.

Here, and for quite a lot of second half of act I and the middle part of Act II, the singers were left with not very much to do on stage . Even though the music moved along at quite a brisk pace (to the point where I thought the first half of Batti, batti too fast), the dramatic action and tension sag. Sure, there is a (much-vaunted in advance) shower scene, but this is just a giggle which is over in a jiffy, and more of a gimmick than anything else – especially as it offers no meaningful nudity at all whatsoever! (Elke was right to say that “Anyone who comes for great glimpses of nudity will be disappointed.” We did and we were.)

There was a cheaply topical reference to the Don Giovanni as possibly a child-abuser (though in fact the text at this point almost certainly refers to little women meaning petite rather than large or statuesque” ones).

The set was good. The costumes fine, save for (1) Don G’s generally unprepossessing get-up; and (2) an unduly ridiculous outfit for Donna Elvira.

The chorus was about as small as possible. Joshua Bloom was excellent as Leporello and Gabor Bretz was a strong Don (if he was a bit short on the seductive, this was clearly EN’s decision). I have been a fan of Rachel Durkin in the past, but I found her a bit too shrill and cold as Donna Anna; we had a hitherto unknown-to-me Alexandra Wilson (described as a member of the second cast though not yet disclosed as this on the internet) stepping in for an indisposed Catherine Carby as Donna Elvira; Henry Choo was a relatively strong Don Ottavio. Two Vienna arias were instated and the Prague ending (plus a bit more) deleted. Elke N would have been kinder to Donna E if she did not require her to sing two of her big numbers from the very back of the stage. Perhaps Donna Elvira’s maid was another of Don G’s druggy delusions, as she never appeared.

There were some signs of World Youth Day pilgrims about the place: one almost knocked my coffee from my hands with his little red backpack (a group had wandered into the foyer at interval wanting to look around – where’s security when you need it?). The forecourt was full of catering and other furniture being readied for the pope’s arrival, and we were for no very good reason rather officiously and without any apology or or explanation prevented from leaving by the exits on the level of the front foyer (I say for no good reason because the exit opposite the box office remained open).

But back to Elke N the conceptualist. At one point where Don G’s true dastardry was exposed, the chorus came forward bearing placards referring to most of the well-known treatments of the Don Juan myth – first the author, and then the title. Personally, I don’t think too much of this sort of jape, though EN has shown herself enamoured of it before (“Wunderbar” in Die Walkyrie and “Tannhäuser raus!” in the opera of that name, not to mention “I ‘heart’ Roma” on the shopping bags of the returning pilgrims, though all of these have some representational role.) To me it was a bit like those terrible moments where ballet dancers are sometimes required to speak, or, likewise, when visual artists decide start incorporating writing in their pictures – generally (though not universally) gauche.

Included in these placards was one proudly headed as this post is, together with the title “Don Juan in Hell.” Presumably a reference to “Baudelaire” was intended.

4 Responses to “Beaudelaire”

  1. Sarah Says:

    I was sort of hoping “Beaudelaire” might be fixed by now… surely you and I can’t be the only ones who’ve noticed?
    I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said here, especially the loss of dramatic tension etc. in much of the middle. (But the cold stridency of Rachelle’s singing is part of why I enjoy it so much. Not sure she’s an ideal Anna but I’d listen to her sing anything. Of course those same qualities guarantee she’ll never be beloved of OA audiences a la Emma Matthews, despite a lot of shared repertoire.)

  2. marcellous Says:

    Because I was close, I probably undervalued the strength of RD’s singing. I am wondering whether Peter McC hasn’t put his finger on it with his comment that “there was room for variety of tone in Act I.” I would have appreciated the “stridency” at the right moments if it were variegated with a little more light and shade at other points.

  3. Marcel and the pilgrims, and other reflections… « Floating Life Says:

    […] and the pilgrims, and other reflections… In Beaudelaire « Stumbling on melons Marcel reports from the Opera House: There were some signs of World Youth Day pilgrims about the […]

  4. My blog archives 3 — Floating Life | Neil's Commonplace Book Says:

    […] Beaudelaire « Stumbling on melons Marcel reports from the Opera […]

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