Monday, March 19, 2012

Don Giovanni in Paris: Peter Mattei, Bernard Richter, Philippe Jordan... and übertalented Michael Haneke

Don Giovanni, Opéra Bastille in Paris, March 15 2012

Bernard Richer, Véronique Gens, Peter Mattei, Philippe Jordan, Patricia Petibon, David Bizic

Michael Haneke ..... director
Philippe Jordan ..... conductor

Peter Mattei ..... Don Giovanni
Paata Burchuladze ..... Il Commendatore
Patricia Petibon ..... Donna Anna
Bernard Richter ..... Don Ottavio
Véronique Gens ..... Donna Elvira
David Bizic ..... Leporello
Nahuel Di Pierro ..... Masetto
Gaëlle Arquez ..... Zerlina

Orchestre et choeur de l'Opéra national de Paris

I loved the show. In fact, I love this opera and it always amazes me how it captures so many sides of human characters -- snapshots of what's rationally irrational with all of us. Michael Haneke is a theatrical genius who does not try to impress by spectacular imagery, but by the depth of the drama that is deeply human and highly delicate -- something that is still rare for the opera houses. Props and sets are there just to set the atmosphere for the theatrical magic that is about to dig in dark corners of human soul.

Another thing about this opera that always surprises me is the way the people I go to theater with receive it. It's almost like a litmus test to see if the people are judgmental by nature, intolerant, with preconceived idea about the relations among people, about opera...

I read a few reviews --not only from the French press but also from the international media-- written after this production has been premiered in 2006, and it is appalling, if not depressing, to see the level of incomprehension, shallowness and superficial reporting. It only further corroborates my claim that the official reviews are most often written by ultra-conservative jaded persons, and should never be  considered as a relevant gauge of quality of a given production.

This particular production shares many qualities with the phenomenal and groundbreaking Don Giovanni staged by Dimitri Tcherniakov in 2010 at Aix en Provence. A delicately crafted interaction among characters brings extra depth to the libretto and adds several ambiguities in relations among protagonists so that during the show you're never sure what you are going to get next. Even if you knew every line of this opera, the evening still feels surprising.

Of all ambiguities that Haneke introduced and that one could write a review about, the author of a review written in 2006 decided the most significant one was the bisexuality of Don Giovanni (sic!) That does not only reflects the level of the author's misunderstanding but also unveils his terrifying audacity to pick it up as a headline for his staggering review.

What happens in reality is that Leporello is fascinated by Don Giovanni and that fascination borders with sexual attraction. Don Giovanni felt that vibe and decided to explore that line. He first started by making pass at him, which surprised and confused Leporello who after a few seconds ran away from DonGio. That only confirmed Don Giovanni's suspicions, and next time he needed to manipulate Leporello he actually kissed him. That established the special relation between them and Leporello was easy to manipulate in any way Don Giovanni wanted.

In short the story is placed in a tall business building and occurs during the night. Don Giovanni is a highly ranked employee and Leporello is his assistant. As money brings power, and power is the best aphrodisiac, Don Giovanni --aware of his attractiveness-- feels he can manipulate everyone. The story starts with him staying at work after hours and in the opening scene he's making out with Donna Anna in front of an office from which her father [owner of the company?!] would storm out. After a short scuffle Don Giovanni accidentally kills the old man. Throughout the show Donna Anna will remain defined by that moment and tormented by her desire for Don Giovanni as mush as by guilt for the death of her father. For example, when she says to Don Ottavio that the man who "raped her" and killed her father was Don Giovanni it is ambiguous why she said it: is it her guilt talking from her, or she looks for vengeance because she realized she meant nothing more than a one-night stand to Don Giovanni?!

Masetto and Zerlina will come with a team of cleaning staff [who besides cleaning offices during the night also have fun as there are no bosses on the floor] and Don Giovanni will try and trick Masetto and his Zerlina (I believe Haneke like Masetto and Zerlina the most -- portrayed as simple even if not totally honest people). The only actual attempt of the rape in this show occurs during the episode in which Don Giovanni is alone with Zerlina. That too ambiguous as it is not easy to distinguish a part in which Zerlina truly wants to resist Don Giovanni, from the part in which she's just too shy to admit that she burns of desire to be with him...

Donna Elvira is Don Giovanni's neglected (my guess!) wife. She comes to look for her husband. She's frustrated that he spends nights at work instead of coming back home. Her frustration generates suspicion, and when she caught him in flagrante with Zerlina, her frustration transforms into the rage that hides her great despair. The episode in which she gets duped by Don Giovanni and Leporello only revealed that  she is a lonely woman who is ready to do anything and forgive everything, just to stay with her man (Do not tell me you don't know anyone around you who functions like that!)

The last episode is surprising but makes perfect sense. Leporello went to fetch some gourmet takeaway food (from Fauchon) to share with Don Giovanni [A cenar teco m'invitasti] before the voice of Il commendatore started to resonate from one of the offices. In the end, everyone will join in the mob (cleaning staff and the protagonists -- as a mob they are stronger), surrounded Don Giovanni, lifted him up in the air and threw out the window. As simple as that!

The dramatic action is constructed with great care, including many details that wonderfully fit the text and result in a rare uplifting theatrical moment at the Paris opera. I noticed Nicolas Joel attending the premiere. I hope he could realize the difference between this and the atrocious new productions he's been proposing to Parisians during the current operatic season (Faust, Manon, La forza del destino, La cerisaie).

To make the things better Philippe Jordan brings his best quality here. Don Giovanni in a huge auditorium is difficult, but he wonderfully tamed the orchestra when he needed to, kept the tempi relatively fast, keeping the orchestral texture as close to perfect as one possibly can. Bravo!

As for the cast, they were all excellent, vocally and scenically fully invested in the show. A couple of years ago in Munich in Carmélites, then in Atys last year, and as Don Ottavio now,  Bernard Richter repeatedly confirms that he is probably the most brilliant light tenor today. His voice is big, impressive, and particularly beautiful -- it resonates wonderfully at Opéra Bastille.
Peter Mattei is our fave baritone and his Don Giovanni is hard to beat. His musicality, the peculiarity of his timbre, and the voice that is spontaneously beautiful -- this is a privilege to listen to in a life performance. So, dear reader, if you get a chance to listen to Peter, go without thinking twice.
Experience and the vocal authority of Paata Burchuladze makes his Commendatore convincing and good. David Bizic started off on a lighter note but his Leporello soon raised and match the vocal power of Don Giovanni. In the second act he was absolutely brilliant too! Masetto is maybe the least significant role in this opera but Nahuel Di Pierro managed to display his undeniable talent. Here is a bass to watch in the future!

Patricia Petibon was probably pushing too much in the first act to project her voice properly and fill up the auditorium. In the second act she loosened up and her singing gained in beauty that she topped with a magnificent rendition of "Non mi dir".
This is probably the best role for Véronique Gens who brings the multiple sides of Donna Elvira not only through her convincing acting but also her singing. Great job!
My big surprise among female voices on the night of the premiere was actually Gaëlle Arquez. Her Zerlina was fantastic: her voice is round and beautiful and almost effortlessly fills up a big hall at Opéra Bastille. Brava!

In the end a great round of applauses and loud cheers for all the singers with a notch more for Mattei, Richter and Jordan.

A few production photos [©ONP]:

My pics:

Paata Surguladze, Bernard Richter, Véronique Gens

Patricia Petibon, David Bizic, Gaële Arquez, Nahuel Di Pierro

Peter Mattei

Philippe Jordan between Don Giovanni and Donna Anna

Trailer (from the previous run of the same production):


  1. Thanks so much for all the wonderful information about a production I've been dying to know more about. I tried to scrape together the money for a brief trip to Paris to see it, but it was not to be. When Mattei subbed for Kwiecien at the Met the press also focused on the homoerotic nature of the Don's relationship with Leporello. I always thought that it was obvious that the two love each other and ate bound by some sexual energy, but it's funny how upset the notion makes people.

  2. How different one's opinions can be. We recently saw this opera (Tuesday 3 April 2012). For the first act the setting works pretty well. Like the Met a tendency to incredibly dark sets with little light cast on the main performers. The singing was uniformly excellent and the acting (as far as one could determine in the gloom) was top notch. this DG is an absolute rogue without any endearing features and played brilliantly. Now the drop. The finale was close to atrocious. Having Il commendatore singing from the wings reduces the power of his presence massively to the point of absolute adequacy, and reduces the dramatic effect to a substantial degree. But then to bring the chorus on in their Minnie and Mickey Mouse masks (which worked well earlier in the opera) to condemn DG to hell reduced the drama to that of a dull grey day at sea with little to distinguish it. I understand that many people consider Disney characters to be a suitable rendition of hell but this was dramatically completely flat with nothing to commend it. Then to throw DG out the window which was unseen from the centre of the stalls - the crowd moved to the window - the window opened - a foot raised above the crowd and then DG was gone. A further point of low drama. What a waste of such stunning voices and acting. For me the second act was devoid of real invention and was of paramount laziness which did a major disservice to the music, the drama, the acting and the singing. What a shame. what a waste.

  3. I agree with poster above. This setting was awful and my first impression is that Haneke read a synopsis from wikipedia, didn't eally get it, but thought this would be so "revolutionary" , that he didn't care whether things make sense or not. The music and the performers were top notch, but I find that it was a waste of talent. Not even the first acat makes sense, and I am tired of the argument that only fossilised imbeciles cannot appreciate a new staging because they are little minded and hate innovation. I hated this because if you actually take some to get the story, Hanekes way doesnt work at all. Take the madamina, il catalogo e questo, the first finale, masseto and zerlina's story, the deh vieni alla finestra, the whole Don Giovanni-Leporello exchange, the oh statua gentilissima , donna Anna's story and the second finale, with a special mention to the statueless statue scene, and none of it makes sense. In other words, haneke f'ed up the whole thing. Dont ever go watch this. Also, don giovanni kissing leporello was modern maybe before freud existed, but now, if you think that's edgy, and liked this, maybe you're up for a figaro starring adam sandler's zohan (so modern and ivisionary!) or idomeneo in space.

  4. Look guys! Majority of the productions in Paris and London, and practically all in New York are made to entertain those who believe art is finished and it's now serving only to entertain those who prefer to go out instead of staying at home and watch TV/DVD; there is no place to reconsider anything, but just blindly reproduce what is written in librettos.

    That's one view and (unfortunately) most of the opera shows are like that and you can enjoy watching them ad abundantiam. This is Regie and it is not supposed to please everyone. I love it, and to me this production is a true masterpiece in opera producing.

    As for the second Anonymous, I believe a good part of that rage is misguided -- it cannot compensate the frustration of having understood next to nothing of the show. For the sake of free speech...

  5. Having caught this production during an earlier run in 2007, I have to say I would not have missed it for the world - even if Haneke's apparent insistence on stripping the story of its supernatural elements makes for some uncomfortable cognitive dissonance towards the end.

    I had gone in thinking I knew Don Giovanni, the range of contexts it would allow, what its words could mean in those contexts. Filtered through the bleakness of Haneke's take on human relationships, however, a line like Leporello's "Non credete/ Di sedurr'i miei pari/ Come le donne, a forza di danari" fans out into a good half-dozen layers of meaning, most of which would never have occurred to me. Even the somewhat traditional, offensive and frankly rather naff assumption that Donna Anna must have been asking for it becomes plausible, somehow.

    This is what Regietheater is for: to disabuse audiences of the notion that there is ever a point beyond which we'll have an opera all worked out. Such efforts need not be perfect to be worthwhile - Haneke's contribution is deeply flawed, but brilliant nonetheless. Thus far, I've only encountered a single nontraditional production of Don G. that I consider completely and utterly useless.