Mozart: Don Giovanni | Così fan tutte

Salzburg Festival, dir. Claus Guth; VPO/De Billy; Fischer (Euroarts Blu-ray 2072544; 2072534)

16 November 2010 4stars3 stars

Don GiovanniThese two new blu-ray discs give us the second and third parts of Claus Guth's Mozart/Da Ponte cycle from the Salzburg Festival, due to be revived in its entirety at the 2011 festival. While the 2006 Figaro was released on Deutsche Grammophon DVD, this Don Giovanni and Così (filmed in 2008 and 2009 respectively) are released on Euroarts. Importantly, too, they appear on Blu-ray – a medium still overlooked by Decca and DG.

Of the two later productions, it is Don Giovanni that presents the most radical rethink and the most compelling viewing. Guth's vision is unremittingly bleak but incredibly powerful in its terse realisation. It's not new to portray the Don's seductions in a modern, emotionless light, or to show drugs as playing an important role in dictating his distorted view of the world; but I've not seen such elements incorporated into so fiercely single-minded a view of the work before.

The action is set is a desolate forest, with a grim bus stop on one side. The whole revolves, helping to provide smooth cinematic transitions between scenes while referencing so many films where shallow graves in the glow of headlights—it's a reference that ultimately informs Guth's staging of the Commendatore scene.

Guth's staging is most powerful in the way it not only reflects the most de-humanized aspects modern life so chillingly, but also allies it to the grand, tragedic readings of Mozart's Dramma giocoso prevalent in the nineteenth century. There's no place here for the final ensemble, then, which is cut, as Guth shirks the challenge of staging it effectively within his vision of the work. We end with the Don's damnation, except in this case it is no such thing: this is a godless world, the demons he hears are deep within his own psyche. Rather than the dissolute punished, we simply have the dissolute destroyed. Guth's achievement, however, is that he manages to jetison the metaphysical without undermining the tragedy. A great deal of the production's success must also be put down to Christopher Maltman's central performance, which mixes dangerous physical allure with an almost Wozzeck-like psychological intensity. His final scene is a powerful study in mental collapse, while 'Deh vieni' is performed as a pathetic, moving plea for meaningful love.

As Leporello, Erwin Schrott, is an edgy, unhinged presence. He is in a state of drug-induced twitchiness throughout and dependent,more psychologically than financially on his master, whose superiority is marked as much by an ability to maintain an air of sobriety than anything else. Neither Schrott nor Maltman turns in the most glamorous performance vocally, but it hardly seems to matter. There's plenty of glamour in any case from Annette Dasch's Donna Anna and Dorothea Röschmann's Donna Elvira. Both provide compelling studies of emotional neediness, while we can quite understand Donna Anna's dissatisfaction with Don Ottavio, portrayed here by Matthew Polenzani as a bland embodiment of modern professional success—the American tenor sings stylishly, although denied 'Il mio tesoro'. Ekatarina Siurina is an unusually seductive Zerlina (who here gets her bondage duet with Leporello, composed for Vienna), while Alex Esposito is a suitably indignant Musetto. Anatoli Kotscherga is darkly implacable as the Commendatore. Bertrand de Billy conducts the score swiftly, on the whole, but with a fine sense of drama, while the Vienna Philharmonic play magnificently.

The updated staging inevitably brings a couple of jarring anachronisms, but in Guth's Don Giovanni, the power of the conception renders these relatively inconsequential. There are probably just as many anachronisms in his Così, yet there they seem a great deal more worrying. And Guth's approach in the final Da Ponte opera is less convincing, reflecting Così's greater elusiveness. The production is smartly modern, and the cast, particularly the ladies, achingly glamorous. The direction is a great deal more stylized, however, with a fair amount of bizarre dancing, as well as ensembles delivered in a self-consciously stand-and-deliver manner.

On the whole Guth seems deeply uneasy with the work's famously difficult mixture of comedy and pathos, warm emotion and calculated manipulation. In terms of the last of these, Don Alfonso is cast more clearly than usual as the ultra-cynical puppeteer, steering the course not just of the young lovers but also magically effecting scene changes. Unfortunately, however, there's little comedy going on. If in studiously leaving out the dressing-up Guth deems it an unnecessary element of the plot, he fails to find anything to substitute it, which leaves something of a gap, both in terms of theatrical realism, which is emphasised elsewhere, and basic entertainment. While stripping the comedy from Don Giovanni can work, it's a far riskier strategy in Così. Here the comedic burden is placed rather too heavily on Patricia Petibon, whose performance as Despina tries too hard—including some dubious vocal clowning. Things improve, however, as the emotional consequences of Don Alfonso's game make themselves clear.

Guth references his own Don Giovanni by having the same forest impinge on the Così set in Act Two, but in doing so only underlines how it manages none of that production's clear-sighted intensity. Without such a comparison, this Così would probably seem more successful, especially given the fine cast and playing—the Vienna Philharmonic this time conducted by Adam Fischer. Miah Persson is a feisty, well-sung Fiodiligi, while Isabel Leonard, combines catwalk looks with her rich, well-controlled mezzo to seductive effect. Topi Lehtipuu is an elegant Ferrando and Florian Boesch an intense Gugliemo, but neither man's voice is well captured in the recorded sound. Bo Skovhus plays Don Alfonso with convincing cynicism, but his voice comes across rather fuzzily.

By Hugo Shirley