Mozart's Don Giovanni

Simon Keenlyside, Zurich Opera/Welser-Möst (EMI 500970 9)

Release Date: 12 November 2007 2 stars

Don Giovanni: DVD review

Amongst the dreariest, most nonsensical opera DVDs I've ever come across, this EMI recording of Zurich Opera's production of Mozart's Don Giovanni does no justice whatsoever to Simon Keenlyside's renowned portrayal of the title role.

It's a shame that no better vehicle could be found for him, nor a better supporting cast than the largely second-rate one which is represented here. The world's greatest interpreter of one of opera's most taxing and iconic roles deserves better treatment than this.

The main problem is Sven-Eric Bechtolf's production, which was well received in the theatre but perversely modifies so many details of the plot that the opera sometimes scarcely resembles its usual self. Rarely have I seen an opera production which coheres so little with the text. The bungling and misunderstanding of nearly every aspect of the plot beggars belief, and it goes from start to finish. The opera seems to be set vaguely in a hotel foyer which has the ambience of the 1920s in its gold patterned walls but seems deliberately to range through the decades in terms of costume and other symbols. In theory, this might serve to mirror the codifying of the characters as representing the old (Donna Anna, Don Ottavio), current (Donna Elvira) and future (Zerlina), but in practice it actually removes any trace of identity of place.

There are Mafioso overtones through many of the scenes with the male characters, some of whom carry revolvers. In the opening scene, Donna Anna goes up to Don Giovanni and starts making love to him, running completely against the text of her aria where she says he attempted to rape her. Ottavio is given a violence which does not make sense of his character at all - his name 'Ottavio' is meant to signify that he is of the old order and not a man of action at all. Through mirrors and projections, the action is distractingly reflected on the back wall. The Commendatore's statue is tiny and looks like something the Incas might have made; it's roughly half Simon Keenlyside's height, and it's not at all clear what Don Giovanni dies of (apart from an unscripted nose-bleed, perhaps?). Several of the singers take their clothes off and put them back on again without any obvious motivation, though Keenlyside's fans will presumably be happy about that. Stefano Giannetti provides choreography for many of the arias, so that the many intimate moments are witnessed by a multitude of people prancing about (and at one point, the dancers stab each other). Frankly, I don't see the point or attraction of any of these things.

Musically, it's pretty second-rate too. It looks to me as if Franz Welser-Möst had the orchestra pit raised and there are some signs of an attempt to play with an awareness of style, but many of the speeds are disastrously ill-judged. The most obvious is the Catalogue aria, which some of us think of as being in two contrasting movements (Allegro-Andante con moto) but is here played at the same sluggish speed in both sections. Similarly, a tempo change in the first-act finale is ignored, and in general I find many of the speeds extreme, most notably in the messy performance of the Champagne aria (Keenlyside struggling to maintain the tempo) and the beginning of the finale (which again finds a disparity between stage and pit at one point and Keenlyside has to compensate). It's sad when such a fine opera is mauled about to this extent.

Goodness knows what chance the singers had in such conditions to perform well, but although Eva Mei (Donna Anna) and Malin Hartelius (Donna Elvira) sing their arias with flair, the former sounds very shrill and the latter is underpowered. Piotr Beczala is lavish casting as Don Ottavio but looks uncomfortable with the production (understandably so), perhaps affecting his singing at times; Anton Scharinger is a witty Leporello, but his voice is hollow and lacks any distinction. Martina Janková (Zerlina) and Alfred Muff (Commendatore) sing far better than any of these, though Muff is denied much stage time due to the strange direction of his statue scenes.

So it's left to Keenlyside to carry the show. For me, the special quality he's brought to the role in other productions is an aristocratic edge which reminds us that although he's a scoundrel, the Don is also educated and even respectable in a sense. Because this Zurich production doesn't allow that to come through, I feel Keenlyside isn't quite at his best, though his singing is always beautiful and he is as charismatic as ever. (Incidentally, the accompanying booklet is cheap and useless: no track list, no synopsis, no information about the production.) Therefore, this DVD is for die-hard Keenlyside fans only - and they're welcome to it.

By Dominic McHugh