Stage Door Review 2024

Don Giovanni

Monday, February 12, 2024


by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, directed by Kasper Holten

Canadian Opera Company, Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

February 2-24, 2024

Leporello: “in questo mondo,

conciossia cosa quando fosse che il quadro non è tondo...”

This is the Canadian Opera Company’s first presentation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni since 2015. Some will remember that production as one of the most appalling examples of Regietheater that the Four Seasons Centre has ever seen. Director Dmitri Tcherniakov did not merely direct the opera but devised an entirely new scenario for the action in which all the principals were related and lived together in the same house. Fortunately, this time round the COC has brought us a much more palatable production. It is still flawed but, at least, it tells the story that Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte intended, that is until the ending where it completely lets us down. The singing, acting and orchestral playing are of a superlative level but they constantly have to compete with the peculiarities of Kasper Holten’s direction.

Holten’s production, which premiered at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 2014, is a triumph of technology over narrative clarity. The two main features of the production are its set by Es Devlin and its projections by Luke Halls, recreated by Gareth Shelton for this revival. Devlin’s set-qua-set is a marvel. It is a two-storey cube with only one wall. The wall is decorated in neoclassical style to match the two side wings that slide to meet it and a create an 18th-century streetscape. When the wings slide back a bit, the cube can revolve and inside we see two staircases on the first floor and one on the second amid doors and partial walls looking rather like a design by M.C. Escher. The delight of the set as an object is that the doors are on hinges in frames also on hinges and the walls interior and exterior are also on hinges. Plus the entire set rotates. This means that both the inside and the one exterior wall can constantly be altered.

Devlin designed a smaller, more detailed set like this for the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production directed by Lindsey Turner of Sophie Treadwell’s drama Machinal in 2014. There the set became a metaphor the life of the main character, Young Woman, who is trapped in the mechanized life of the city. Once she stepped onto the set she remained there until the end.

It seems that Kasper Holten wants use the set to symbolize something similar in Don Giovanni. He states of the title character in his Director’s Note that “his world in our production is a maze, going in circles, ever more isolated”. If, however, Holten really wanted the set to represent a maze, he would not have Don Giovanni and the other characters set onto and off of it with such ease. No one, unlike Treadwell’s Young Woman, is actually trapped inside the cube of the set.

Since Devlin’s set is no non-specific, it offers a huge range of possibilities for a director and a huge range of pitfalls. As Holten uses it, the pitfalls predominate. Singers go up and down stairs and move about inside the set for no discernable reason. Worse, we never know where we are. The peasants, for instance, seem to celebrating Zerlina’s wedding inside Don Giovanni’s palace, and it’s surprising when he sends them to his palace elsewhere (i.e., off the set).

A rotating two-storey set should be quite enough for any director to cope with, but Holten also has Luke Halls cover it and the side wings in ever-changing projections. We get a fairly ominous foretaste of this during the overture when the one wall of the set and the two side wings gradually become covered in women’s names – an obvious allusion to Leporello’s catalogue of his master’s conquests. Projected animation of this sort occurs throughout the action. When Don Ottavio sings “Il mio tesoro”, the walls unaccountable start dripping blood. When the Commendatore first appears, the walls turn red. When he sings, the pattern on the walls judders. The worst example is when Don Giovanni sings his famous “Fin ch’han dal vino” and Halls has a projection of staircases spin around the Don at such a dizzying rate that you can’t look at the singer or the set.

Devlin’s ingenuity and Halls’s artistry are abundantly evident. The problem is Holten’s use of them and in Holten’s hands they almost invariably distract us from the singers. Holten will have the set turn or start to turn when the singers are on it in the midst of an aria. Projections will change tone while singers are singing. Even when the set is stationary, Holten will have unknown figures moving past in the distance. During the 3½ hours of the performance we increasingly wish to enjoy the singing without Holten’s interference. Even when the set is still and Don Giovanni sits down to sing “Deh, vieni alla finestra”, the lyrics begin appearing on the wall.

While this is not as bad as Tcherniakov’s forcing the opera to follow a plot of his own making, it is still far from ideal. Yet, Holten, too, is willing to alter the text to suit his ends. To his mind, Don Giovanni’s punishment is that he is completely isolated at the end. That would seem to make the appearance of Leporello, Donna Elvira and an octet of musicians at the Don’s final dinner rather inconvenient. Holten’s solution is that somehow Leporello and Donna Elvira have died between Scene 3 and Scene 5 of Act 2. They visit him in the last scene as ghosts. The musicians are also ghosts. Don Giovanni does not die sinking into hellfire. Instead, he is merely locked out of his house and the scene goes black. Holten omits the Epilogue where Leporello and the remaining principals smugly moralize about Don Giovanni’s death.

Despite being trapped in a production that seems to be more about the décor than the characters, the cast ultimately triumphs over the obstructions Holten puts in their way. Principal among these is Gordon Bintner in the title role. Bintner, from Regina, Sasketchewan, is a former COC Ensemble Studio member who is now in demand around the world. There should be no surprise given his good looks, natural charisma, fine acting ability and gorgeous voice. In his famous aria “Là ci darem la mano”, Bintner so caresses every word that he gives us a clear demonstration of why Don Giovanni is so successful a seducer.

Holten has the interesting notion that Don Giovanni does actually have a conscience. He has the Don see the ghost of the Commendatore haunting the set throughout the action as if his murder of the old man were preying on his mind. Why the Don should acquire a conscience only after murdering an old man, rather than at some point during his run of 2065 seductions is a difficult question. Holten also has the Don overhear other characters declare their love as if he were actually intrigued by how normal people interact. At the end Holten clearly makes it the Don’s decision, rather than the Ghost’s power, to go with the ghost to hell, thus making Holten fall into the camp that regards Don Giovanni as a type of hero.

All this means that Binter has a much wider range of acting to do that is usually required in the role. Fear, doubt and self-evaluation are not what one associates with Don Giovanni, but Binter is such a fine actor that he makes all this plausible. He beautifully sings the mandolin aria “Deh, vieni alla finestra” as much to himself as to Donna Elvira’s maid as if trying to imagine himself as a romantic lover for a change. It is an outstanding performance.

Paulo Bordogna, looking rather like Charlie Chaplin, is born to play Leporello. He has every quirk of the put-upon manservant down perfectly. While this Leporello complains about his master, he also shares several of his traits like looking up skirts when he has the chance. Bordogna’s voice is strong and agile and he is a master of comic timing. Though Holtens idea of Leporello as a ghost seems ridiculous, it does let us see that Bordogna, so excellent in comedy, would be just as convincing in serious works.

Armenian soprano Mané Goloyan as Donna Anna and Romanian soprano Anita Hartig as Donna Elvira sing with equal power and intensity. Goloyan’s tone is brighter and Hartig’s is duskier, but the two are very well matched. It is easy to make Elivira seem a fool for expecting fidelity from a serial seducer, yet Hartig manages to make Donna Elvira seem a to be a woman who truly loves Don Giovanni and is more to be pitied than ridiculed.

In a similar way, American tenor Ben Bliss makes Don Ottavio appear much more the ardent lover than the weak milquetoast the character is so often made to be. Bliss succeeds in this because he sings with such power and is voice has such a ringing tone.

Simone McIntosh as Zerlina and Joel Allison as Masetto come off as quite different from the rest of the cast in that they don’t sing at full voice until they reach their most famous arias. Davis Leigh, however, as the Commendatore, sings in full voice in lush sepulchral tones that make a powerful impassion.

As we’ve come to expect, COC Music Director Johannes Debus has a fully 19th-century approach to Mozart. This is especially noticeable in his choice of a pianoforte rather than a fortepiano or harpsichord to accompany recitatives. Don Giovanni is such a masterpiece that it stands up well to this approach since its musical ideas are so far ahead of their time. When we hear the onstage band play excerpts of earlier operas, they sound positively antique compared to rich sound and massive power Debus draws from the COC Orchestra.

There may be some who will welcome all the visual stimulation that Holten and his design team provide. For this reviewer, however, Holten seems to be far too involved in playing with his toys rather than supporting his singers. This is a great pity since the singing is so often glorious and would move us even more if the opera were performed in concert, removed from all of Holten’s frippery.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Paulo Bordogna as Leporello and Gordon Bintner as Don Giovanni; a scene from Don Giovanni; Paulo Bordogna as Leporello (below) and Gordon Bintner as Don Giovanni (above); Gordon Bintner as Don Giovanni and Mané Goloyan as Donna Anna. © 2024 Michael Cooper.

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