Théatre de l’Archveché, Aix-en-Provence, France; July 15th, 2013—Here is what we learn of Dmitri Tcherniakov’s present-day production of Don Giovanni from the cast list in the program: Zerlina is Donna Anna’s daughter by a previous marriage; Elvira, Anna’s cousin, is married to Don Giovanni; and Leporello is a relative living in the home of the Commendatore. And the opera’s action takes place over a period of a few months.
Here is what we see: A beautifully appointed library, with chandelier, large wooden doors at both sides and glass doors at the rear, and a huge table in what is clearly the home of a very wealthy family. (Tcherniakov is also responsible for the settings and costumes.) The curtain rises on a goofy, kid-like Leporello asleep in an armchair. After his aria, the doors on the right open, and the Don, in dirty topcoat and disheveled clothing, is being chased by and sensually clawed at by Donna Anna. Leporello giggles when not singing. When the Commendatore enters, he and the Don squabble and the Commendatore accidentally bangs his head into a book case, which kills him (or so we think: he shows up later, not as a statue, but at the head of the table).
The scene between Donna Anna and Ottavio (quite an angry character) takes place, and then a black curtain descends, on which is written “A few days later”. Up goes the curtain—it is the day of the funeral. Elvira, Giovanni’s wife, enters, cool as a cucumber—she just stands and sarcastically rails at him. After all that, a bunch of peasants—probably the estate’s gardeners and servants—enters through the glass doors, and Zerlina is immediately attracted to Giovanni, who, slightly drunk and still disheveled, tries to avoid her. And so forth. Later, after the black curtain has fallen and risen a few more times and days and weeks have passed, Anna relates the story of “that evening” to Ottavio, reliving it with relish; even later, Zerlina sings “Vedrai carino” to Giovanni as Masetto listens unhappily. By the opera’s close, Giovanni (by now in a filthy, torn tee-shirt that he has doused in bourbon by pouring it over his head) has passed out more than once from downing bottle after bottle of booze. There’s no graveyard, no statue, no descent into hell: the Don just spins out of control and falls down.
In other words, although Da Ponte’s text remains the same, the myth is turned upside-down: The Don is tired of his own mythological stance—he seduces so easily he no longer tries; other “myths” (like mother like daughter, i.e: Anna and Zerlina; the “myth” of the solidity of the nuclear family) have worn themselves out as well and are exhausted. The family is petit bourgeois and puts on airs: TV’s Dallas-in-the-Library. Giovanni’s emotional and physical descent over the few months during which this version takes place become vaguely touching, and so an audience is indeed affected by the story. But it’s a different story than we’re used to, and the characters’ movements and reactions are often at odds with both text and music. Tcherniakov’s vision isn’t convincingly clear and it is never boring, but there’s no doubt that its eccentricities are distancing.
There’s some fine singing and conducting, however. Mark Minkowski, the marvelous Baroque specialist, leads a lean London Symphony Orchestra and plays right into Tcherniakov’s vision. Rod Gilfrey’s Don is so tired that he delivers half of his lines at a whisper, and the orchestra never gets in his way. His voice is not particularly juicy, but he’s a fine artist and a terrific actor. Maria Bengtsson’s Donna Anna is accurately sung and acted with passion (mostly in her underwear), her intensity just a step removed from true craziness.
Paul Groves’ Ottavio is a vaguely abused or ignored character, and his voice has lost a bit of sheen, but he does what he can as the production’s least potent character—as the new fiancé of Anna, he apparently does not realize what a family of loons he’s walked into. Alex Penda’s Elvira, shorn of this character’s usual wild behavior, is nonetheless convincing in her mini-skirts and with her my-husband-is-a-jerk attitude. Kyle Ketelson, as the sort-of wayward teenaged cousin Leporello, is marvelous, the voice perfectly projected, the diction impeccable, the involvement complete. Joelle Harvey’s Zerlina, her character less perverted than the others, is gorgeous. Kostas Smoriginas as Masetto is strong; Anatoli Kotscherga’s Commendatore is stronger. Despite anachronisms around every corner that have enraged Mozarteans since this show was first seen in 2010, something about it works and keeps the interest of the audience. Tcherniakov certainly is not dull.