Mozart - Don Giovanni

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday December 7 2014

Conductor: Ludovic Morlot. Production: Krzysztof Warlikowski. Sets & Costumes: Malgorzata Szczesniak. Lighting: Felice Ross. Video: Denis Guéguin. Don Giovanni: Jean-Sébastien Bou. Il Commendatore: Sir Willard White. Donna Anna: Barbara Hannigan. Don Ottavio: Topi Lehtipuu. Donna Elvira: Rinat Shaham. Leporello: Andreas Wolf. Masetto: Jean-Luc Ballestra. Zerlina: Julie Mathevet. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

Mozart (again)
You can't win them all. After a series of successful productions (in my view at any rate: his Makropoulos Affair is one of the Bastille’s best ever), I suppose Krzysztof Warlikowski was bound to come a cropper at some stage, and that was exactly how French daily Le Figaro chose to head its review "Don Giovanni : Warlikowski se casse les dents", i.e. Warlikowski comes a cropper. You expect something novel, thoughtful and interesting from him, but here he disappointed by dishing up what any lesser "regie" director might have (and so often has) dished up – mirthlessly cynical high life/hi jinx with embarrassing simulated sex. Cunnilingus coloratura is by now a real cliché, yet Donna Anna sang “Non mi dir” with Don Ottavio’s head up her coat.

Visually it was glamorous and slickly done, with faultlessly chic costumes all round (“the Don wears Prada”, you might say), the tightest, shortest possible dresses and highest possible heels for Donna Anna, and superb coloured lighting – far better done, in its genre, than Andrea Breth’s Traviata in the same house two years’ back, so I wondered why the Brussels audience booed so loudly this time. Exasperation, probably, at being served more of much the same (and they may not have liked Donna Anna shooting Ottavio in the head at the end).

The acting was, nevertheless, outstanding and there were, still, some striking theatrical images - the Don’s death in particular, on his own butcher’s block (the dinner he prepared was raw meat only) - provided you managed not to be distracted by black dancers flailing around and foaming at the mouth, references, so it seemed, to the “Hottentot Venus” or (as the Commander came back from the dead) voodoo trances.

In the sleek circumstances, you couldn’t help suspecting casting was based on looks (especially figure) first, voice later. The suitably slender, blue-suited Topi Lehtipuu sang stylishly enough and Sir Willard White was of course up to his part - more so than Bou, stretched to his limit. Barbara Hannigan’s (amazingly long-legged) performance was oddly mannered, reminding me of Maria Ewing at her most flesh-creepingly irritating. Rinat Shaham, after a rocky start, had her moments: in an otherwise stonily unresponsive afternoon, only she and Hannigan got any applause, both after their big act-two numbers. The rest of the cast were more or less out of their depth; and when Warlikowski had everyone singing from boxes at the sides, no-one was properly audible. I wondered if it was Ludovic Morlot’s own idea to drag the score (recits especially) out to three-and-a-half hours, but imagine the director also had a hand in it, for dramatic (and somehow un-Mozartian) effect. The orchestra was lacklustre indeed and even, at times, sounded out of tune. That surely must have been an illusion, due to my own tin ear?

An eminent musicologist has suggested to me that people are now simply fed up with “regie” productions (leading me to fear a return to “period practice” along the stilted, dust-blurred lines of Cadmus et Hermione at the Opéra Comique or Hippolyte et Aricie at Garnier). Of course, I can understand people being fed up with bad ones; but to me, Warlikowski has always been very good, when not out-and-out excellent. I hope, therefore, that this Don G. is the exception that will prove the rule and that the next time I see one of his shows, he will be back on more imaginative form.

Maestro Wenarto shows how it should be done.

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