The Stone Guest

Giovannipage(Vienna, Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde)Actually, on this occasion, the Stone Guest was rather more loam and roughcast than stone. To be honest, he looked as though costumed by a despairing wardrobe mistress as Mr Badger in an am-dram production of Toad of Toad Hall. Consequently, he wasn’t really very scary, despite what the music and libretto were doing for him.

I happen (even though it’s not my favourite opera) to have seen three live productions of Don Giovanni: half a lifetime ago at Covent Garden, around the Millennium at the Estates Theatre in Prague, where the premiere had taken place on 29 October 1787, and again a few days ago at Covent Garden. (Plus recordings, radio, and the odd TV and film version.) Therefore, although in no sense an expert on either the music or the dramaturgy, I do know what happens.

The Estates Theatre, Prague, in 1797

The Estates Theatre, Prague, in 1797

The interior of the Estates Theatre today

The interior of the Estates Theatre today

It was a bit of a surprise to find that the director’s Big Idea in this production perverted (I believe) the opera’s message (yes, I know, if you want a message, go to Western Union) and in order to do so, simply cut the ending. (It’s an opera buffa, dammit: you can’t have an opera buffa (especially one in which the surtitles at any rate seemed to be playing very much for laughs) without the moral at the end.) Apparently, it is not so much the ‘seduction’ and abandonment of so many women that finally gets our anti-hero to lose his soul, but the quasi-accidental murder of another ‘gentiluomo’: this is the real transgression.

The Big Idea was that the three women in the cast (presumably representative of the 2,065 whose names were displayed in letters of light over the superb (and superbly used) set) were all Gagging for It, and Couldn’t Get Enough of It. Indeed, there was a fourth woman, Donna Elvira’s maid, who usually materialises as a dim face or hand at the window at the end of the serenade. On this occasion, she was so seduced that she was downstairs, had done the ‘removes pin and shakes loose abundant hair’ thing, taken all her clothes off in a public place, and was ready to jump the Don before Masetto and co. interrupted them.

What, you may ask, of the music indicating conflict and fear when Donna Anna is trying to fight off an attempted rape? That’s just a background for her teasing giggles of ‘Scelerato!’ while she tries to hold on to him for more fun as he tries to escape. And when she sings ‘Non mi dir’, it is firstly to Don Ottavio’s retreating back, then to Don Giovanni himself (who in later scenes wanders on, through and off the set, rather like the muslin-clad female wraiths who waft across and strike attitudes from time to time), and finally to the shattered plaster bust of her dead father, which the Don had previously smashed with the same gusto with which Sherlock Holmes pursued the Black Pearl of the Borgias. (Since you ask, it had nodded acceptance of supper by jerking in Leporello’s arms a bit like the dowsing rod in the hands of a diviner who has struck water.)

Now, that's what I call a proper Stone Guest.

Now, that’s what I call a proper Stone Guest.

I hope I’m not giving the wrong impression here: I loved it! The three sopranos were superb, especially Albina Shagimuratova as Donna Anna; the sets, lighting and costumes (apart from Mr Badger) were brilliant, and the imaginative use of the playing space was a carefully thought-out delight. The men (I thought) were rather less impressive: Rolando Villazón gave his all both vocally and dramatically – had there been a carpet available, he would have chewed it – but, sadly, not always musically, and at the expense of any subtlety in this difficult and technically demanding role.

(By the way, when did it become de rigueur for both Don Ottavio’s arias (which say more or less the same thing) to be given, even if there are cuts elsewhere? I understood that ‘Dalla sua pace’ was written for the Vienna premiere because the tenor in that cast couldn’t actually manage ‘Il mio tesoro’.)

There were other musical problems. Even I, who usually sit enchanted when more knowledgeable people are wincing or sucking their teeth, was aware that the singers and the orchestra drifted rather far apart occasionally. And (our fault for sitting where we did), the conductor’s enthusiasm occasionally manifested itself in very loud ‘sh-sh-shs’ of encouragement, a bit like Glenn Gould singing along with the Goldberg Variations.

But, as I say, however much I object to the wilful ignoring of what (in my view) Mozart is saying in the music, I really enjoyed my third live exposure – which, as it happened was being transmitted live to cinemas all over the country, and to Trafalgar Square: I hope the viewers outside the opera house enjoyed it too!


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