Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Don Giovanni di Dijon Disappointing

It concerns me when the dramatic standouts in a performance of Don Giovanni are Zerlina and Masetto. 

This performance is beautifully sung, but not terribly engaging. I feel I must blame the director; I can’t imagine that all of these singers lack dramatic skills.

Smooth of voice, and easy on the eyes, Edwin Crossley-Mercer’s interpretation of the Don himself is rough-hewn and confined to a few stock facial expressions: mainly a sneer, a leer, a jeer, and just a little bit of fear. He does move nicely about the stage, he sounds marvelous, and as a bonus he is slender enough for Leporello to carry. But I feel he needs a good drama coach. He is so good at vocal interpretation, it’s kind of surprising to find him lacking in physical drama.

Leporello, the Maid, and Donna Elvira
Ruxandra Donose is a nice surprise as Donna Elvira—I really like a mezzo in this role. However, hers is the stock “Hysterical Stalker” Elivra. I’ve seen her in pants roles and skirts roles, and I know she is capable of delivering a more complex character. 

(One nice touch is seeing her maid with her on the first entrance, giving her someone to rant too, and giving Don Giovanni yet another woman to chase. The maid figures in the plot but we usually don’t see her. Here she kind of trails around after Donna Elvira.)

We have a pregnant Donna Anna—she has some difficulty in moving around the uneven set, and sneaks some extra breaths. (Actually this set is hazardous. Almost everyone has trouble traversing it. I’d take it as a metaphor, but I am not sure there was that much thinking behind it.) I was a little disappointed to realize that soprano (Diana Higbee) is actually pregnant, not the character—there are some interesting dramatic implications in a pregnant Donna Anna. Don Ottavio (Michael Smallwood) is more interesting than sometimes—but it’s all relative here—and the Commendatore (Timo Riihonen) is wooden (not stone.) His tone and demeanor are anything but threatening.

This brings us back to the rustics. Camille Poul and Damien Pass (left) provide the most expressive acting of the evening as Zerlina and Masetto. She does a little better than he, but he has expressive puppy-dog eyebrows, and spends a lot of the time looking bewildered. It looks like Zerlina is going to run the marriage. Josef Wagner also offers more personality as Leporello, perhaps because Leporello is a less complicated character, or maybe Herr Wagner was able to overcome the under-direction.

And then there’s the set. More grass (see Die Zauberflöte in Baden-Baden) but this time it’s covering rolling slopes. Actually it reminds me of sand dunes. I keep expecting someone to sing, “This was a real nice clambake.” I don’t mind the timeless/placeless setting. I think that works a lot better than trying to fix a place for the opera (office building, warehouse, stock exchange (never seen that for DG yet...I’m just sayin’)). But it looks so darned awkward for everyone to negotiate the lumpiness. I keep worrying that someone will take a tumble and wind up in the orchestra pit.

Don Giovanni and the Commendatore

Speaking of the orchestra pit, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (unsurprisingly) was really the star of the show. They excel in opera, and we can hear why they’re selected to be involved in so many recordings and productions. I am not sure conductor Gérard Korsten can take credit for their perfection, but at least he didn’t get in their way. 

Stage director Jean-Yves Ruf didn't get in the way either, but he should have. There was nothing offensive—and nothing too interesting. I haven’t tried this performance as audio only, but I’m betting it's better that way. And I will wait for EC-M to find a stage director who will direct him. That being said, here is the video (available free from for now.) 


  1. I really don't see the point of churning out recordings of a work like Don Giovanni unless there is something special about them. There are already recordings to suit every taste (and none at all) so there really has to be some wow! to make the enterprise worthwhile. Meanwhile, truly awesome productions go unrecorded and there are key works in the repertoire that have yet to get a fully satisfactory recording.

    1. Well, yes. Exactly. I mean I'm not too upset about this one. I am glad they webcast it, because I was looking forward to seeing/hearing it. Now, if I had paid 30 bucks for a DVD, I'd be really annoyed.

  2. I remember (I think) a production of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met where the soprano singing Lucia was pregnant and they adopted her pregnancy into the concept of the character. I'd think this would work in Don Giovanni for either Anna or Elvira. (I don't envy Higbee having to negotiate a tricky set, though - that seems rather unfair).

    Ooh, Don Giovanni at the stock exchange! (Someone call Peter Sellars?) Donna Elvira can be a spurned broker from a rival company; Leporello is the grumpy errand boy/office flunkey; Zerlina and Massetto are among the janitorial staff . . .

    1. "Zerlina and Massetto are among the janitorial staff . ."

      That's what Michael Haneke did in Paris:

      (P.S. That kiss (one of two) is provocative, but minor in the grand scheme of the production.)

  3. Having been to see this production, I am in complete agreement with the aspects relating to the stage production, set on an artificial grass slope on which the stage director or the set director (take your choice of terminology) directed the singers into the most ridiculous positions, causing confusion and setting the characters in stupid positions for voice projections. Leporello sang his score but lacked inspiration; in fact, as you all know, there is more for Leporello to sing than for Don Giovanni, who was not cast as the main character in the last three hours in the life of a libertine. Have no fear about Don Giovanni's ability to act; he had been strait-jacketed in his movements here as had all the others! The stage director, who it must be set has the last say in all initiatives, is a fugitive from the theater and has not a clue (in my opinion) about how to organize sets and singers and tell them what movements to make. There was another person improvising choreography that was not in the slightest constructive.
    Dijon has a spacious auditorium with about 1,700 seats but with tricky acoustics. Do not be misled by the facial expressions; the singer does as he is told in France; when a singer in France signs a contract, he hasn't the least notion of the person who is organizing the set. For American readers, this may sound outrageous and it is outrageous in Europe. Like everyone else, Don Giovanni was doing as he was told. Mercifully, American opera is subsidized by patrons of the arts and not by the state as is opera in Germany and France.
    Considering these constraints, which I utterly deplore, as they compromise the whole performance, the cast accomplished miracles in the face of the scenic adversity, contrary to many of the basic rules of opera. I have said this before, but in this country (France), the set director can consider himself lucky if the cast is a top class one as this one was, because they saved the day and showed him for what he is, a rather ill-inspired misplaced person.

    One final comment: Think of that setting and try running up and down that steep slope singing, especially to the left of it where the lighting was not very intelligent. Because of the quality of the singing, you could hear the vocal projection, but you could not always see who was singing. The singer was running the risk of breaking his leg or twisting his ankle at almost every move. So, bearing that in mind, just consider how ably the singers saved the mediocrity of the setting and possibly the skin of the person who designed (?) the incongruous set. The cast and the orchestra had my every admiration. Don Giovanni is "repertoire" and is called for by the public. All performances were booked out and the applause was thunderous. The audience had seen what they wished to see, and that is the bottom line.

    1. Thanks for your detailed comments. It's great to hear from someone who was actually THERE. Also it's nice to see my impressions were similar to yours. It's a shame about the directing. I think my cat could have done a better job.

      There are stage directors (régisseurs) who maybe aren't so good at directing movement, but who have talent for personenregie. They inspire exciting acting from the singers even if they don't have a clue on how to have them move about the stage. Unfortunately, this guy didn't seem to have a skill for either movement or drama.

      Still the singers did their best with the (lack of) leadership they had.

      Again, thanks for your comments and for reading the blog!

  4. It was my pleasure to be able to add my pinch of salt and express my personal outrage at the way in which the incompetence of the "Régie" can exasperate both the audience and the cast, who in this case worked wonders to overcome mixed metaphors, a jumbled mind and musical ignorance to provide a performance which ravished the audience. All these details and many more can be extracted with ease by an attentive examination of the Medici TV broadcast on the Web.

    The "status quo" of the "Régie" in Europe is a breach of operatic ethics - see the last performance of Parsifal or some of the stage setting wonders wrought by the ill-inspired buffoons who dressed the choir as rats at Bayreuth last year or was it the year before? The accessibility to such dementia, because of the price of seats (Bayreuth) illustrates to what lengths an intellectual snob will go to be willingly outraged or be a witness to ephemeral so-called innovation.
    These half-wits could "kill" the business in Europe, if not, they will alienate it.

    1. I actually liked Neuenfels' Lohengrin, though I can understand why it was not to everyone's taste. At least his staging didn't get in the way of the singers. Also, Neuenfels works with the singers rather than against them from an interpretive standpoint. We may not love his ideas, but we can tell he HAS ideas.

      While I agree with you that many "Régie" interpretations leave a lot to be desired, I'd rather see something like the well-produced Lohengrin that makes me think about the work, than this half-hearted Don Giovanni that makes me wonder what the director was thinking, if at all.

      In this DG, the director was lucky that the singers were good, and seemed willing to take matters into their own hands.


Comments are very welcome! They won't be moderated; but rude, abusive, and/or radically off-topic posts will be removed.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...