Bright Lights Film Journal

The Don Goes Digital: Don Giovanni — Mozart’s Dramma Giocosa for the Ages

Jürgen Flimm and Brian Large supply a stage production that lives on DVD

A stage production that doesn’t look stagy on home video? I said it couldn’t be done, more than once, but modern technology, stage director Jürgen Flimm, video director Brian Large, and the good folks at the Opernhaus Zürich have made a liar out of me. This video of a 2001 performance of Mozart’s masterpiece1 has an immediacy and transparency that far surpasses any opera video I’ve ever seen.2 For once, the look of the performance doesn’t get in the way of the music and the story.

The quality of the visual image here is far superior to previous versions on film and tape. Sets don’t have to be brilliantly lit for the cameras to pick up the action. The costume and set design deliberately discard the stagy traditions of the past — no liveried servants or colorful peasants. The look is minimal without being obsessively minimalist and affected. The sound is vivid and full, without the echoing voices and booming footsteps typical of earlier performances.

The leads avoid the stylized, not to say ossified, overacting of the past, which once seemed to be a necessary part of opera. Only Cecilia Bartoli, as Donna Elvira, clings to the clenched fist and flashing eyes of the classic diva.3

When Leporello (László Polgár) enters in a watch cap, with a backpack slung over his shoulder, we seem to be in for an evening of ostentatious punk. But when the other leads make their entrance, there’s enough formality to create a sense of an aristocratic society, even though it’s never terribly clear which century we’re in. Stage director Jürgen Flimm supports the actors with non-representational backdrops that, for the most part, don’t seem to suggest anything — at least they didn’t suggest anything to me — which sounds like it would be irritating, but somehow it isn’t.

There are a few definite shortcomings. The pre-wedding festivities of Zerlina (Liliana Nikiteanu) and Masetto (Oliver Widmer) are far too drab, and the Don’s big party even more so. The “jungle gym” set used in the second act looks unnecessarily complicated, and the last 30 seconds, when artifacts of our modern, wrecked civilization suddenly emerge into view, is way, way off base. I suppose a set designer can keep his “creativity” in check for only so long.

Rodney Gilfry does an excellent job in the title role, except that he can’t quite bring himself to relax in the famous “champagne” aria, where relaxation is everything. Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt keeps everything moving along at a fine pace, and doesn’t let the spell of Mozartian perfection prevent the drama from emerging through the music.4 This is particularly true in the marvelous finale, where the implacable menace of the statue, the aristocratic insolence of the Don, and Leporello’s fearful chatter are all maintained in constant clarity.

All of the cast, including Isabel Rey as Donna Anna, Roberto Saccà as Don Ottavio, and Matti Salminen as the Commendatore, do a first-rate job, according to my unwashed ears. And I would love to give a thumb’s up to the unidentified cutie who plays Donna Elvira’s maid, if she would only return my calls.

Mozart wrote opera “to express the full range of human emotions, from the lowest to the highest, through music.” Check out this two-disc set to see how well the king of composers met the challenge.5

Afterwords

The Opernhaus Zürich Don Giovanni is available through Netflix if you don’t feel like buying. European television loves to turn out Mozart, and there are literally dozens of versions of Don Giovanni available on disc. To read multiple reviews of individual productions, try Amazon. To read reviews of performances of many operas by the same critic, try Michael Richter here. (He didn’t care for this production at all. Chacùn à son goût,eh, motherfucker?) Robert Moberly’s Three Mozart Operas contains a lot of the affected gush that gives opera buffs a bad name, but he possesses far more technical expertise than I could ever pretend to.

  1. “Dramma giocosa” — or “humorous drama” — an epithet applied exclusively to Giovanni, is a classic example of operatic snobisme. You didn’t know? I’m so sorry for you. []
  2. How many is that? Forty or fifty. []
  3. She’s also the only one sporting the “squished titty” bodice so beloved of divas. Of course, Cecilia is a real diva, easily the biggest name in the cast. And it’s her rendition of “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata” in the second act that’s the one real show-stopper of the evening. []
  4. Despite the all-pervading formal perfection of Mozart’s music, there is movement and distinction as well. Simply making every curlicue exactly like the previous one irons out the drama, especially in the marvelous ensembles involving the Don, Leporello, and the Commendatore. []
  5. No, Mozart didn’t do it all himself. Lorenzo da Ponte, who wrote the librettos for three of Mozart’s most famous operas (The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi Fan Tutti as well as Don Giovanni) certainly deserves a mention somewhere in this review. []