Robert Carsen created a jewel of a production for La Scala when he mounted a new Don Giovanni for the opening of the opera season in 2011. It is now being seen for the first time since then, and it is glorious both in the no-expense-spared staging and the wealth of ideas that Carsen brings, without ever being gimmicky.
It thrills from the beginning when Thomas Hampson, as Don Giovanni, leaps onto the apron from a stage box, tugs at the curtain, and the entire 16 by 12 metre piece of red velvet falls heavily to the ground – a stunning effect. Behind it is revealed a mirror the width and height of the proscenium which reflects La Scala's famous auditorium. And this is Carsen's conceit, not just a theatre within a theatre, but La Scala within La Scala.
His production features dozens of La Scala curtains and proscenium arches in varying sizes, which descend from the flies, slide in from the wings, turn, reveal hidden doors and windows, and create ever shifting spaces for the action. Not always ideal, certainly, for the acoustics, with often large uncontained spaces, sometimes divided diagonally, which are visually splendid but must have made the singers groan when they saw the set designs.
It is satisfying so know that even 250 years after the opera's premiere, the opera still tests singers: their technique and their courage. Only the very best should approach these roles… especially at La Scala. The current cast, all new to the production, were not all comfortable vocally, and they were certainly not assisted by Paavo Järvi's unrelenting conducting which didn't allow them to breathe or try to accommodate them in any way. During the rehearsal period, Hampson filled in the Gramilano Questionnaire, which includes the question, “On what occasion do you lie?” After witnessing this Don Giovanni, it is difficult not to suppose that he was thinking of Järvi when he wrote his answer!
Järvi had the orchestra sounding like a recording from the ‘50s. What happened to all that experience gained by period instrument groups over the last half century? Just because La Scala's orchestra uses modern instruments doesn't deny it the possibility of giving the sound some period style and bite.
There were, however, many fine things on offer musically.
The loudest applause was for Luca Pisaroni as Leporello, and rightly so. He is witty both in his singing and his movements, a sophisticated and subtle performer with a charming stage persona. He's also not afraid to leave the comfort zone of his glorious rich baritone and adopt expressive sounds which make his recitatives constantly vibrant and varied.
Don Ottavio was played by Bernard Richter, who processes a full, honeyed tenor and he dealt with the minefield of Il mio Tesoro admirably. The two ‘Donnas' – Hanna Elisabeth Müller and Anett Fritsch – both found difficulty in the highest passages, and could be stylistically erratic. True, they are fiendishly difficult roles but, ahem, this is La Scala. Tomasz Konieczny's was an ideal Commendatore: phlegmatic and powerful and – for his reappearance at the end of the opera, singing behind the audience in the Royal Box – rather intimidating.
Giulia Semenzato and Mattia Olivieri play Zerlina and Masetto. Semenzato, just a couple of years into her opera career, is one to watch: precise and clear, with an easy coloratura, and a sparkling, youthful tone. Olivieri has already excelled on La Scala's stage and again he is outstanding both as an actor and singer, with his satisfyingly bronzed baritone.
And then there is Thomas Hampson.
He is perfect for the role of Don Giovanni, and gives him a convincingly haughty and noble air with a self-confident swagger. We know from his first appearance that whatever he wants he will have. Tall and handsome, it is clear why 1,003 women in Spain alone have already succumbed to the charm he oozes. That tallness also makes the clothes swapping scene believable as Pisaroni is as tall, if not taller. When Hampson arrives as if dressed for a royal wedding at Zerlina and Masetto's simple, provincial affair, he squashes them all psychologically; no one can match this show of elegance, charisma and power. Hampson pulls it off with ease.
Carsen presents a traditional moral, with all the soloists aligned at the front of the stage after the Don has been sucked down into the depths of hell. However, as their last notes are sung, Hampson emerges from the back of the stage with an arrogant and amused smile. As the orchestra plays the final bars, it is Leporello and Co. who disappear into the ground as Hampson gives a wry, commedia dell'arte bow as if saying, “I always get what I want.” It's a sly and bitter end.
The theatre within a theatre gives us a moral within a moral.
14 May 2017, Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Production: La Scala, 2011
Chorus and orchestra of La Scala
Conductor: Paavo Järvi
Director: Robert Carsen
Sets: Michael Levine
Costumes: Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting: Robert Carsen and Peter Van Praet
Choreography: Philippe Giraudeau
Don Giovanni: Thomas Hampson
Commendatore: Tomasz Konieczny
Don Ottavio: Bernard Richter
Donna Anna: Hanna Elisabeth Müller
Donna Elvira: Anett Fritsch
Leporello: Luca Pisaroni
Zerlina: Giulia Semenzato
Masetto: Mattia Olivieri
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.