Brussels ‘Giovanni’ Obscures Mozart Amid Wild Erotica

Don Giovanni prepares to kill the Commendatore, as Leporello and Donna Anna look on.  (Production photos by Bernd Uhlig)
Don Giovanni prepares to kill the Commendatore as Leporello and Donna Anna look on in a new Brussels setting.
(La Monnaie production photos by Bernd Uhlig)
By Susan Brodie

BRUSSELS — Don Giovanni seems to be one of the most difficult operas to stage effectively. Krzysztof Warlikowski’s new X-rated production for La Monnaie in Brussels joins the list of noble failures. The updated staging explores the more lurid instincts unleashed by the title character’s uncontrollable urges, but manages only to confuse and distract from the music.

Krzysztof Warlikowski favors radical stagings. (Warzecha, Baratek)
Krzysztof Warlikowski favors radical stagings. (Warzecha, Baratek)

The Polish director’s work isn’t well known in the United States, but he’s a prolific mainstay on European theater and opera stages. Championed by the late Gerard Mortier, his powerful, surrealistic takes on 20th century works like Lulu (La Monnaie, 2013) and The Makropoulos Case (Opera de Paris, 2007) employed haunting, resonant imagery to convey the psyches of two enigmatic heroines in the context of contemporary cultural iconography. For Mozart’s dramma giocoso, the imagery was striking but the staging worked against the characterizations and ambiguity written into Mozart’s music.

Cinema often inspires Warlikowski, and his Don Giovanni is based on the award-winning 2011 film Shame, about a compulsive sexual addict. Warlikowski created a black and white video, based on a scene  from the movie, which plays during the overture. Giovanni, styled to resemble the star of the film, makes eye contact with an attractive young woman — Zerlina, as it turns out — on the subway. Minutes later, they are frantically engaged in joyless three-way copulation.

Seated in a private box next to the stage, Giovanni and Donna Anna watch the film impatiently, while the Commendatore and his companion, seated in the opposite box, glower at the couple. Leporello launches into “Notte e giorno” from his corner of the box as Anna tries to get Giovanni’s attention, while Giovanni looks bored. The volatile Anna pulls out a pistol as she begins to sing. Her father appears in the box, a tussle breaks out, and the Commendatore is shot.

Giovanni is floored by Zerlina, left, and Donna Elvira.
Giovanni (Bou) is floored by Zerlina (Mathevet), left, and Donna Elvira (Shaham).

The action now moves to the stage, a chilly space divided with a stage-spanning movable glass wall (another Warlikowski trademark) and flanked with revolving doors. The wall stage right is upholstered in shiny blue, with a few chairs and a disco ball (sets and costumes by Malgorzata Szczesniak, lighting by Felice Ross, dramaturgy by Christian Longchamp, choreography by Claude Bardouil, video by Denis Guéguin).

Giovanni lies naked and unconscious on the floor while Leporello scolds him. Servants gather up and dress the hungover Giovanni in time for Elvira’s appearance upstage. She’s vulnerable and alluring in lace underwear, but assumes a hard edge with the suit she dons. All the women, in fact, are volatile and manipulative, with Donna Anna clearly unbent by Giovanni’s erotic power over her.

The commendatore often returns like Banquo's ghost.
The Commendatore, center, haunts Giovanni like Banquo’s ghost.

Warlikowski often introduces silent figures that personify hidden urges, but in this case he seems more intent on exploring his movie than in allowing Mozart’s scenario to shine — in short, this is regietheater at its most self-indulgent. A girl with a jump rope stands in for all the passing women who distract the Don, but the transvestite in lace and the thong-clad go-go dancer (the statuesque and supple Rosalba Torres Guerrero) are more difficult to parse. Add to that the frequent reappearances of the Commendatore, who comes back like Banquo’s Ghost to haunt the Don. With all the added walk-on characters, the first act finale was particularly crowded and, ending with the unaccompanied gyrations of the naked solo dancer, panting heavily like a character from Shame.

Lest the audience had forgotten the sexual focus, Warlikowski preceded Act II with another short video, edited from a raunchy little cartoon from 1929. The matinee audience giggled incredulously, as they did over the recurring sexual antics which became increasingly distracting. I became confused when Giovanni and Leporello donned and retained identical bearded disguises, but by then I had stopped caring.

The regie shenanigans would be more forgivable if the music making had been more compelling, but the production’s emphasis on sexually driven desperation resulted in tight, strained singing. Barbara Hannigan (Donna Anna), a new music specialist and frequent collaborator with Warlikowski, is a consummate musician and hypnotic performer. But her intense dramatic instincts made her push her light soprano into verismo territory, with un-vocal and un-Mozartian results. The impulse to push seemed contagious. As Donna Elvira, Rinat Shaham vamped alluringly but sang with an unpleasant edginess. Topi Letipuu was a more interesting and menacing Don Ottavio than usual, but the tenor’s voice sounded painfully ragged. These are all good singers, but the production failed them.

The lower voices fared better. As Giovanni, Jean-Sébastien Bou’s singing was honorable, though he projected the Don’s anxiety more persuasively than his appetites. Andreas Wolf’s Leporello was well matched to his master. And Sir Willard White, as the Commendatore, brought vocal and dramatic gravitas to the proceedings.

New music specialist Barbara Hannigan sings Donna Anna. (Raphael Brand)
New music specialist Barbara Hannigan is Anna. (Raphael Brand)

Julie Mathevet, as Zerlina, had a sunny stage presence to match her lovely soprano. Her Masetto, Jean-Luc Ballestra, sang well but seemed more like a pimp than a young fiance.

Ludovic Morlot, chief conductor of La Monnaie-De Munt since 2012, is also music director of the Seattle Symphony, recently nominated for six Grammy awards. He conducted the La Monnaie orchestra competently but without much nuance; there were a number of tempo disagreements with soloists. Combined with long pauses during the narrative scenes which broke up the harmonic rhythm of the recitatives, Mozart came off the worse for  wear.

This was the first time in over a dozen performances at La Monnaie that I heard vigorous booing. Nonetheless, the production is worth watching online if only to experience the flavor of Warlikowski’s distinctive genius. It’s an opportunity that may not be repeated, as recent draconian budget cuts to Belgian cultural subsidies may threaten cancellation of the live-stream series, as well as one or more productions going forward.

Don Giovanni runs through Dec. 30. All performances are sold out, but the production will be available for three weeks of free streaming on demand beginning Jan. 7 — click here.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!

More moments of sexual tension for Ottavio, Giovanni, Anna, Elvira and friends.
Contemporary sexual tension is rife in the Krzysztof Warlikowski production of ‘Don Giovanni’ at La Monnaie.