Grim ‘Don Giovanni’ Frames A Fine Cast In Concrete, Rebar

The Act 1 finale from the new Paris Opera production of Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni.’
(Production photos by Charles Duprat / Paris Opera)

PARIS – Ivo van Hove’s new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni for the Paris Opera replaces Michael Haneke’s strong but controversial staging set in the Paris financial suburb of La Défense. The new version at the Palais Garnier, a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, also features modern dress and architecture, but is traditional in spirit. Refraining from outlandish regie flourishes, van Hove is faithful to the emotional life of the characters, but viewers may miss the whiff of Seville oranges and the usual buffo treatment in his grim vision, despite fine singing and acting (seen at the premiere on June 11).

The controversial Belgian director has a long list of serious theater credits, primarily in straight and classical theater in Europe as well as on Broadway. His production of Arthur Miller’s View from the Bridge won a 2015 Tony Award; for Madrid’s Teatro Real he directed the world premiere of Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain originally destined for New York City Opera. His powerful Shakespeare adaptation, Kings of War, traveled to BAM, and he’s been tapped to direct the 2020 Broadway revival of West Side Story. Don Giovanni, his second project for the Paris Opera, provides a fair example of his methods. While it may not please Zeffirelli fans, it’s a compelling interpretation, with strong direction of the singer-actors.

A dramatic moment in Ivo van Hove’s new production of ‘Don Giovanni’ at the Paris Opera.

The hulking concrete-and-rebar unit set, evoking a soulless dystopia, is one of the production’s strongest elements. Suggesting a Brutalist post-war working-class housing complex, it consists of four drab gray multi-level units that rotate to reveal stairways, galleries, windows, and passageways. A fixed shallow ramp center stage was thus variously flanked by a changing perspective of porticos, alleyways, or arcades, in a visual metaphor for the shifting loyalties of the dramatis personae and for secrets that propel the plot.

Puffs of vapor suggest morning mist or the smoke of hellfire; industrial lamps and harsh spots recall the gloomy illumination of safe-streets lighting. Neutral-toned costumes demarcate class differences. The only touches of color come in the Act I finale, with masked guests and mannequins in bright 18th-century costumes, and later in the cheery flowers and furnishings of the Seville street scene in the final tableau. The set has sufficient presence and mystery for van Hove not to use his signature live backstage video; hallucinatory projections in the graveyard/banquet scene are the only canned visuals (set, lighting, and dramaturgy by Jan Vandenhouwe, costumes by An D’Huys, video by Christopher Ash).

Don Giovanni is a tricky piece. Its alternative title, The Dissolute One Punished, along with its genre designation as a dramma giocoso, suggest a morality play leavened with comedy. In most productions the buffo aspect is highlighted, drawing humor from Giovanni’s string of failed seductions, from his often cartoonish violence toward Leporello and Masetto, and from Elvira’s humiliation as the woman scorned.

The Commendatore saves Anna from Giovanni’s clutches, with Leporello observing at right.

But van Hove is a very serious guy, and this is a reading for the “Me Too” era. The director sees little humor in Elvira’s humiliation; in fact, she’s the most likable character of the bunch, the only one who consistently shows empathy, dignity, and decency. Don Giovanni is a smooth-talking sociopath – he avoids eye contact, barely looking at Zerlina while seducing her; he is reluctantly driven to human interaction by his insatiable sexual urges. The program book quotes a scene from Brent Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho, in which the protagonist impatiently dismisses a paramour; it’s a clear parallel to Giovanni’s dealings with Elvira. The Don is quick to draw a handgun on anyone who contradicts him, though after eliminating the Commendatore, he never actually shoots. He may be the most unsympathetic Giovanni I’ve seen.

The other characters come off little better. Donna Anna, as usual, tries Don Ottavio’s patience as she keeps putting off their wedding date; Ottavio, a buttoned-up fellow, tends to respond by crumpling into fetal position, hardly an advantageous posture for his two arias. Masetto and Zerlina share a lively physical relationship, but Zerlina is a girl who can’t say no, and Masetto’s jealousy and naïvete lead to some ugly scenes. Leporello, dressed like his boss in dark suit (white for the Act I finale) and beard, clearly will look for a bigger grift if this job doesn’t work out. Van Hove’s take gave me the slightly sick feeling I experience after a good performance of Così fan tutte.

As with their recent production of Così, Paris cast this show with young singers. Even the Commendatore was relatively young: the rich-voiced Estonian bass Ain Anger is not yet 50, making the Donna Anna’s father a man in his prime, realistically capable of dueling with his daughter’s assailant.

Two young French Canadians, Étienne Dupuis and Philippe Sly, both rising stars in Europe, took the lead roles of Giovanni and Leporello. The smooth-voiced and charismatic Dupuis is singing his first Don at age 40, while Sly, a decade younger and endowed with a seductive timbre, assumed his first Leporello after performing the Don at the 2017 Aix Festival. The pair played off each other with complementary vocal and dramatic energy.

American soprano Jacquelyn Wagner (who appeared with Sly in Paris Opera’s recent modern-dance Così fan tutte), was a dignified Donna Anna with a full and luscious sound, though little distinctive personality. Rising French soprano Elsa Dreisig imbued Zerlina with an innocent sensuality reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe; her singing was sweet and promises vocal growth (she sings Manon in Paris next season). As Masetto, bass-baritone Mikhail Timoshenko (who as a member of the young artist program was featured in the documentary film L’Opera) was an ideal young-and-dumb swain, though his singing needed more presence. Stanislas de Barbeyrac’s Don Ottavio was persuasive as the dutiful milquetoast. As in his February Met debut in the same role, this fine French tenor sounded inconsistent; after the Paris first night, he was announced as souffrant (indisposed), so it’s to be hoped that his vocal difficulties are temporary.

Finally, Nicole Car’s Donna Elvira provided both the moral anchor for the piece and the evening’s most attractive singing. Her dramatic transparency was paired with a warm and creamy timbre, even and accurate throughout its range. The Australian soprano, praised for lyric roles like Mimi, Tatiana, and Fiordiligi, appears often with Dupuis, her husband (both made their Met debuts in La Bohème in 2018); their chemistry onstage was palpable. But Car shines on her own: her Paris Elisabetta (Verdi’s Don Carlo) in the fall and her upcoming Met Fiordiligi should be noteworthy.

Philippe Jordan conducted, accompanying recitatives on fortepiano, the only concession to historically informed performance practices. Tempi were brisk but unrushed, and the orchestra sounded accurate and robust, though they sometimes covered the singers (this may not have been true farther back in the auditorium).

Don Giovanni continues through July 13 and and returns with a new cast in March 2020. For tickets, go here (the current run is sold out online, but seats with limited visibility sold only at the box office may be available).

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