It had been almost 15 years since the 2006 staging by Michael Haneke at the Opéra de Paris – one of the best memories of the years of Gerard Mortier. In the context of the #MeToo movement, the announcement of a new production of Don Giovanni staged by Ivo van Hove was inevitably going to make waves. On this occasion, it’s Palais Garnier, rather than the larger Opéra Bastille, which welcomes the exploits of the most famous womaniser in the world. Considering the almost chamber-like size of Mozart's operas, this choice surely pleased more than a few music lovers. But the staging, as sterile as possible and stripped of any eroticism, is disappointing, unlike the intentionally young cast who bring a breath of fresh air to this harsh Don Giovanni.

Don Giovanni at Palais Garnier
© Charles Duprat / Opéra national de Paris

The unique and imposing setting by Jan Versweyveld, made of three monolithic, cold stone houses, is impressive. Dramatically lit by a frosty nocturnal glow at the first warning shot of the overture, it becomes cleverly bathed by warmer tones, reorienting themselves as the plot progresses, the single horizon gradually breaking down into a series of dark alleys. Are the characters who are wandering around these buildings, or are the buildings themselves that gradually tighten around Don Giovanni? Visually, the effect is splendid, as well as being one of the many examples of technical excellence for which the Opéra de Paris has been renowned for centuries.

If the deserted streets of a small Mediterranean town have cleverly replaced the low-rise buildings of the La Défense neighbourhood found in Haneke's production, in terms of costumes, there is nothing new: Leporello and his master still look like young, energetic office executives, with suit, tie and a self-assured stride. But where Haneke had charged his staging with political undertones which justified the costumes, van Hove, in an opposite approach, makes his heroes look like any man on the street. The costumes appear here to be disguises which blur and trivialise the crimes of the main character. Without the somewhat antiquated aura of romantic rebellion that is often attributed to him, Don Giovanni returns to what he was at the very beginning: a principle of destruction of the social order that a supernatural power will defeat in the name of proper morality.

Philippe Sly (Leporello), Étienne Dupuis (Don Giovanni), Ain Anger (il Commendatore)
© Charles Duprat / Opéra national de Paris

This unrestrained taste for taking things at face value, however, also rids the opera of its sensual charge: the interactions between the characters are reduced to the bare minimum, with the exception of the epic duet between Don Giovanni and Leporello, of which the director exacerbates the resemblance to maximise the comic potential. Other than that, what can we say about the minimalist and somewhat clumsy acting direction, where the singers represent stereotypes more than really inhabit their characters? There are plenty of good ideas, however: the pistols on the belts, for example, which give this setting the unmistakable look of a gangster movie, or the Commendatore wearing a white vest that make him look like a butcher. And above all, there is a splendid finale, where we see a video of Don Giovanni consumed by the flames of hell, flames that a great zoom effect will show us for what they really are…

Speaking of casting, there weren't any superstars to carry this new production... and that was fine, considering that the cast had plenty of talent and passion. Étienne Dupuis, who we had seen as Posa in Don Carlo, seduced with a round tone, while Philippe Sly, already a popular Don Giovanni, offered us a Leporello acted more than convincingly. Jacquelyn Wagner's Donna Anna, with a crystalline and luminous voice, offered a perfect counterpoint to Nicole Car's Donna Elvira, whose technique was more full-throated and impassioned. Stanislas de Barbeyrac, a splendid Don Ottavio whose voice had an irresistible charm and a timbre reminiscent of Jonas Kaufmann, received the top accolade of the evening. Ain Anger, even if lacking some power on the day, impressed thanks to the fiery charge he gave his voice as singing the Commendatore. Only Mikhail Timoshenko (Masetto) and Elsa Dreisig (Zerlina), a little quiet, lacked personality, with the notable exception of a “Vedrai, Carino” of exquisite sweetness. In the pit, the Orchestre de l'Opéra was always impeccable, despite a surprisingly smooth and diaphanous Philippe Jordan.

Étienne Dupuis (Don Giovanni), Philippe Sly (Leporello)
© Charles Duprat / Opéra national de Paris

Despite being not exactly memorable, this production is however not irrelevant. While offering a welcome return to the source material, it takes a relevant look at our times, covering the taboos with a moralistic veil. This proves that, almost in spite of itself and to the detriment of the spectator's interest, this staging was successful.

This review was translated from French by Laura Volpi.