In the current climate, can one in good conscience enjoy a performance of Don Giovanni – even one as good musically as this season’s offering at the Wiener Staatsoper? After all, the protagonist is a man of influence who forces himself on women after winning their trust, meeting his downfall only after his victims unite to denounce him. So, is his wit, courage and an admirable irreverence for convention but a cover for his dark side? Is he a prototype of today’s predators who hide their nefarious deeds under a veneer of likeability?

Ludovic Tézier (Don Giovanni) and Andrea Carroll (Zerlina) © Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH
Ludovic Tézier (Don Giovanni) and Andrea Carroll (Zerlina)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

The explanation was perhaps simpler in Mozart’s Age of Enlightenment. Back then, the Don could be seen as a hero who rejects the religious and societal conventions of his age, even to the point of choosing eternal damnation for his convictions. But those who viewed him as a villain could also leave the performance with a sense of gratification. For them, his final scream of horror as he descends into hell was ample proof that he got his just deserts. It’s clear where Mozart’s sentiments lie. He denounced libertinism in a letter to his father, writing that he “cannot live as most men do, these days,” and added: “I have… too high a feeling of honour to seduce an innocent girl.” Yet he gives plenty of play to both sides of the Don’s personality.

But there is light and dark in staging of the Vienna production as well. The singers were a joy. As the Don, Ludovic Tézier’s baritone was muscular and supple, alternatively seductive, boisterous or defiant. His “Deh vieni alla finestra” was light and legato, as befits the smitten suitor, his “Fin ch'han dal vino” controlled, yet delivering the breathless intensity of a man knowing his enemies are closing in on him but also elated by the fact. Tézier was well-cast too, physically and dramatically.

Ludovic Tézier (Don Giovanni) and Peter Kellner (Leporello) © Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH
Ludovic Tézier (Don Giovanni) and Peter Kellner (Leporello)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

Such a strong performance deserves a worthy foil, and Federica Lombardi is the right woman in the right place as Donna Elvira, the Don’s spurned love. Her “Ah, chi mi dice mai” was delivered with the fury of a woman scorned ready to cut out her tormentor’s heart. Yet she was also equal to her alternate role: that of the all-forgiving lover, willing to take back her paramour if he gives up his straying ways.

Donna Elvira is rightly angered when Leporello, the Don’s manservant, pulls out a list of his master’s previous conquests. There are more than 2,000 of them and, true to the libretto, she was left fuming. Not so the audience. A strong Leporello equal to the strong comic presence called for by this role, Peter Kellner’s Catalogue Aria was well paced and effortless, with each word perfectly enunciated.

Peter Kellner (Leporello) © Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH
Peter Kellner (Leporello)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

Kudos go to the other principals as well: Hanna-Elisabeth Müller as Donna Anna, the vengeful victim of the Don’s unwanted affections; Josh Lovell in the role of Don Ottavio, her betrothed; Andrea Carroll as Zerlina, the coquettish maid; Clemens Unterreiner as Masetto, her doltish fiancé, and Dan Paul Dumitrescu as the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s father, who returns from the grave to avenge his death by the Don’s hand. All singers worked well with conductor Ádám Fischer, except for a missed cue or two. And the Staatsopernorchester brought the most out of the Sturm und Drang score, from the overture’s first crashing D minor chord to its dramatic return and the chilling scales heralding the Don’s end.

The staging does not live up to this production’s musical excellence, however. The backdrops are imposing – the black and white blow-up photos of the Great Council Chamber of the Doge’s Palace in Venice or Spain’s Segovia Cathedral are created so cleverly that it is difficult to say where they flow into the stage’s three-dimensionality. And director Jean-Louis Martinoty’s decision to move much of the action to an inn results in lessened dropped curtains for scenery changes. But there are few other accents that make the production stand out from tired versions hewing to the original. These shortcomings did little to detract from the evening’s enjoyment, however. After all, no less a reviewer than Tchaikovsky characterised the music of Don Giovanni as “bountiful with unforgettable beauty.” If so, he probably would have enjoyed the Staatsoper presentation.

****1