It was always going to be a tantalising prospect: provocative director Romeo Castellucci and bad-boy conductor Teodor Currentzis coming together to stage Don Giovanni at the Salzburg Festival. It was the first time the two had collaborated on a new show, and the big stage of the Großes Festspielhaus (not to mention the Festival’s big budgets) would offer a generous canvas for their ideas.

Nadezhda Pavlova (Donna Anna) and ensemble
© Salzburg Festival | Monika Rittershaus

In interviews in the run-up to opening night, the pair set out something of their vision: Currentzis would showcase his idiosyncratic idea of musical authenticity, while the Italian director promised to dig deep into the myth of the character and incorporate 150 women on stage to underline – and avenge – the horror of his empty, heartless notching up of conquests.

But that in some ways suggests something more concrete than what we get from Castellucci. He creates instead a resolutely abstract world of the imagination, casting everything in a hazy light (all the action takes place behind a gauze). His single set is the white interior of a church that, before the overture starts, is relieved of its statuary and art works; it is covered in drapes for most of Act 2. The men are dressed in white, with suits for all of them apart from Don Ottavio, who is burdened with a series of bizarre costumes, including that of a Norwegian polar explorer replete with poodle – one of a handful of live animals that make an appearance. The women are afforded a little more colour.

Vito Priante (Leporello), Mika Kares (Il Commendatore) and Davide Luciano (Don Giovanni)
© Salzburg Festival | Monika Rittershaus

In Act 1 the prevailing sense of emptiness is acute, reflecting the gaping hole in Giovanni’s own heart, and is relieved only fleetingly when objects drop dramatically from the flies – armfuls of basketballs, a car, a grand piano – onto the stage below. The action is deliberately disengaged, bleached of colour and humour; only the arrival of Masetto and Zerlina’s wedding party, accompanied by thousands of apples, offers brief respite.    

The involvement of the 150 women in the first half is limited, but they come into their own in Act 2, closing in – figuratively if not always literally ­– around Giovanni. It’s an imposing spectacle and their choreography (by Cindy Van Acker) is an impressive feat of crowd management, even if their use seems occasionally calculated to test the audience’s patience.

In the climactic Supper Scene, though, Giovanni is left alone as he sinks into his own private hell, stripping naked and writhing around in white paint. It presents us, admittedly, with a tour de force from Italian baritone David Luciano, but is too little too late in terms of injecting the production with any drama.

Anna Lucia Richter (Zerlina) and Davide Luciano (Don Giovanni)
© Salzburg Festival | Monika Rittershaus

Musically, though, there’s drama in spades from Currentzis and musicAeterna Orchestra in the pit. Their razor sharp, high-energy way with this score is familiar from their recording, but their approach was often even more thrilling live, revelling in the orchestra’s wide repertoire of visceral timbres: thwacking timps and knife-edge strings on the one hand, wonderfully woody flutes and clarinets cooing like amorous doves on the other.

There’s an irreverence and mischief that’s refreshing too: the pit floor is lifted for the Champagne Aria as orchestra and conductor are blitzed with disco lights, while the pinpoint musicAeterna Choir sings from the pit for the Supper Scene and a finale, which, as the cast are replaced by plaster casts and leave the stage, is presented as a choral quasi-cantata.

For all the energy and freshness, though, it’s a musical approach that can also be both enervating and, as we swing between extremes of tempo, somewhat exhausting: while many numbers rattle restlessly by, several recitatives are drawn out almost to the point of stasis. Numerous extended fortepiano interpolations – often stylistically anachronistic – overstay their welcome.

Davide Luciano (Don Giovanni) and ensemble
© Salzburg Festival | Ruth Walz

It’s clearly an inspiring environment for the largely young cast, though, and they turn in several terrific performances. Luciano’s Giovanni is beautifully sung, the voice nicely regulated and pleasing to the ear, if a little lacking in bite and charisma. Both he and Vito Priante’s lively, light Leporello occasionally struggle against the orchestra. Michael Spyres’ Ottavio is simply superb, offering singing of exquisite elegance and stability – including an unexpected excursion into Rossinian range as part of his ornamentation.

Nadezhda Pavlova is the pick of the women as a fearless and exciting Donna Anna, and Federica Lombardi is an intense, involving Donna Elvira. Anna Lucia Richter sparkles as Zerlina opposite David Steffens’ sturdy Masetto. Finnish bass Mika Kares makes for a fine, imposing Commendatore.

With so much musical quality on display, it remains a shame that Castellucci’s production couldn’t have conveyed its ideas – far from bad, in and of themselves – with a bit more drama and joy, as one might think appropriate for this dramma giocoso. As it is, this was a long evening which, despite some striking images, thrilling playing and superb singing, proved only intermittently involving.