In recent years operagoers have become almost inured to the directional indulgences of énfant terrible regisseurs, especially when the musical component is of sufficient calibre to save the performance. However, if the instrumental contribution is as objectionable as the antics going on stage, there is serious cause for concern. This new production of Don Giovanni for Opéra de Lyon is such a case in point.

Philippe Sly (Don Giovanni) and ensemble © Jean-Pierre Maurin
Philippe Sly (Don Giovanni) and ensemble
© Jean-Pierre Maurin

Hungarian director and Frank Castorf protégée David Marton was nominated for an award in 2009 for his production Don Giovanni Keine Pause (nach Mozart) which suggests he previously considered the composer malleable if not dispensable. In Lyon, Marton turned da Ponte’s amoral sexual adventurer into a bipolar passive misfit with a tendency to frequently lapse into Zen trances, squatting in the lotus position on his bed. Instead of being a mercurial partner in seduction, Leporello was a cheerful chappy with a fixation for playing vinyl recordings of Don Giovanni on a portable turntable. “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” involved showing Donna Elvira a series of old Giovanni LPs. 

Masetto and Zerlina were not gullible peasants here, the former a doctor tending to Giovanni’s psychological disorders with his fiancée as a flirty nurse. The Commendatore was bizarrely transfigured into a handsome young lad in pyjamas (Cléobulle Perrot) who appeared beside Donna Anna’s bed during the overture. As she started to unbutton his top, there was the obvious implication of imminent incest, but this makes no sense of the Commendatore’s “Lasciala, indegno!” The adolescent papa was constantly on stage as an observer, but during the dénouement he returned to confront a shirtless Giovanni and hand him a safety knife with which to slash his veins. An inexplicable homoerotic element was enforced when Perrot also removed his pyjama top. There was a lot of eating going on, but the fatal supper had Giovanni munching a bowl of vegan gruel, sitting crossed-legged as usual on his bed. Definitely no pheasant on the menu for Leporello to snaffle. Interestingly, Marton decided to end the opera before the “Questo è il fin di chi fa mal” ensemble. Perhaps too close to home.

Philippe Sly (Don Giovanni) © Jean-Pierre Maurin
Philippe Sly (Don Giovanni)
© Jean-Pierre Maurin

The single stage set by Christian Friedländler was a large, split-level cement space which could have been under a motorway, with two enormous holes to reinforce the Zen factor but without any practical purpose. There were frequent pauses for recorded wind noises to howl and roar. A four-poster bed was on the stage for most scenes and there was no attempt by lighting designer Henning Streck to change the voltage for the “Deh vieni alla finestra” nocturnal confusion. The only significant alteration in stage setting was in Act 2 when a semi-translucent fabric tube was lowered from the ceiling. Giovanni delivered a lengthy extra-textual monologue in French from within about his Hamlet-esque dilemma. Clearly Marton believed da Ponte’s libretto needed improvements.

Philippe Sly (Don Giovanni) and Cléobulle Perrot (“Commendatore”) © Jean-Pierre Maurin
Philippe Sly (Don Giovanni) and Cléobulle Perrot (“Commendatore”)
© Jean-Pierre Maurin

Regrettably Philippe Sly was noticeably unwell and his vocal performance in the title role was significantly below that of his interpretation in Aix-en-Provence last year. Marton’s direction of a limp, lethargic, spaced-out zombie would certainly have induced indisposition in any intelligent performer. Neither Piotr Micinski (a balding, bland Masetto), Yuka Yanagihara (a mono-dimensional, chirpy Zerlina) nor Antoinette Dennefeld (an unrefined, raucous Donna Elvira) displayed any degree of vocal excellence. Julien Behr was more successful as Don Ottavio with stronger vocal assurance in “Il mio tesoro” than “Dalla sua pace”. Kyle Ketelsen tried valiantly to rise above the dilatory characterisation and had impressive vocal strength in his lower register as Leporello. Attila Jun’s off-stage amplified Commendatore gave no indication as to the true quality of his voice. Top vocal awards went to Eleonara Buratto who, despite not knowing whether she was having illicit sex with a toy boy or her father, sang a formidable Donna Anna. “Or sai chi l'onore” had real musical majesty and despite the galloping tempo, “Non mi dir” was notable for a stellar piano B flat fermata on “abbastanza” and immaculate semiquaver roulades. 

Philippe Sly (Don Giovanni) and ensemble © Jean-Pierre Maurin
Philippe Sly (Don Giovanni) and ensemble
© Jean-Pierre Maurin

In keeping with the endless directional distractions on the stage and wanton liberties taken with the text, conductor Stefano Montanari decided that Mozart’s music also needed improvements. Playing the fortepiano himself, many of the recitatives were left a cappella, and those that were included were distorted to the point of having no semblance to Mozartian style at all. “Là ci darem la mano”, for example, was jazzed-up into an oom-pah-pah-pah pavane. Montanari’s overall tempi tended to be frantic and frequently ahead of the singers. Orchestral tuttis were uneven and synchronization barely proximate.

This mangled approach to Mozart by Marton and Montanari seriously compromised the hitherto excellent reputation of the Opéra de Lyon and is best forgotten.