Within Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the darkest corners of the soul are exposed by music, stirred up by the lying, lecherous exploits of the aristocratic scoundrel, Don Giovanni. Mozart, enlighteningly, does not judge but rather let’s his victims and his audience decide his fate. More than 200 years since the opera’s première in Prague in 1787, however, our modern-day conscience has more or less condemned Giovanni as a sex-offending criminal, but in this revival of director Jean-Louis Martinoty’s 2010 production for the Vienna State Opera, that and overzealous seriousness is given to an opera which loses much of its nuanced buffa (as Mozart recorded it) or giocosa (as librettist Lorenzo da Ponte billed it). Even on a performance level, it left much to be desired.

<i>Don Giovanni</i> © Michael Pöhn (2011)
Don Giovanni
© Michael Pöhn (2011)

Fortunately, however, a musical feast emanated from the pit with conductor Cornelius Meister at the helm of a confident sounding Vienna State Opera Orchestra. Effective tempi enlivened the score, threatening orchestral bursts pushed the volume to its glorious limit and sumptuously delicate passages threaded through the work with conspicuous emotional weight.

An unglamorous tavern/hotel lobby in1950s Spain sets the opening for the inexplicably 18th century character Giovanni seemingly lives as and is portrayed to be. It’s a very dark production with an unsavoury attitude and creatively problematic approach to light, which it received in rations from lighting designer Fabrice Kebour. 

Martinoty has thrown many an idea forward with mixed results but few were ignited with distinguished acting and occasional protracted pauses between scenes ruined the generally successful manner in which scenic flow occurred across the opera’s numerous shifts. 

On the other hand, in a clear attempt to drive momentum, bleeding the action that would happen in a subsequent scene with what was occurring in an immediate scene, assisted marvellously, such as when the female guests attending Zerlina and Masetto’s wedding arrive during the recitative before Leporello’s  “Catalogue Aria”, bringing much eye-popping attention to the catalogue. 

Three skewed, proscenium-like frames and a raised, skewed stage (on which noisy cast movements were unforgivably distracting) formed the basis of Hans Schavernoch’s set designs. Various scenic builds and projections, punctured with dramatic perspective, added vividness. More successful were Giovanni’s ballroom scene ending Act I, with guests and onstage musicians taking a leap back to an 18th century masquerade party featuring plush costumes by Yan Tax and the luminously grand cathedral dominating the square as Leporello threatens to leave Giovanni. The tavern/hotel lobby idea never worked.

On his punitive path to the demons, Adam Plachetka neither convinced as a libertine seducer nor as a deceitful criminal. It was difficult to grasp exactly what this tall, imposingly strong but clumsy predator was, but he proved a master in his disguise as Leporello, despite the marked height difference. Plachetka’s vocally robust baritone found only intermittent grounding but a fast, confidently spiced "Champagne Aria" displayed his dextrous best.

Of the remaining soloists, only two artists elevated vocal work on a night when the expected high calibre of the Vienna State Opera came sadly undelivered. Soprano Hibla Gerzmava, as the Commendatore's daughter Donna Anna, stood out for her relaxed acting style and vocal control in both aria and ensemble, exercising luscious rapid beauty, a smooth legato and delicious feathery vibrato. Consistently sound from start to finish, Gerzmava’s Donna Anna presented not so much a victim of rape as the perpetrator of justice with a fire burning behind her pathos. 

Tenor Benjamin Bruns similarly impressed as Don Ottavio, Donna Anna's betrothed. Prodding more like a police inspector than acting as a compassionate lover, together with Gerzmava they oozed magic in duet. After an imposing opening, Bruns swung through the crescendos and decrescendos of Act I’s "Dalla sua pace" with as much ease as his rich tonal colouring from high noted head-voiced to low noted chest voice, continuing to share everything from variegated shaping and stentorian strength to secure phrasing and fervent coloratura. 

As Leporello, bass Paolo Bordogna was sometimes a clown, a gentleman or a seducer, but never entirely commanding. Despite excelling with prestissimo agility, Bordogna lacked vocal thrust, and a nervy-sounding quality to the voice only intensified what was a dreary performance.

As Giovanni’s scorned lover Donna Elvira, Olga Bezsmertna’s velvety dark tone lost out to a constricted vocal tightness but, when it mattered, her voice heaved with rousing beauty and scintillating gliding notes, exhibiting her finest in Act II’s "Mi tradì quell'alma ingrata” as Elvira pours out her conflicting emotions for Giovanni.

Tae-Joong Yang appeared locked in monotone vocal difficulty as Masetto, playing something of a flashy gang leader but oddly lacking courage. Aida Garifullina brought measured sweetness and cunning to his bride Zerlina, her soprano initially lacking phrasing but imbued with airy, honey-voiced attractiveness. Ryan Speedo Green distantly thundered as The Commendatore as the voluminous orchestra got the better of him but the Vienna State Opera Chorus added fervour and structure at every juncture.

Sadly, in what comes across as an overthought interpretation, it seemed that so much was missing from this performance.