Thaddeus Strassberger’s Oslo production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni sets the action in a “mythologically present” Seville, dealing with the role of religion in modern society. Although the production attempts slightly too many things, the singing is outstanding.

Marita Sølberg (Donna Elvira) © Joerg Wiesner
Marita Sølberg (Donna Elvira)
© Joerg Wiesner

Strassberger’s production sets the action in a sort of present-day Seville. People walk around both in modern clothing and in costumes more reminiscent of America in the 1950s and 60s. The production has a tendency of veering off in many directions, but its main focus is the role of religion in modern society. Religion, Strassberger argues, has become nothing more than a commodity. That is perhaps shown most clearly in Act I, during the wedding of Zerlina and Masetto. Zerlina, in a knee-length, white dress, presumably something she pulled out of her closet, is clearly annoyed at Masetto for failing to give her anything resembling a “proper” wedding. Scornfully she sings as other, much happier couples, surround her. Masetto, on the other hand, is still wearing his police uniform; this wedding means so little to him, he can’t even be bothered to put on his suit.

For several characters, however, religion plays a major role, both as a way of dealing with life, but also for finding strength and resolve. The production’s perhaps most radical touch was the decision to have Don Ottavio killing Don Giovanni. For the entire penultimate scene, Ottavio is seen fervently praying, asking God for help, before finally taking aim and pulling the trigger of a machine gun. While this solution is fascinating, it does leave the question of the role of the Commendatore. Was he purely a figment of Giovanni’s imagination? He appears throughout the production, like Banquo’s ghost, yet ultimately he has no influence over the title character’s fate.

Magnus Staveland (Don Ottavio) © Joerg Wiesner
Magnus Staveland (Don Ottavio)
© Joerg Wiesner

As is usually the case with Strassberger’s productions, there is a considerable amount of detail in the direction of the cast and chorus. While keeping the stage action going is all well and good, it often drew attention from the main action. The wish to keep everything going is an understandable one, and detailed choral direction is certainly something to aspire to, but in this case, it overwhelmed the story.

The singing was uniformly impressive, with Björn Bürger’s Don Giovanni and Ann Helen Moen’s Donna Anna creating a lasting impression. This was Bürger’s debut, both in the house and as Giovanni, yet he seemed a lot more experienced, especially when judging by the searing intensity with which he sang and acted his final scene. He came across as overly maniacal at times, most notably in the Champagne aria, but his Don was still alluringly sexy. As Leporello, Marcell Bakonyi’s dark voice offered a nice contrast to the lighter voice of Bürger. Even though Bakonyi proved a very fine actor, with an intriguingly conflicted portrayal of the servant, he suffered poor intonation.

Magnus Staveland, Björn Bürger (Don Giovanni), Halvor Melien (Masetto) and Ann Helen Moen © Joerg Wiesner
Magnus Staveland, Björn Bürger (Don Giovanni), Halvor Melien (Masetto) and Ann Helen Moen
© Joerg Wiesner

Albeit somewhat emotionally distant at times, Moen’s Donna Anna was beautifully sung, with breathtakingly long legato lines, especially in the first section of “Non mi dir”. Her coloratura was similarly accomplished, even though it got drowned by the orchestra at times. As Don Ottavio, Magnus Staveland gave a cold interpretation, but certainly one with more substance and guts than most others. His singing was nuanced, but his voice had a tendency to spread at the top. It was a shame that “Il mio tesoro” was cut.

While her singing was beautiful throughout, Marita Sølberg’s Donna Elvira was disappointing in terms of acting and characterisation. Her Elvira, certainly one of Mozart’s most complex characters, never seemed more than slightly annoyed, and her acting generally involved little more than finger-wagging and very determined walking across the stage. Still, her singing, especially in the first act was outstandingly beautiful.