Everybody knows a Don. But not everybody loves a Don Juan, although in the opera by Mozart and Da Ponte, most of the women are tortured by the desire he instigates in them. In Ole Anders Tandberg’s staging of Don Giovanni at the Swedish Royal Opera, the Don seems to prefer making love at gunpoint, or in a public lavatory under the threat of discovery. This makes for an uneven, freezingly cold drama, although sung superbly by a cast featuring several wonderful surprises.

Ola Eliasson (Don Giovanni) and Yana Kleyn (Donna Anna) © Markus Gårder
Ola Eliasson (Don Giovanni) and Yana Kleyn (Donna Anna)
© Markus Gårder

This Don Giovanni concludes Tandberg's cycle of Mozart-Da Ponte operas, costumed by Maria Geber, at the Swedish Royal Opera. Tandberg is a man of the theatre, who indulges in on-stage pranks, such as the scout adventure of his Magic Flute (including a group of dancing bears) or the easygoing “Make Love not War” atmosphere of his Così fan tutte. In this dark Don Giovanni, however, the funniest scene is when Zerlina and her Masetto (superb baritone Linus Börjesson) squeeze into the lavatories for a quickie, and the Don sets up a date with her whilst peering in on them beneath the door of the stall: a telling snapshot of a man who clearly heeds no boundaries.

The first two scenes of Don Giovanni simmer at too low a temperature, with added confusion surrounding the assault on Donna Anna and the murder of her father, also set in the lavatory. Sensational Russian soprano Yana Klein brings dark passion and intensity to her portrayal of a woman torn between her lust for the Don, and the loyalty to her father (Anders Lorentzon); torn to the point where she actually assists the Don in firing the gun at her dad.

Ola Eliasson (Don Giovanni) and Luthando Qave (Leporello) © Markus Gårder
Ola Eliasson (Don Giovanni) and Luthando Qave (Leporello)
© Markus Gårder

Ola Eliasson’s business suited Don Giovanni is somewhat distracted in his womanizing, allowing the women to take the lead once they have succumbed to his charms; a strange twist on the traditional macho cliché. Despite this, neither the bespectacled, schoolmarmish Elvira (Elin Rombo) or Sara Widén’ s trashy Zerlina manages to mirror the sensuality of their vocal expression with their bodies. This Don Giovanni is, in fact, strangely unerotic, which may be a point the director tries to make, overstating it by equipping Luthando Quave’s Leporello with a film camera. Even though it makes sense that Leporello would record his master’s conquests live-on-tape while making derisive comments, the effect is mostly distracting.

The Don is more convincing when he finally takes charge and hurls himself into complex strategies of multiple seduction. An explosive rendition of “Fin ch’han dal vino” displays his hunger for the danger of exposure, by his rivals or by the women he has betrayed.

The heat is turned up as the drama tightens in Act II. Here, in a brutally barren setting resemblant of a subterranean sewer, the loneliness of the vulture and of his victims becomes tragically apparent, epitomizing Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist statement that “Hell is other people”. Drifting smoke and the yellowish light of a no man’s land where the sun never rises are brilliant effects, thanks to the crafty design trio SUTODA. Leaving a row of toilet seats on stage for the second act just adds to the surreal nature of the setting. As the party turns into an orgy, it becomes painfully clear that love is banished, leaving behind only the instant gratification of instinctive needs.

Don Giovanni © Markus Gårder
Don Giovanni
© Markus Gårder

Desperate for love and recognition, Don Giovanni and his women literally cease to see and hear one another and voice their longings into empty space. The scene where Don Giovanni picks up the mandolin to strike up his famously seductive serenade “Deh, vieni alla finestra” on an empty stage becomes the desolate elegy of an abandoned lover, sung in a voice threadbare with sadness. As does Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace”, which this faithful lover (elegant Michele Angelini) performs with gorgeous abandon, despite the fact that Donna Anna declares herself “not ready to commit”. Elin Rombo’s delicate soprano may be a trifle too lyrical for Donna Elvira. However, if the point is to underline her obsessiveness and fragile mental state, this is particularly successful when she bursts a desperate of “Mi tradì” before throwing herself at her treacherous lover one last time.

As the drama draws to an end on a picnic site littered with garbage, the Amfortas-like wound in Don Giovanni’s side opens up to the thunderous accompaniment of blaring brass, and he appears to bleed to death. I rarely have heard the Royal Court Orchestra performs with chamber sensitivity, conductor Lawrence Renes providing firm support for the theatrical on-stage musical divertissements and inspiring vocal splendour. This ghostly Don Giovanni may be too discomforting for some, but for those who enjoy drama it should provide an interesting evening.