BERLIN: Don Giovanni
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Don Giovanni

Komische Oper Berlin

The highlight of the Komische Oper Berlin’s wintertime premiere of Don Giovanni came before the curtain even rose (seen Nov. 30). Barrie Kosky, the Australian-born intendant who has revitalized the house over the past two seasons, took the stage to welcome Berlin’s outgoing mayor Klaus Wowereit, seated in the Kaiserloge. To generous applause from the sold-out audience, Kosky thanked the mayor for supporting the house and culture in general during his tenure. “Without Klaus, there would not be three world-class opera houses in Berlin,” the intendant said. Kosky has another reason to be grateful to Wowereit; the mayor recently secured Kosky’s contract at the house until 2022.  

The problems started once the curtain went up. This production skipped over the overture and launched into Leporello singing “Notte e giorno facitar” on a near-empty stage. Jens Larsen, the valuable house bass who was miscast in the role, looked like Uncle Fester in his black Pierrot costume. A gaggle of screaming extras scampered across the stage, their cries drowning out the music. The blind Commendatore swung his sword into a floor light, igniting flames and electrocution sound effects; the Don, made up like the Joker (Heath Ledger, not Jack Nicholson), but wearing a matador costume (purple, naturally) couldn’t even wield his sword. The music skipped and sputtered like a broken record as he tried to unsheathe his weapon. The Commendatore saved him the trouble, drove his sword under his shoulder and flopped-down comically. Only at the end of the first scene was the overture (finally) heard, embellished with a made-up coda that connected it inelegantly to the next scene.  

Mixing commedia dell’arte with Tex Avery-style antics and vaudeville pranks, Herbert Fritsch’s production was shockingly dismissive of the music, as if it were standing in the way of his vision. The German director is a disciple of Frank Castorf, the dictator-intendant of the Berlin Volksbühne (and director of the already-notorious bicentennial Bayreuth Ring). Castorf’s influence was evident in the production’s mixture of high-octane theatricality and wholesale iconoclasm. But for all the ideas Fritsch threw at the audience, the end result was surprisingly dull. The colorful costumes and deranged, pasty face paint suggested the Kabuki carnival atmosphere of Robert Wilson or Achim Freyer and the manic, hyperkinetic performances brought to mind some of the Komische’s better outings. But on a deeper level, this production had very little to recommend it, more’s the pity since it supplanted Peter Konwitschny’s sophisticated production from 2001. 

Usually, one can count on the KOB’s roster of young, energetic talent to rescue a performance from the insipid inspirations of a director. Regrettably, the singing was the most uneven I’ve heard at the house in quite some time. The ensemble is always ready to commit themselves body and soul to a production concept. Here, Fritsch seemed to demand too much of them theatrically and the demented goings-on in which they were constantly engaged seeped over into the vocal performances, resulting in impassioned yet high-strung and sloppy singing. 

In his more controlled moments, Günter Papendell — the evening’s Giovanni — suggested the fine singer I know him to be. Too often, however, his ludicrous clown-like performance got in his way of actually singing. Larsen was simply a bad choice for Leporello. The Finnish bass was far too somber, menacing and dry as the Don’s put upon yet good-natured servant. Adrian Strooper had some fine scenes early on as Ottavio and tossed off a first class “Dalla sua pace,” but often his performance seemed slight, ending with a choppy and poorly-phrased “Il mio tesoro.” 

Alone among the cast, the Swedish soprano Erika Roos did not seem distracted by the production. She sang Donna Anna with authority and poise, qualities in very short supply that evening. And while she occasionally had difficulty reeling in her lushly textured tone, her legato phrasings and developed technique made her the production’s brightest star. On the heels of her dazzling and freewheeling performance in the KOB’s season opener La Belle Hélène, Nicole Chevalier once more zoomed around the stage like Bugs Bunny, this time looking like Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride. Her Elvira was impressively indestructible — one of the few dramaturgical decisions that was consistent with the libretto — but vocally all-over-the-place. There was an undeniable excitement in watching her swashbuckling devil-may-care performance: one that contained much bravura and brashness. But the physical stamina often compensated for vocal refinement; her lack of control was most evident in her spirited but technically catastrophic “Mi tradi.”In her far more limited role, the young Israeli soprano Alma Sadé fared much better as Zerlina, although Fritsch often directed her in baffling ways, including an anger-filled “Batti batti”that drained her portrayal of much of its beauty.         

Rounding out the cast, Philipp Meierhöfer was solid in the thankless role of Masetto, while Alexey Antonov’s Commendatore, having made practically no impression in the first scene, made a forceful final appearance — the rest of the cast being, by this point, out of breath — to drag the Don down to hell. 

Fritsch favored butchering the recitatives — sung in a new, not entirely successful translation by Sabrina Zwach — by either rushing them or drawing them out to great lengths. He also instructed the orchestra repeat a chord here or there or, in one case, the harpsichordist to play “Vecchia zimarra” (amusingly while the Don and Leporello trade capes). Up against these formidable obstacles, the orchestra, led by their music director Henrik Násáni, didn’t stand much of a chance. The musicians played well, but it was difficult for Násáni to deliver an account that didn’t sound disjointed and which — like mostly everything else in this production — lacked unity and coherence. 

The KOB has been riding the wave of euphoria that has come rolling in with the Kosky era and every new production of the past two seasons has become an eagerly awaited event. Single handedly, Kosky has managed to turn the Komische into the most fashionable place for opera in Berlin. But judging from the tremendous ovations everyone received — although the few boos I heard stood out for their vociferousness — I wondered if the Komische’s audience has turned a bit too uncritical and worshipful. spacer 


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