Erwin Schrott's shaved, carved chesticles could only distract us so much from sitting through a Don Giovanni that never delivered vocally, musically, or theatrically. In short, it only delivered chestically.
Saturday night's la prima of Mozart's Don Giovanni (in Peter Mussbach's revival of the production first seen at Scala four years ago, then conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, who at least gave an interesting if uneven reading of the score) was politely applauded at curtain call by the Milanese (OC included) just as politely as it was applauded four years ago. Throughout the decades, La Scala has given many impressive Don Giovannis: Abbado, Muti, Harding -- and let's not forget Dudamel's questionable (but yeah, exciting) Don in 2006 at Mussbach's premiere. Opera Chic (before she was Opera Chic) was there for Dudi's highly-anticipated stab at Mozart (and stab he did). And while she wasn't crazy about the production, it fared much better four years ago.
This year, the revival is conducted by Louis Langrée, current Music Director of Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival, and while we're definitely admirers of Langrée's artistic contributions in planning the festivals, his conducting of Mozart's lusty dramma giocoso -- neither really dramma nor giocoso in LL's reading -- left us cold.
Erwin Schrott as Don Giovanni -- who recently called himself "100% Uruguayan Meat" in a memorable Italian Vanity Fair Article from December 2009 -- swaggered his (sadly covered) a$$ in his high-waist black leather bell bottoms and floor-length duster (and no shirt -- which gave-off a distinctly 1980s Fabio Lanzoni vibe). Vocally efficient, but really, his bare chest had more stage presence than anything else. Schrott played Don as a cold, detached, calculating dick. It worked for Schrott, and although the Uruguay bass-baritone may have prepared himself well in a solid performance, his portrayal didn't gel with his colleague's interpretations on stage. There was no cohesion between the characters to speak of, and a definite lack of charisma and chemistry marred the production.
In Milan's newspaper Corriere della Sera, Carmela Remigio (this production's Donna Anna) gave an interview about preparing for Mussbach's Don Giovanni, and the German director reportedly screamed, "Extreme! It has to be extreme!" at every rehearsal to remind his singers of their motivation. But extreme it was not. Extremely not! Unless "extreme" to Mussbach means direction with lots of dry humping and straddling. In an opera full of sex and violence, it never got sexy or violent at any point (with the exception of when Schrott wielded a pistol during the deception scene -- why can't someone make a full-on ghetto Don Giovanni, like a West Coast Rap kingpin living in South Central circa 1995?)
Director Peter Mussbach's budget was senselessly blown on two gigantic black rectangles which filled the stage, a minimalistic production where mood was created by a rainbow spectrum of neon lights (opening with blue, fading to lavender, etc...and concluding in fiery orange for the Drag-Me-Down-to-Hell scene). Menacing and exhausting, the black boxes moved on whim, actors scuttling around them as laborious as hurdles. A gimmicky prop was a white Vespa, and although the Vespa could have signaled a 1950s setting, everyone was dressed in modern suits and black dresses (except for Zerlina in a Jean Paul Gaultier-inspired corset and tutu). With such stripped-down staging accompanied by power-saving lights (which cast a grey pall over everyone) the focus shifted to the singing and the conducting. But the production offered none of that, and the absence of visual distractions and aesthetic detailing made for a flat performance.
Langrée chose a thin, underwhelming sound marked with slow, plodding tempi, never once offering accelerando during Mozart's spirited arias (Act I's Don aria, "Fin ch'han dal vino" was boring as heck.) It was a treatment stripped of Mozart's clever musical tricks, almost anti-climatic to the pathos of Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto. However, Langrée managed to offer a sweet range of dynamics, conducting the work more as a symphony, and allowed the singers to shape their vocal lines without bullying them into expression. But there existed a large disconnect between the conducting and the singing, while the biggest insult was the lack of tension and friction, and at times (during Act I's finale, "Riposate, vezzose ragazze") the notes just hung around in purgatory.
Singers were all passable, but their acting lacked cohesion, almost as if they were presenting a concert version of the opera. Georg Zeppenfeld as the Commendatore gave a fine performance, despite his laughable silver armor that had him looking more like a menacing robot from a 1950s comic book. His sword action with Schrott was surprisingly-well choreographed and energized.
We've heard dependable and well-rounded Carmela Remigio in many La Scala productions, but her Donna Anna was mostly underwhelming ("Or sai chi l'onore" was fine as was "Non mi dir, bell'idol mio"). Emma Bell as Donna Elvira was equally mediocre, offered dicey fraseggio in "Ah! chi mi dice mai" in an earthy, low voice, although she rebounded for a solid "Mi tradi quell'alma ingrata". Both women were given frumpy librarian gothic outfits which didn't help their presence at all.
Juan Francisco Gatell Abre as Don Ottavio was solid, and his "Dalla sua pace" had a lovely lightness (and seriously, OC will never cease to be amazed by the sheer beauty of this aria). Zerlina's Veronica Cangemi and Masetto's Mirco Palazzi worked well as a couple, and "Batti batti, o bel Masetto" had lovely and controlled coloratura.
The only standout in this belabored production was Leporello: Bergamo-born, Italian bass Alex Esposito who offered a gorgeous voice and adept acting (although his style was too traditional and old-skool for the modern production). He had a sensitivity and consciousness of his character that was endearing, a glimmer of humanity in a roster of standoffish singers. He had a lean sound that bounced frequently into lovely Rossinian tenore di grazia territory. He also gave Schrott's sculpted pectorals a good run for their money when he stripped off his shirt in Act III.
At the final curtain call, no boos discernable, but a blasé reception for all the stars (with the exception of Alex Esposito's Leporello who got the loudest reception). Which might seem inconsequential, but doesn't bode well for the Italian audiences who will literally recount the exact duration of curtain call applause in the next day's headlines.