March 28, 2003
Komische Oper Berlin

Libertinage or The Excess

Don Giovanni at Komische Oper Berlin - A "Regietheater" highlight


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Don Giovanni


Komische Oper Berlin
Conductor: Kirill Petrenko
Director: Peter Konwitschny
Set Design: Jörg Koßdorff
Costume Design: Michaela Mayer-Michnay
Light Design: Franck Evin
Chorus Master: Hagen Enke

Don Giovanni : Dietrich Henschel
Donna Anna : Bettina Jensen
Don Ottavio : Finnur Bjarnason
Stadtkommandant : James Moellenhoff
Donna Elvira : Anne Bolstad
Leporello : Jens Larsen
Masetto : Florian Plock
Zerlina : Sinéad Mulhern

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Libertinage or The Excess

Don Giovanni at Komische Oper Berlin - A "Regietheater" highlight

by Steven Benzin / translation: Andrej Huesener / photos: Monika Rittershaus

Mozart's Don Giovanni has always been a topical opera: "The overwhelming musical quality is founded in the opera's suggestive powers." Peter Konwitschny finds radical expression for these suggestive powers in his controversial production for the Komische Oper Berlin. "It is important to me that, in the production, the opera's inherent conflicts are not watered down or omitted," says Konwitschny. His vision of Don Giovanni is direct and straightforward, a prime example of absolute musical theatre. He is a master of characterization, putting huge physical demands on his cast. The new translation of the libretto by Bettina Bartz and Werner Hintze gives the opera a new contemporary dimension.

Don Giovanni: zum Vergrößern klicken / click to enlarge

The production begins with a pantomime of Leopold Mozart - cane ready in hand - overseeing his son Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's piano practice. Little Wolfgang plays himself into a frenzy, liberating himself musically from the strict father figure, until Leopold interferes with the cane. The conflict between father and soon becomes a "leifmotif" for the production.

Kirill Petrenko, GMD of the Komische Oper Berlin, starts off the overture with enthusiasm and aggressive dynamics. He maintains this style throughout the opera: his tempi are fast, maintaining the chamber music dimension of the score. Petrenko, skilled in authentic performance practice, energetically pushes the music and keeps the action moving. The orchestra responds to its conductor with verve and close attention to detail.

Konwitschny uses associative imagery: Giovanni, dressed like a guru, preaches sexual liberty and sensual excess to a soulless bourgeois society dressed in uniform grey. Konwitschny makes clear that both principles are doomed: Don Giovanni's confusion of love with egotistic sex, society's confusion of morals with spiritual impotency. At the end, neither party is able to love. The failing love affairs throughout the opera are shown with humour and an eye for detail, occasionally using cheap trashy humour.

Don Giovanni: zum Vergrößern klicken / click to enlarge

Don Giovanni moves from one disaster to the next. Dietrich Henschel, giving his role debut, creates his character with amazing physicality and charisma. His flexible high baritone is ideally suited to the musical demands of the part. Henschel's Don Giovanni is neither a demonic seducer nor a monster, but the last survivor of an extinct way of life. All the characters are driven by restlessness and dissatisfaction. The production carefully caricatures the hysterically neurotic antics of Donna Anna (an impressive Bettina Jensen) and Donna Elvira (Anne Bolstad). Don Giovanni and Leporello (sung by Jens Larsen) play off each other, particularly their recitatives being acted out with a sense of fun. In Larsen's characterization, Leporello is much more than just the servant trying in vain to deter Giovanni from his actions. He documents Giovanni's cruelties, acts as a matchmaker and a cynical chronicler of his master's life. The only real difference between Giovanni and Leporello is the latter's cowardice.

Despite the inventive production occasionally overpowering the singers, the singing throughout is superb. Konwitschny stages Act 1 as a coitus interruptus, culminating in an orgy overseen by Don Giovanni like Saint Sebastian, marvelling at his seductive powers. Even naive Zerlina is no longer a victim of rape but succumbs to sexual desire.

Donna Anna, Donna Elvira and Don Ottavio slowly undress. Observing the orgy with disgust at first, they soon begin to enjoy what they see before losing all inhibitions and joining in, having succumbed to their own hidden sexual desires and lost their presumed morality.

In Act II, the joy in excess gives way to aimlessness. Protected by the night, Giovanni enjoys just one little adventure, whilst the other characters roam the stage aimlessly. All characters will be shot that night, losing their identity. It is here that Peter Konwitschny packs a punch with his vision. When Don Ottavio interrupts his Act II aria to read from a Mozart letter to his father, the production takes on a whole new dimension. In the letter, a document of existential directness, Mozart writes about death. The fact that Konwitschny has the letter read by Don Ottavio is one of the production's key moments. For a moment, the music pauses and the audience is given an insight into Mozart as a human being. We learn of Mozart's fears, his deep humanity and his desire to find out about life's secrets. Don Ottavio's drama is that he doesn't even reach Donna Anna's innermost desires.

Don Giovanni: zum Vergrößern klicken / click to enlarge

From this moment on, the action is driven by despair and loneliness. There are no winners or losers; justice and morality are defeated. Don Giovanni is unwilling to acknowledge society's norms and renounce personal pleasure. As a consequence he is forced by society to accept his "luck" and the Commander hands him the ultimate status symbol: the tie. The society is the grey demon, and Giovanni's going to hell is staged as the acceptance of society's norms. In a society without space for uncontrolled anarchy and potency, our deep desires are suppressed, not lived. At the end Don Giovanni is castrated by Donna Anna, finally becoming a fully functioning member of society.

In this production, all characters are damaged. Don Giovanni's fall from grace is not a blessing but a loss: the ultimate defeat of eroticism. The atmospheric final scene is staged completely in grey: Don Giovanni, his face pale and motionless, sits in an armchair, surrounded by banal staged festivity. The finale slowly dies and the music fades, leaving the audience confused, angry and helpless. Konwitschny's three-hour tour de force has shown many levels of meaning in Mozart's universal piece of theatre. Finally, it has given it a contemporary dimension, the bleak message of which will not be to everyone's liking.

Komische Oper finally scores big time with this Don Giovanni. With its controversial yet consistent take on the story, the production clearly refuses to give us Mozart as the traditional embodiment of operatic beauty.