Live opera restarts with Mozart’s chilling D minor chord from the Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, as their socially distanced production of Don Giovanni breaks the silence from the opera houses since March.
Symbolism pervades even more than usual in a Mozart opera. Don Giovanni, the promiscuous but lovable rake would be a super-spreader in Covid-19 parlance, there’s the masked ball of Act 1 and the banquet in Act 2, which arrives in take-away boxes.
This is a performance for television, but just in black and white so capitalising on our mood of reduced opulence. Make-up for monochrome aiding the suspension of disbelief, as it does in old silent movies. The props come from Swedish Radio museum: a working retro video game, cube television screens and old lighting luminaires. It gives a sense of blitz spirit, Mozart’s timeless music punching though the gloom, despite. We heard that emotion just now on BBC Radio 3 when Stephen Hough’s virtuosic playing of the piano at the Wigmore Hall broke the silence of live broadcast music from London. That was the first of a daily series of stella concerts which are a sort of Covid reincarnation of the BBC’s broadcast relays from the National Gallery of Myra Hess’s famous morale-boosting concerts in the dark days of World War 2.
Gloriously imaginative but just a web event, with all the restrictions that implies - this production embraced the limitations and made them strengths with a very contemporary production. The Stockholm staging is entirely for remote operated television cameras and us, the unseen remote audience. The singers’ guide lines are marked with striped tape on the floor like distancing lines in a supermarket. The orchestra are sitting at desks somewhat spaced on stage and facing the wrong way, the conductor is against the back wall with video projections behind him.
Leporello arrives in the stage area and starts switching on the on-stage video monitors, obsessively sanitises his hands (symbolism there) then has an impressive piece of equipment to hit a button on, it looks like an old professional slow-motion replay controller. Donna Anna arrives brandishing an 8mm film camera like a gun. The only time social distancing, indeed no-touching, is broken in the whole opera is when Don Giovanni snatches the camera from the hand of Donna Anna, breaking etiquette in the opera and social distancing in our time. On walks the Commendatore in his nightclothes, the voice of morality. Don Giovanni kills him by switching off the monitors showing his face one by one and the Commendatore falls to the ground.
Donna Elvira’s appearance brought the performance to life. The wronged women seizes the stage and the performance flew from then onwards. This became a performance to enjoy, the staging specific for this night, this lockdown and our thirst for the creative rush of live operatic drama at a high level.
The musical performances are first-rate and well within up-to-date modern practice. it’s a small-scale orchestra with modern instruments so we have the lively, supple sound with plenty of enthusiasm.. The singers are first-rate, I’ve already mentioned Malin Byström’s gripping Donna Elvira. Peter Mattei as Don Giovanni is a convincingly suave seducer with a great voice.. several times he reminded me of the movie Saturday Night Fever. Donna Anna (Mari Eriksmoen) very credibly desirable and sings so sweetly...
Johan Schinkler, bass, as Il Commendatore is crucial to the resolution of the plot. Although only in video projection in extreme close-up, his voice along with his face characterisation carried the chilling dénouement.
But the production staging breaks just about every rule in the books. We don’t always see the person singing. We see all four walls. We see the cameras and microphones, oh and a lot of the lights too. We see the conductor over the orchestra against a video projection. And the conductor sings a minor role There are multiple contradictions between stereo left and video left. And so on, it’s fantastic and creative.
Unfortunately... the significance of the event was its downfall. Worldwide publicity ensured a larger audience at the start than the servers could connect. Things sorted out quickly enough and the broadcast is promised to be available on replay until September.
The luxury of a performance staged just for television happens rarely, let alone an experimental production of Don Giovanni with a cast as good as this.
So it’s glorious, imaginative, absolutely of this moment. Thank you Berwaldhallen, Stockholm!
Mozart’s Don Giovanni, K527
The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Members of the Swedish Radio Choir
Daniel Harding, music director
Peter Mattei, baritone - Don Giovanni
John Lundgren, baritone - Leporello
Andrew Staples, tenor - Don Ottavio
Mari Eriksmoen, soprano - Donna Anna
Malin Byström, soprano - Donna Elvira
Henning von Schulman, bass - Masetto
Johanna Wallroth, soprano - Zerlina
Johan Schinkler, bass - Il Commendatore
Director Andrew Staples
Set and Light Design Bengt Gomér
Costume Designer Helle Carlsson
Assitent Director Aurélie Ferrière
Projection Technician Ishai Mika, Per Rydnert, Anders Granström
Lighting Technician Rickard Gabrielsson
Recording Producer Jan B Larsson
Music Engineer Johan Hyttnäs
Broadcast Engineer Peter Flodby