Sunday, July 11, 2010

Dima Tcherniakov created the finest Don Giovanni in business

I posted the link and embedded the video from ArteLiveWeb here. If you're still interested in seeing this wonderful production --targeting the adults who prefer to see more shades of gray in an opera production, rather than simple black/white portrayal of the characters--  then please do!

I saw it twice, plus one more time in fractions, thinking I might have been a bit too biased, as I globally like the Tcherniakov's work, and maybe his Don Giovanni wasn't all that good as I thought it was after seeing it only once. Well, sorry to all of you guys who disliked it, but after seeing it more than once I definitely think this is one of the finest shows we've ever seen in opera. Never did I see the singers act as good as professional actors in this sort of drama requiring classical acting, in which simplicity and spontaneity are essential, and which is so hard for many professional actors to achieve. Dima Tcherniakov made his crew do exactly that! They seemed spontaneous and natural.

Don Giovanni, July 5  2010 (Festival in Aix-en-Provence, via Arte) 

Director Dmitrii Tcherniakov
Conductor Louis Langrée

The action takes place in the house of Commendatore
Il Commendatore..... Anatoli Kotscherga
Donna Anna, his daughter..... Marlis Petersen
Don Ottavio, her new fiancé..... Colin Balzer
Zerlina, Donna Anna's daughter.... Kerstin Avemo
Masetto, Zerlina's fiancé..... David Bizic
Donna Elvira, Donna Anna's cousin..... Kristine Opolais
Don Giovanni, Donna Elvira's husband..... Bo Skovhus 
Leporello, a relative who lives in the house..... Kyle Ketelsen

The purists are disgusted, the conservative press is outraged, "where is our Da Ponte"?, why Don Giovanni doesn't burn in hell? When something "Regie" knocks on their window, they react by throwing the atomic bombs on the authors. The reviewers are blowing their rants on internet like a chorus of the Soviet journalists who obtained a tip from the commissary not to think by their own heads but to follow the diktat from the Party. Even if  I may occasionally disagree with Francis Carlin's assessment of a given production, I always admire his courage to articulate his own opinion, even if that means going against the main stream. This time again, he's a rare who dared to see beyond Da Ponte's libretto and gives the maximum number of stars to this Tcherniakov's show.

This is a show in which Tcherniakov does a very fine and complex psychological/dramatical analysis of a rich family of our time. It was enough to shake it like a can of warms and unveil all the hypocrisy that overwhelm the basic human relations among the members of the family in which the appearances count the most. In that aspect, Tcherniakov's show resembles a groundbreaking film by Thomas Vinterberg, Festen.

This is a long entry because this show is packed with details, and it's all about the details -- about subtle yet cruel, but profoundly human behavior. If you saw the show and decided you didn't like it... that's fine: I hope you could give it a try once again and maybe reconsider your point of view. If you really dislike-dislike it, don't read the rest of this. To each his own :)

About the show

During the overture, Tcherniakov defines the place where the whole action will happen. It's in the house of Il Commendatore who, as a rich pater familias, receives members of his family for whatever occasion/celebration (Festen).  Already in that first tableau Don Giovanni does not look too fond of the old man. Neither does the young/rebellious Leporello, who's fascinated by Don Giovanni, by his past and his reputation -- like any young man would be.  Moreover --to spice it a bit more!-- he seems madly attracted to Don Giovanni's wife, Donna Elvira. 

Don Giovanni's in his 40's when every man makes a short reassessment of his life, which either boosts his train to the 50's or drags him to depression about how little he's achieved in his 'insignificant' life. This Don Giovanni is a scruffy looking depressive guy fully aware of his sexual magnetism (sort of Marlon Brando in The last tango in Paris). His life is stuck in the family that he depends on. He resents the authoritarian figure of the rich Commendatore, and his whole family. If he's financially dependent on the old man (and the inheritance must be a factor to stay in the family!) and cannot do anything about that, he can use his irresistible charms and hit the women in the family.

His first target is Donna Anna, a character delightfully complex and SUPERBLY acted by marvelous Marlis Petersen. At the beginning she's not raped, but quite obviously enjoyed having sex with Don Giovanni, to the point that she even defends him from her father during the fight scene. That will not only stun her father but will also make him lose control in the fight, and he'll die. How a daughter can live normally after that? It's too much even for the most notorious hypocrites! From then on, Donna Anna will be a hysteric middle-aged woman, ravaged by her own hypocrisy and suppressed feelings for the people around her.  Please see  how Donna Anna reacts after her father is killed! If you're insensitive to this theatrical subtlety...

Now you have 40 days of grief (after the father's death) and the family is supposed to stay together. I think that was clever idea by Tcherniakov because the characters cannot evolve so quickly in 1-2 days.

So, 5 days after the Commendatore's death we see Donna Anna again. She now resumed her role of a rich "grieving" daughter. That hypocrisy must be terribly itching her conscience, but that's not all: she has Don Ottavio -- a perfect boyfriend, successful, gentle...-- exactly the type a woman of her age and her social status is supposed to have around... but she loves Don Giovanni.  The scene in which he expresses his love to her is annoying to her --  she fast puts her sun glasses back on, and in the following duet when talking to him she in fact expresses her love to Don Giovanni [When he sings to her, she avoids his look. ] 

In the first scene it was noticeable that Leporello was attracted to Donna Elvira. The scene in which she shows up for the first time is actually dominated by Leporello saying all the `bad things' about Don Gio, the things she doesn't want to hear. He also tries to be funny (pushing his face against the window)...  She resisted but eventually burst out laughing. Elvira has a pact with Don Giovanni. She accepted his infidelity which makes her suffer, but either because she's so obsessed by Don Giovanni or because simply she enjoys to suffer that way (?) she forgives everything for her man. [Even in the last scene she'll try to help him!]

Don Giovanni instead decides to hit on his next target, Zerlina. She's young, and surrenders almost instantly. The scene with Donna Elvira jumping in is powerful and filled with ambiguities. She looks deep in Zerlina's eyes and see the flame Don Giovanni already set in, and is horrified: (a) she wants to rescue young Zerlina from the claws of her husband as she knows how he operates, (b) Zerlina is a daughter of her cousin and nobody wants such a scandal in the family, (c) or Elvira in facts fights for Don Giovanni against a young and irresistible Zerlina. During the Elvira's aria Ah fuggi il traditor, when she realizes that Zerlina is completely under the charms of Don Gio, her despair culminates -- the interaction and looks the three of them exchange during that aria is one of my favorite moments of the show! You can write an essay only about that scene :)

Why Donna Anna tells to Don Ottavio that Don Giovanni is assassin of her father? Because she understood she's not on the top of Don Giovanni's list. She understood that something happened between Don Giovanni and  Zerlina, but worst of all Don Giovanni left to console Donna Elvira. Jealousy 101, if you ask me.  "Don Ottavio, son morta!" is followed by her big lie about the events leading to the death of her father. Filled with frustration, anger, deluded and disappointed she begs Don Ottavio to help her and avenge "her father's death" (her ego!): wonderfully hysterical interpretation of "Or sai chi l'onore" finish by her tearing his shirt off an offering herself fully him. Don Ottavio,  respectfully and gently (cleverly?) refuses Donna Anna, only to make her pain even more unbearable.   He then leaves and, before the curtain falls, her face transforms into a huge terrible smothering cry (Munch wouldn't do it better!)...

Like mother, like daughter, and 3 weeks later we see Zerlina playing with Masetto, to cheer him up. She too does not want a shame on the family. She's being practical: she needs her "perfect husband" too. Masetto is a simple but overly jealous guy, and Zerlina knows how to work him up. He will follow her to a mask party where the chain of hidden feelings will explode: Don Giovanni approaches to kiss Zerlina (and she loves it!). When Leporello does the same to Donna Elvira, Don Giovanni isn't pleased: male ego speaking here, this is still his wife, right?! To keep Masetto busy Donna Anna steps in and kisses Masetto (why? Is that a message to her daughter?) After Masetto rejects her, Don Ottavio steps in and he too kisses Masetto on the mouth! (why?) Don Giovanni then embraces Donna Elvira, which will enrage Zerlina... The whole scene finish by all of them realizing that they were being manipulated by Don Giovanni and while trying to dismiss them with laughter, he feels the strong  chest pain, something that the rest of them will not forget...

10 days later Don Giovanni drowns his wounded ego in alcohol, and proposes to Leporello to exchange identities.  Leporello accepts it, but not because he's sooo dominated by Don Giovanni. It's rather because he's too young and sees an opportunity to use Don Giovanni's reputation of a big lover and  conquer more women's hearts. Don Gio, on the other hand, believes he's back in the saddle and enjoys the moment in what looks like a delirium scene ("Dah vieni alla finestra"). Then comes the episode with Masetto, who's an easy foe for Don Giovanni.

The moment when Zerlina comes to see her Masetto with his nose broken is very telling: instead of comforting him she goes to see Don Giovanni (Leporello disguised), she knows/feels it's not him but it's his coat which she hold to get sexually aroused  and sing "Vedrai, carino, se sei buonino,
che bel rimedio ti voglio dar!
" Everyone in the room understood what happened. Donna Elvira is horrified, while Donna Anna falls completely depressed, Masetto humiliated... When they realize that Don Giovanni is not in the room with them but Leporello in disguise [who eventually manages to escape] the depressive mood becomes overwhelming. Donna Anna is completely defeated and Don Ottavio cannot do anything but begs Zerlina to console her ("Il mio tesoro intanto"). Instead, Zerlina finds  Don Giovanni's coat, puts it over her head to feel his smell... That is a final coup that will achieve Masetto who too sinks into deep melancholy. When Donna Elvira approaches Zerlina during "In quali eccessi", young girl is brought to her senses, she gets rid of the coat but then she too become  depressed and lifeless.

5 days later and it's time for the ending with a final twist. Whatever happened in between  the two scenes (in these 5 days), Leporello and Don Ottavio made a plan to trick and down Don Giovanni. When they all (except Don Gio) show up in the room Donna Anna finally realize Don Ottavio is da man  and sings a superb "Crudele? Ah no, mio bene!" When Don Giovanni joins them we understand the plan was to bring an actor, to disguise him in Il Commendatore and make Don Giovanni believe Il Commendatore was alive. Don Giovanni feels the same chest pain as in the end of Act 1 and falls on the floor, the actor tears his mustache off, Don Ottavio thank him with a businesslike handshake, and after the successfully done job the actor leaves. They all sit and watch Don Giovanni dying of heart attack. At one point Don Ottavio gets up, checks his watch -- as if saying "Don Giovanni should be dead by now!" Donna Elvira will try once again to jump and help Don Giovanni but Don Ottavio will hold her back. Finally they all leave... The time of grief is over and there will be no one grieving after Don Giovanni.

The number of details and the way Tcherniakov modifies the characters by slightly shifting them from what we're used to see in any production of this opera is what makes this show so irresistible.
Is this Da Ponte's Don Giovanni blindly followed by the director? NO! This is the pure Regietheater that contains nothing outrageous in form. If you like it take it, if you don't move on and look elsewhere. For what it's worth, to me this is one of the finest theatrical work with actors that I've ever seen in an opera. And for that I'm grateful to Tcherniakov, his production team and all the actors/singers. Спасибо Димочка!


Who to single out? No one! They were all magnificent in their roles. I bet Tcherniakov was tough and made them rehearse a lot as not to let too much space for improvisation. There was no situation in which we see one of the sopranos undulating her hands or making dying face while slowly moving on her toes (find me ONE production where this doesn't happen, except in the one by Calixto Bieito!) In this production Don Giovanni never looked boorish and "horny", or plain one-dimensionally evil, like we usually see in the productions of this opera.  Leporello wasn't one-dimensional doggy character either...  

Kyle Ketelsen is absolutely brilliant vocally and scenically. What a pleasant surprise! We'll hopefully see more of him in Europe in the years to come. Marlis Petersen is to me just perfect. Tcherniakov made her act out of her mind, but she knew to modify her approach to singing Donna Anna to be completely in phase with Tcherniakov's ideas. Simply great!  Colin Balzer (Frasier Crane lookalike ;) ) knows how to sing and his Don Ottavio is wonderfully ambiguous: creepy at times, soft, determined, clever...  David Bizic is reliable as ever, even though his role was easy to act when compared to what the other members of the cast had to do. Kristine Opolais is a very good Donna Elvira -- the girl is a born actress and sings wonderfully. Kerstin Avemo had a tough role in this show as this Zerlina is far from what we're usually brought to see and if she wasn't acting it right, the show would've fell flat right from the first scene with her. Even if her last aria wasn't the best in business, she was a fine singing Zerlina on that night. Bo Skovhus is always scenically amazing even when his singing is not perfectly tuned all the time...
Louis Langrée, knows his Mozart and the Orchestra is excellent too but to perform Don Giovanni on the instruments of the times in which this opera was composed is bugging me quite a bit. What's the point? To kill the richness of the tones of the modern instruments? I see this phenomenon is quite frequent these days and I fail to understand what extra value does it add to the show. Sometimes it can mask the flaws in the performance but this cannot apply to this superb orchestra. So what's the point?


  1. Thanks for this review! I'll definitely want to give it a look... but I'll feel better equipped to appreciate it having read your assessment.

  2. Hi Lucy! Try to mentally block your reference productions of Don Giovanni for those 3 hours while you watch this show. Otherwise you may easily get ejected from your comfort zone, asking "Why Donna Anna wasn't raped?", "Why is Zerlina mean to Masetto, when she's supposed to be submissive?" etc, you'd then lose the thread of what's happening on the stage and you'd hate the whole experience.

    I'm not saying you'll like it. I only hope you give it a chance :)


  3. I see this phenomenon is quite frequent these days and I fail to understand what extra value does it add to the show.

    That, I think, could be said about all of the above! My honest opinion, not out of spite. I wanted to like it, I cannot!

  4. Don't worry! Herheim, my other big fave director, is far more radical in terms of add-ons to the original libretto, but his shows are not simple like Tcherniakov's; they're in fact very spectacular and even the stiffest among traditionalists clap like mad :)

    Seriously, if this concept of opera producing doesn't talk to you, you can always find the classically staged production and move on. Life is short!


  5. You misunderstand. It is not the concept of opera producing --- it is all the details you list above. I find them unconvincing.

  6. I understood you're not sensitive to this kind of theater, which of course is your prerogative. Move on! ;)

  7. Hi Opera Cake - first of all to say that the only other work by Chernyakov I am familiar with is his Onegin with the Bolshoi, which I think is mostly amazing. And if I hadn't known it was Chernyakov's DonG before watching it, I would have known within, oh, about 4 seconds... :)
    Like you, I lean towards Regie over more old-fashioned staging, but only because when it is successful then it is for me the most perfect thing in the world. This DonG, however, I don't think worked, for a couple of reasons I spent the last few days mulling over. So here they are:
    1) Forced sarcasm when the text gets in the way.
    If I hadn't seen Onegin, maybe this wouldn't have been such a problem for me but both Tatyana and Leporello have lines that frankly do not fit with his version (vision?) and are therefore forced into a sarcastic vein so they can be said. I'm all for reinventing the text, but this is a pretty one-note way of doing it. And he does it A LOT in both. Which makes me wonder how right is the take when so much needs to be wedged in so clumsily…
    2) He gets in the way of the music - and therefore I question how much the music means to him.
    Opera is text and music -and I don't like it when the music is fucked with. In Onegin he has both Olga and Larina laughing loudly all over the waltz which is problematic to me as it is one of the most gorgeous things ever written. This is, maybe, just my taste. But breaking up the action of DonG with short-but-regular-scene-tweaking-to-show-passage-of-time I think was very destructive to the flow of the score. Particularly evident in Act3 when all action ground to a halt mostly, I think, because the conductor had NO momentum to carry through what is the most static and aria-heavy part of the opera.
    3) Did he go too far – or not far enough?
    Festen is an incredibly disturbing piece of theatre - as is a great Don Giovanni. However, In Festen Christian is seeing visions of his dead sister driven to suicide by serious paternal abuse – this Don Giovanni is a polemic about old-money, bourgeois, bored, European inbreds who drink their breakfast from a whiskey decanter and fuck each other to pass the time. Where is the threat, the matter in his vision? What if, for example, Zerlina was Elvira’s daughter by Don Giovanni which she never told him about? Fundamentally there is nothing happening on stage which makes me care about it, which leads me to…
    4) He doesn’t like the operas he directs nor the characters in them
    This is for me the crux of Onegin and DonG – both intensely dislikable characters written by composers who obviously adored them, which brings drama via sympathy. Chernyakov seems to think that Onegin is an object of ridicule (and the Act 4 polonaise is one of the most incredibly cruel and wonderful pieces of staging I have seen in opera), as is Tatyana for actually falling in love with him. He hates the mother and Olga – turning them into laughing banshees and Lensky is an idiot too – to the extent (and I LOVE this) he’ll make the tenor sing the pissy little Triquet aria. It is this dislike of everybody in the Don Gioovanni that made the Festen-quality of the staging fall flat – Who are we supposed to be feeling for?

    To finish this rather long post (and I really hope you read it and respond) I will mention that the performances were outstanding – all of them. And I won’t ever not see a Chernyakov production of anything – I have daydreams about what he would do to Elektra for example  But finally, I absolutely disagree with your statement that this is the finest Don Gionanni in the business – Claus Guth’s wins hands down for me.

  8. Re Onegin:
    The Triquet aria is Tschaikovsky's original version, I am told on the DVD.
    Yes, the polonaise is super!

  9. Thanks for your note Debbie. Of course I'll answer (later today...)

  10. Debbie, I too like Claus Guth's Don Giovanni (btw, will go and see it again next month), but that production was precisely the opposite to the Tcherniakov's show: he [Claus] followed quite literally the libretto, but transposed the action in such a way that it talks to the youngsters of our time. If you see the previous Don Giovanni in Salzburg (produced by Martin Kusej) you'll see the third stream of "regie"-way of opera producing, much less popular, often cold but eventually remarkable too.

    So, with all respect to Guth --and please keep in mind that I DO like his DonGio!-- his show somewhat looks like he had to wrap it up fast. The episodes with Zerlina stick out of the res and the story looks as if it would have flowed better if he simply ditched both Zerlina and Masetto :)

    Tcherniakov's DonGio is the opposite. He makes many departures from Da Ponte's libretto [in characters!], while keeping the decors rather classical, thus creating a drama with characters: no other distraction is present during the show. None of his characters is either postive or negative. Don Giovanni is not a monster. In the end he pays the price for being too vain a jerk, but he's definitely less hypocrite than any other of the characters in the story [except perhaps Masetto, but well he's just too dumb ;)] This way to shift the characters is very disturbing when you know the story and when you're already familiar with characters of this opera: you expect from a new director to illuminate one side or another of a known character and not to modify them and make them interact "atypically", and none is really positive or negative. Zerlina is particularly different from usual "poor victim" or weak, little, submissive...

    I like that way of putting a spin to the story but I understand many people don't. With his Carmelites in Munich it was much-much more disturbing but since much less people know Carmelites by heart than Don Giovanni, it made less fuss. He TOTALLY changed the spirit of "Salve Regina", and if you saw one (any!) production of Carmelites before, it was maddening while it lasted... but 2 days later I woke up and said it was utterly brilliant!

    I mention this to say that he'd obviously worked a lot with Nagano and singers to reduce the huge pathos in Salve Regina. That thinned the famous finale beyond recognition -- but fitted very well his twist to the story. This is why I'm surprized that you think he gets in the way of the music. I believe he influences the singers (esp. Marlis Petersen!) and the conductor as to convey more of the atmosphere/action he's been creating on the stage. They would have performed differently if it was a different production. To me that's good!

    Does he like the characters in the operas he's producing?! I get your point. Very good! Dima is very probably too cynical to see any of his characters too good or too bad, but deep down I believe he's a good man ;)

    So all in all to me this Don Giovanni is different from both Guth's and Kusej's productions but I like them all for very different reasons. Tooo loooong - I know... Sorry

  11. since when is
    "Zerlina, Donna Anna's daughter.... "
    Why on earth would such a thing be necessary to interpolate into the story?
    i guess this insensitive American just doesn't understand

  12. Nah Charlotte! ;)

    Sensitive or insensitive, it's not the holy Bible that Tcherniakov was modifying. Give him a chance ;)

    He wanted to emphasize that they are related, they are all a big family and the deatures you see in each of the character is just a piece in a bigger picture - which then gives this drama also sociological character (wealthy family with stiff moral principles not living up to them - broader sense of hypocrisy). Also the action is not 24 hours but more than 30 days, which makes more credible the evolution process of each of the character involved in the drama.

    I also believe Tcherniakov 'promoted' Zerlina to Donna Anna's daughter because he wanted further to stress the psychological and moral drama that's been ravaging Donna Anna throughout the first act. Furthermore, as Donna Anna's daughter, when we realize that Zerlina's not naive but a big hypocrite too, it is less surprising ["like mother like daughter"].

    Debbie above was also questioning that: what if Zerlina was Donna Elvira's daughter? I tried to run that scenario through my head too, and I think the idea might have worked as well, but the outcome would be outrageous as the story would gain the incestuous dimension...

  13. I'm still hung up on this Don Giovanni :-)

    The first scene is with Don Giovanni dressing up in a hurry while leaving the room of Donna Anna's and she bags him to stay... They actually didn't make love and her desire for him becomes unbearable... That's very plausible interpretation too, innit :)

  14. Just seen Act 1 on arte---and as you say, it's genius. About the kissing at the party, I think Don G is so miserable he creates this siutation where they can all give up their identities, and so when he gets them to kiss each other, it's not logical at all, they're just freeing up at last (and Don O turns out to be a bit bi-curious). Then Zerlina gets jealous and breaks the illusion. So I think, rather than all the characters being unsympathetic to DT, they're just unhappy people, understandably failing to really solve their problems--Don G's situation is that of all of them, it's not really that he's manipulating them. Still, will look out for similarities at his Onegin at ROH. Thanks for a great (and helpful) review as ever, and for being the single most vocal advocate for this stuff out there.

  15. Thanks :)

    Good point!

    I think Don Ottavio admires Don Giovanni, for being everything he isn't and he too despised the old man and now when he knows that it was Don Giovanni who killed him, Don Ottavio's admiration gears up to level-2 and he feels sexually attracted to him. I think THAT's the moment when Don Ottavio becomes bi-curious. At the party he does what Don Giovanni asked Donna Anna to do (to kiss Masetto).

    Of course, they are all unhappy people. Their desires and true emotions are suppressed and they accept to live like hypocrites -- how can you be happy living like that?!

    The major question that remains to be uncoded is: why do they really decide to kil Don Giovanni at the end? OK, they all feel betrayed, but it goes farther than that...

    As for Eugene Onegin, I saw that production a couple of years ago when it opened the season in Paris. That also is a very intimate show and quite different from what you usually see (no kitch, no ballroom dances, no duel and no snow; looks cozy and genuinely Russian). The same production closed the season 2008-2009 in La Scala and many operagoers loved it. btw, it's been released on DVD.

  16. i just saw the revival of this production at the Bolshoi Opera last week,with Tiliakos,Loconsolo,Gritton,Gioieva,Balzer,Avemo
    it was great!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    just unforgettable production and singers!

  17. I'm glad to learn that :)

    Thanks for sharing.

  18. I post two years later, sorry.
    I loved it... and I am glad to read other people who did...! I cannot say it is the best work I ever saw, it just felt right to me, as some other operas do. My favourite is Platée by Laurent Pelly, but it is personal. As long as it is made lively and consistent, whichever choice is made, I appreciate. The diversity of approaches is a pleasure itself too.

  19. Catch this production again in Madrid & Aix THIS year!!

    - Kyle Ketelsen (taking that wig outta storage)

    1. Thanks, Kyle, for the heads-up. Hopefully someone will broadcast/webcast it again.
      Thanks, Opera Cake for this great overview, and thanks to commenters for the excellent discussion.

      I came to this post via a typical web search trail. I saw David Bižić in the ROH Boheme, then looked for more from him on YT, then I found he was Masetto in this Don G. I wanted to know more about the production, and that led me to your blog. Your post has been very informative, and I can't wait for an opportunity to see this production! Any production that creates this much controversy becomes a must-see for me.