A dinner in hell: 18th century opera set to appear on Israeli stage

Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ beckons at the Israeli Opera

 MOZART ALLOWS Don Giovanni’s entry into many lives. (photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
MOZART ALLOWS Don Giovanni’s entry into many lives.
(photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)

Don Giovanni is unable to stop. Since the 1787 Prague premiere of this opera, he fascinates us. How many lives has he ruined? His servant Leporello has the numbers. “In Italy, 640,” he informs the stunned Donna Elvira during the “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” aria. “In Germany, 231,” he adds, “but in Spain, they’re already 1,003.”

Danish director Kasper Holten crafted a visual kaleidoscope, ever turning, which mimics how Don Giovanni’s whole world breaks down and is recreated from moment to moment with each new seduction. Baritone German Enrique Alcantara will play the lead and bass singer Petros Magoulas will take the stage as the Commendatore, the man whom Don Giovanni murders, and the ghost that moves the living statue to come knocking at the sinner’s door.

For conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens, Don Giovanni is like a virus. “He is a taker,” Steffens told The Jerusalem Post, “he takes from everybody. Women, yes, but also from men.”

As the first act comes to a close, Don Giovanni takes Leporello hostage. Unwilling to trust anyone, he calls on his own courage. “Let the whole world crumble,” baritone Mariusz Kwiecien sang in this production when it was performed at the Royal Opera House, “Nothing can frighten me!”

Unlike Orpheus, who is able to love deeply and goes to hell to save one person, Eurydice, Don Giovanni is unable to love anyone but himself and is dragged to hell by the weight of his many sins. 

Monteverdi placed Orpheus in one of the earliest operas as a key to what the (then) new art form could do: Bring mythology to life and stir deep emotions. Mozart placed Don Giovanni at the heart of a new mythology, much closer to us.

Leaping head-first into the party

Don Giovanni’s Champagne Aria, less than two minutes long, is a refusal to reflect and a leap head-first into a great party. The party only serves one, himself, to expand his list. “Ah la mia lista/ Doman mattina/ D’una decina/ Devi aumentare” (Oh my list/ tomorrow morning/ by 10 you’ll increase) he sings. For Holten’s 2010 Juan, a film adaptation of this opera, Baritone Christopher Maltman sang it in the shower.

“Don Giovanni was used by other composers, as well,” Steffens told the Post, “but what makes his music unique, the reason we listen to him today was Mozart’s ability to explore emotions.”

“In The Marriage of Figaro,” he noted, “the so-called ordinary people get some great music.” In this opera, when Don Giovanni enjoys music, the last piece he listens to is “Non più andrai” (You shall go no more). Mozart, who conducted the premiere, offered it to the audience as a hint to what was about to happen (“You shall go no more, lustful butterfly”). It is also a joke, the first person to perform as Leporello, Felice Ponziani, also sang this aria as Figaro. Prague opera aficionados surely laughed when Leporello told his master he knows this tune all too well.

TO BRING a Royal Opera House production here is no small feat. When asked, Steffens described how his decades of experience aid him in joining musicians together into a Klangkörper, a sound body. The term, he added, is connected to Klingen, which is both a sound and the ringing of a bell.

“I never control,” Steffens explained, “it is about the art. If I stop them to say, for example, the violins need to be faster, even if I do it 10 times, it is because the psychology of the character needs it.”

Mozart was an innovator. In his time, the flauto traverso (side flute) was used to express high feelings. Mozart did not care for that so he replaced it with the clarinet, which was fairly new back then.

In Don Giovanni, whenever Mozart wants to express true feelings, Steffens pointed out, “he uses the clarinet.” Steffens is a master clarinet player in his own right.

Like Mozart, who dared to use the latest technology of his day, Holten uses state-of-the-art moving sets and visual projections to offer us visual nourishment alongside the life force of great music.

He is not alone in this. When The Magic Flute was shown here, it fused animation and theater in a bold, highly appealing manner. The Tales of Hoffman also employed brilliant set design to convey the despair of the writer trapped in a cycle of doomed love affairs and dipsomania. This Saturday, one may enjoy Wagner’s Lohengrin streamed live from the Met Opera on the silver screen at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. Is it possible that, at times, the technology robs a little of the power opera has?

“I fight so people come and encounter flesh and blood singers and musicians who create sound in the moment,” Steffens said. “When I wake up, I feel like a 61-year-old man. When I exit the rehearsal room, I feel like a teenager. The sound nourishes mind and body,” he added, “this is why the path of the musician is a great one, you are able to both receive and give this gift.”

Don Giovanni at the Israeli Opera, 19 Shaul HaMelech Blvd., Tel Aviv, will premiere on March 19 at 7:30 p.m. and is scheduled to run for nine more shows: March 20-22 at 8 p.m., March 24 at 1 p.m., and March 25-26 at 8 p.m., March 27 at 6 p.m., March 29 at 8 p.m. and March 30 at 6 p.m.

NIS 195-445 per ticket. For more information and tickets, call 03-692-7777. Sung in Italian with English and Hebrew subtitles.