At Salzburg, Don Giovanni gets no pleasure from seducing
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At Salzburg, Don Giovanni gets no pleasure from seducing
Romeo Castellucci © SF/Anne Zeuner.

by Ben Miller

SALZBURG (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- “Chi son io, tu non saprai,” stage director Romeo Castellucci said during a recent interview in the lobby of the Salzburg Festival’s main theater. He smiled and gestured to an interpreter, who gave the translation: “You will never know who I am.”

The phrase is part of the title character’s entrance line in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and announces the work’s strangeness and ambiguity, the way it shifts between comedy and tragedy. Few stage directors would seem better able to explore and honor its mysteries than Castellucci, who emerged from the world of experimental theater to produce an ongoing series of abstract and enigmatic opera productions.

His staging of “Don Giovanni,” then, is a highly anticipated meeting of work and director. Its premiere, on July 26, will be broadcast live on Austrian television, and the Aug. 7 performance will be streamed online.

Also much anticipated is the first from-scratch collaboration between Castellucci and conductor Teodor Currentzis, who have separately provided some of the Salzburg Festival’s most acclaimed events in recent years. Their “Giovanni” will be unusual — with collapsing churches, falling cars and pianos, a live rat and other extreme images. But Markus Hinterhäuser, Salzburg’s artistic director, said it is not merely inflammatory.

“There is nothing more boring than that,” Hinterhäuser said. “This is provocation in an epiphenomenal way: creating spaces of perception, of resonance, of seeing. That is the provocation that is actually interesting.”

The festival, which last year was one of the first European performing arts institutions to resume live performances, is now pioneering a return to pre-pandemic scale. (“Giovanni,” part of a centennial season originally set for last summer, is among a group of postponed productions.) While many theaters are still blocking out seats, Salzburg is selling — and, in most cases, selling out — its theaters at full capacity. Attendees will be required to be vaccinated, tested or recently recovered from a coronavirus infection; masks were originally not to be required but now are after an audience member tested positive following an outdoor performance of the play “Jedermann.” And artists are being regularly tested.

Castellucci’s concept revolves around the desire to reenchant — to respect the mystery of — the myth of Don Juan (Don Giovanni in the opera’s Italian). “The stupidest and most superficial thing you could do would be to turn him into some kind of Latin lover,” he said, proposing Giovanni instead as the principle of life itself, an element of chaos or disorder that is both feared and desired, violent and attractive.

“Even in the foundations of the myth,” Castellucci added, “he is someone who desires, who needs. And Mozart and Da Ponte” — Lorenzo Da Ponte, the work’s librettist — “only show us his failures.”

It is significant that in the piece, we never see this supposedly great seducer succeed. For Castellucci, then, Giovanni is representative of a childlike ego’s search for love — “the melancholy of the satyr,” which this director understands as beating near the heart of Western culture.

Giovanni is searching not for endless women but for one woman, an impossibly ideal synthesis of incompatible forms of female perfection: mother, lover, prostitute. Desperately searching for wholeness and salvation, he ends up destroying others, treating women only as objects.

Far from the stereotypical Casanova figure deriving pleasure from his conquests, this Don Giovanni is both victimizer and victim, pushed toward violence by the strength of his desires and by his fear of the honest encounter with the other that is required in any loving relationship.

“I think he has some childhood trauma,” Italian baritone Davide Luciano, who plays Giovanni, said in an interview. “I always thought that this was the true character; it’s deeper and darker than just enjoying women. Casanova enjoys; Giovanni does not and cannot.”

In the famous “catalog aria” in the first act, Giovanni’s servant Leporello tells the abandoned (but still smitten) noblewoman Donna Elvira of his master’s many lovers — 1,003 in Spain alone. Often played for comedy, this sequence is for Castellucci something far more serious.

“This is a horrifying interaction,” he said, “in which humans are just numbers.” In response, Castellucci will fill the stage throughout the opera with 150 women who are not professional actors or dancers. Trained in his precise gestural language by choreographer Cindy van Acker, they will begin to trigger Giovanni’s downfall.

“The ‘mille tre’ will be invested with literal substance,” Castellucci said, “to turn the philosophy of the catalog upside down by occupying all the space that is available, with these women who have a body, an age, a biography, a name, a history — who are real persons.”

In the first act, Giovanni will brutalize and dominate these women. As the second act progresses, though, they will begin to take control, eventually leading him to hell.

Mozart, born here in 1756, is Salzburg’s favorite son, and in 1922, “Don Giovanni” was the festival’s first opera production — conducted by the great composer Richard Strauss, with the Vienna Philharmonic, which is still the house orchestra, in the pit. This year, for the first time, the opera will be played here by an ensemble other than the Philharmonic; Currentzis leads his devoted MusicAeterna, which has been heard at Salzburg in Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito” and “Idomeneo” and made its name with a cycle of recordings of the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas.

“I have a very certain theory about the sound of ‘Don Giovanni,’” Currentzis said in an interview after a rehearsal, “rooted in Salzburgian church music.”

“It’s a polystylistic opera,” he added, referring to the score’s combination of tropes from severe opera seria and jovial opera buffa, added to orchestrations that recall religious music. “I wouldn’t say it’s a prefiguration of Romanticism; it is already Romantic. Rather, he goes straight to contemporary music, straight to Alban Berg.”

For Currentzis, the work’s female characters reflect different styles of female singer: Donna Anna, for example, seems to have arrived from an opera seria, and Zerlina, a peasant girl, from an opera buffa. In Don Giovanni’s sexual and emotional scheme, Elvira represents the mother; Anna, the lover; and Zerlina, the prostitute.

These musical and psychological relationships, Currentzis believes, can only be brought out through historically informed performance. He has the players tune their A to 430 Hz, a quarter-tone lower than contemporary orchestras’ standard performance pitch.

“It’s obviously better,” Currentzis said. “Mozart composed music at 430 Hz; that was the pitch of the time. When he made the plan of the tonality, he knew exactly what he wanted to give brightness and darkness.

“If you transpose everything a quarter-tone up,” he added, “all the spectral stuff is completely different.”

The precision of his work with intonation extends to Currentzis’ expectations of singers and their tone. “It is very simple,” he said. “You have a very tight polyphonic structure, and if everything is not precise, everything collapses. We have a Romantic type of singing that came in with the 20th century, and then singers brought this Romantic approach to the operas of Mozart and to polyphonic music. When the voices have less vibrato, this helps me to make the architecture.”

In his recordings, the difference in vocal production from the norm — even more dramatic than what one normally hears in historically informed performances — is immediately audible: harder consonants; very soft and often almost whispered singing; a great deal of straight, vibratoless tone. Currentzis insists that even in the Grosses Festspielhaus, which seats more than 2,100, all this will be audible.

“You don’t have to have the singer sing louder,” he said. “The orchestra can also play softer.”

The singers seem overjoyed, rather than upset, by the demands. “It’s the greatest thing in the world,” said tenor Michael Spyres, who plays Don Ottavio. “It needs to be alive, and it needs to be flexible. Mozart is the farthest thing from stiffness.” The lower pitch, he added, helps the singers to access more vocal colors; Luciano, the Giovanni, said he could pronounce words better at this tuning.

“Normally I work with great conductors,” Luciano said, “but they don’t always know about singing technique. Teodor knows about singing.”

He added that he had been “a little bit afraid” to work with Currentzis and Castellucci, both of whom have well-earned reputations for rigor. But Luciano said that the atmosphere has been “very serene” and that Castellucci “never asks for strange or uncomfortable positions for singers. He is always at our service for the singing, for the music.”

At the end of the interview, Castellucci discussed the opera’s finale: a sextet of the plot’s survivors celebrating the downfall of the central antihero. “We hear how they try to reconstitute society without Don Giovanni,” he said. “But we feel in this joyous music a terrible nostalgia for this person because of the principle of life that he represented. Heidegger said that the artist is a problematizer, someone who creates problems. That, I think, is a wonderful definition of the whole process.”

Currentzis felt similarly, despite the presentation of the title character in all his tortured darkness. “The audience will criticize him during the intermission,” he said. “But in the hall, they want to be him. Don Giovanni does what they want. He has the guts to actually do it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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