AUTHOR'S DISCLAIMER: I am not someone who can be considered an opera fan. I'm not saying I hate opera, merely, I have never been able to find any time to see an opera live. My experience with opera mainly consists of having heard a number of recordings and viewed a few performances on home video or public television. In this review, please don't expect detailed analysis of the individual performers. All I offer is an outsider's view on one particular production. Thank you.
"Don Giovanni" is Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte's operatic telling of the Don Juan legend. This particular stage production, directed by Francesca Zambello, was performed at the Royal Opera House in London, in late 2008. The entire production runs approximately three hours, with the two acts split evenly across two discs.
The first thing that shocked me about this opera, was the immediate unlikable nature of the titular character. I was familiar with the Don Juan character in literature and film, and despite, the theme of him being a notorious womanizer, I wasn't prepared for an unrepentant rapist and murderer. In this production, we are introduced to Don Giovanni as he escapes from the window of Donna Anna, fiancé of Don Ottavio and daughter of Il Commendatore. This isn't merely a scorned woman, seduced by the legendary fiend, but a victim of his treachery. Upon fleeing from the estate, he is confronted by Il Commendatore, upholding his daughter's honor; he is repaid for his nobility with a fatal dagger strike.
This opening scene sets the tone of the production as we see the unrepentant, callous nature of Giovanni. He feels no remorse for his actions against Donna Anna and her father. The lack of remorse springs forth again when Giovanni is confronted by scorned conquest, Donna Elvira. Giovanni's servant Leporello, is left to clean up the mess. Instead of furthering Giovanni's lies, Leporello reveals the sordid details of Giovanni's adulterous history. The Leporello character is a fantastic, bust still corruptible, foil to Giovanni, serving as the "angel" on the shoulder, who gets ignored by Giovanni, who is too busy listening to the "devil's" cries for lust.
The theme of repentance and amorality continues through the play as Giovanni seeks to seduce a young farm girl, Zerlina right in front of her fiancé, Masetto. Giovanni's actions reach an appalling point, you'll either be crying for him to repent or be killed (preferably by either Donna Anna or Donna Elvira). Rest assured though, while the themes of this opera are heavy and dark, there are a number of moments of brief humor that break the tension just enough, that it doesn't become upsetting. Special credit must be given to Kyle Kettelsen, who makes Leporello one of the most interesting characters in the opera and often gets to make the audience laugh with either a facial expression or subtle double entendre.
In terms of the music, Mozart's score is absolutely magnificent, at times it supports the fantastic voices and at others becomes the star itself. All the actors give commanding, intense performances; the previously mentioned Leporello as well as Donna Anna are the most engaging, personally.
The overall design and direction of the production is elegant and subdued. The fantastic costume design combined with the impressive set design help draw the viewer intro Renaissance-era Spain. Director Zambello, definitely seems to understand people are watching this opera for the performances and music, and nothing about the production shows any area that tries to steal attention away from the men and women on stage and in the orchestra pit. Lastly, the filming of the production is straightforward and "invisible."
Opus Arte's 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is reference quality. I saw no sign of digital enhancement and by breaking the production across two discs, compression artifacts are absent as well. Detail and rich color literally pops off the screen, from the grimy stone wall in the background of the first act, to the beautiful costume design. The detail is so good in fact, that during the second act, the stage makeup of one character is very apparent.
"Don Giovanni" features two audio tracks, LPCM stereo and 5.1 DTS. There is a notable difference between the two and while both are stellar, the DTS track packs much more "oomph" and clarity. The surrounds are used perfectly, with the vocals coming from the front and the rears supporting the orchestra (audience noise between arias springs forth a few times and makes you feel like you're in the audience yourself). Most importantly, the whole track is balanced well and I never had to fiddle with volume between quieter pieces and points where the music and vocals swelled to epic levels.
English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian subtitles are present, which is a necessity for someone like me unfamiliar with the opera. However, there are points where no subtitles appear, which I suspected was due to the vocals repeating past lines. This didn't hinder my viewing, since the actors physical performances conveyed the passion of the lyrics.
The extras contained on disc one are sparse, but of good quality. First up is a brief synopsis of the opera using narration and still frames; handy if you broke up viewing both acts with a decent stretch of time. "Into the Royal Opera House" and "A Backstage Tour" are short little segments highlighting the venue the production took place. There's also a static cast gallery, but the meat of the extras are two short interviews by Antonio Pappano with conductor Charles Mackerras and director Francesca Zambello. It's great hearing these two key figures' thoughts on the production, but the overall length is far too short to be very substantial.
A fabulously produced, well performed tale of morality, from one of the greatest composers to grace the Earth, this production of "Don Giovanni" was a wonderful piece for a true opera novice, like myself. The technical presentation is truly out-of-this-world and really made me appreciate the work the people involved put into these productions, especially considering these aren't one-time only performances. Highly Recommended.