Don Giovanni, Hamburg State Opera

More and more opera houses are hiring film directors. Time to let the cinema professionals save opera from itself! But opera does not need saving, and directing it is a complex craft that takes years to learn.

Hamburg’s new Don Giovanni is German film director Doris Dörrie’s sixth opera production, so she can no longer be called inexperienced in the form, but her work is certainly not improving. Like so many operatic newcomers, Dörrie does not know what the clichés are, and so serves them up one after another in the mistaken belief that she is being original.

It is simply not enough to provide loud costumes, a handful of bold images (design: Bernd Lepel) and a programme note suggesting that Don Giovanni is a boring figure. Dorrie cannot move a chorus on stage, she cannot motivate her protagonists, she cannot bring tension and life into her singers’ bodies. Lepel’s sets and videos offer various forms of soft pornography and a wealth of images borrowed from Mexico’s Day of the Dead. But we already know that Don Giovanni touches on themes of sex and death. This is not enough to make an evening interesting. Is this opera for the iPhone era? Will a generation that thinks in 10-second leisure bubbles say “Oh, a giant skull – cool!” and be converted to Mozart?

Somehow I doubt it. A production that never dips below the most superficial level can hardly draw a new public into the depths of a complex form. A superb cast might have helped, but Hamburg’s singers look and sound uncomfortable in Dorrie’s hands. Only Elza van den Heever’s rich, unfettered Donna Anna and Dovlet Nurgeldiyev’s effortlessly lyrical Don Ottavio rise above the troubled average.

What little wit there is comes from Simone Young’s cheeky anachronisms on the fortepiano during the recitatives. The orchestra plays for her with clarity and grace, and she has a strong vision of the work, but these things are not enough to save the evening. The boos and heckling began after interval, and threatened to derail the second half at one point. The Hamburg audience was neither shocked nor outraged. It was merely displeased, and unambiguous in expressing this. Rightly so. Opera on the big stage belongs in the hands of professionals.

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