John Axelrod

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12 Feb 2009
Axelrod's vision for Don Giovanni in Luzern

Let's forget about music for a few graphs and let's stick to the "theater" part of "musical theater": Opera Chic agrees with Peter Sellars that the libretto for Così Fan Tutte is the most merciless text ever created for the musical theater -- the layers and layers and layers of deception (and self-deception) just never end, the harder you look the more Da Ponte's poetry unlocks its beautiful mysteries. And Le Nozze di Figaro, as we all know, is simply l'opera perfetta -- that amazing ending of Act II that's the eternal gold standard of slapstick comedy, the envy of even Hollywood's golden era of cinematic wonders; and Nozze's Act IV finale, that most heartbreaking meditation on love, forgiveness, and how deception changes us forever, victims and perpetrators alike. Not to mention Nozze's still devastating message re: social status and the dangerous intermingling of the classes -- marry up -- or down -- at your own risk, the always cynical Abate Da Ponte warns us.

In a way, for Opera Chic the libretto of Don Giovanni is the orphan of the DaPonte/Mozart trilogy: rich as always with rewards for one's probing -- the Donna Anna rape that might not be a rape, that mysterious statue that pops out of nowhere so incredibly soon after the murder... -- it's still based on an eminently crude piece of religious propaganda of the kind that was peddled to a basically illiterate medieval populace and boils down to "you have teh secks, you'll go to hell". DaPonte himself, a practical man, does not change the gist of the story (more cautionary tale than parable), leaving to the philosophers centuries of hand-wringing about the Libertino's metaphysical matters. DaPonte's Don has little use for metaphysics -- he wants to have fun, and we all know the only way he can actually have it.

This doesn't mean that all those directors who staged meditations about the Don haven't produced many interesting works -- of course the Mozart Da Ponte trilogy is the perfect example of a body of work that lends itself to infinite analysis and infinite tweaking. Same for conductors -- so many beautiful readings of a Luciferine Don, wrapped in unsettling musical chiaroscuro. But the historical reality is that Da Ponte wrote the Don Giovanni libretto fast, fueled by huge pots of coffee and platter after platter of cookies, using the coffee breaks to chase the underage maid. With little use for niceties. Because the horndog Da Ponte Don Giovanni -- Kierkegaard be, appropriately, damned -- is a man -- and an opera -- about one thing: sex.

And thank Dyonisus for Maestro John Axelrod's interpretation of Don Giovanni we witnessed last night in rained-out, snowed-out, icicle-cold Lucerne: for his final performance as Music Director of Switzerland's Luzerner Theater (and Chief Conductor of the Luzerner Sinfonie Orchester...but much more on that later) Axelrod went for the jugular of Mozart/Da Ponte's Don Giovanni, the amazing valediction of five years of his work in Lucerne.

This was not the Don seeped in the Caravaggio-like lesson in chiaroscuro recorded by Fricsay, nor the evil malevolent presence of Klemperer's Don (that glorious New Philharmonia sound with Nicolai Ghiaurov's stormy Don and Walter Berry's thick Leporello); and leave home without the crystaline and terrifying vernacular of Wilhelm Furtwaengler's dark & muscled Don from the 1950s Salzburger Festspiele (with a frightening Tito Gobbi as our Lothario), nor was it the thick-as-molasses, lugubrious Fricsay (with our #1 man-crush Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the Don).

Axelrod, a Bernstein alumnus and former Eschenbach assistant @ Bayreuth, instead, chose to wrap his young cast in an enthusiastic, punchy, shining and frenetic lexicon, a caffeinated ride worthy of Da Ponte's writing marathon. It's a parable of sex addiction where the Don (sung & acted by pretty-boy, lithe and blond Tobias Hächler -- a long-limbed Cherub whose only interest is adding new names to his catalogo -- he's not even a collector, he's a grim reaper of sexual stats) relentlessly drives himself to cataclysmal demise. Not because he's evil but because that's what gets his rocks off -- the Don doesn't do morals, he only does one thing. He's a one-issue man. Like a perpetually-swimming shark, he has to keep moving because stillness would mean death.

Leporello was a stellar match to the Don: Opera Chic truly loved Marc-Olivier Oetterli's scruffy, three-day-beard reluctant partner in crime and pimp for the Don -- he's a wonderful actor with a weighty but elegant technique. Other standouts were Sumi Kittelberger's (Best. Name. Ever) cute-as-a-button Zerlina, and Madelaine Wibom's beautifully acted Donna Elvira -- her eyes two pools of sorrow, she played a girl crushed by denial and unable of finally bringing herself to accept reality -- "who could tell me", indeed.

No, the evening wasn't about proper, crystalline Italian diction or big budgets -- Stephan Mueller's bare-bones production, in modern day costumes, cut to the bone of the story with grim efficience -- even losing the Commendatore's statue in the darkness of Mueller's minimalist mojo. We instead witnessed a young, up-and-coming cast (the exception was the last-minute replacement, seasoned pro Loukianetz as Donna Anna, as we explained below) that was in airtight cooperation and harmony; and an orchestra that was infected by Axelrod's idea -- Don Giovanni's destruction as the obvious consequence of his addiction -- no regrets, no introspection. No tears.

In this context, we would have loved to see the effect of a bolder musical and dramatic choice -- we would have loved to see the deletion of the final sextet, to better appreciate the Don's disappearence as what it is in Axelrod's vision -- a simple, unsurprising fade to black, followed by silence.

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