Crime and Punishment
This spring, Met audiences will have the opportunity to experience back-to-back new productions of a pair of Mozart masterpieces. The first arrives on May 5, when director Ivo van Hove, one of the leading forces in theater today, makes his long-awaited company debut with a powerful reimagining of Don Giovanni. Conducted by Nathalie Stutzmann—who also leads the new staging of Die Zauberflöte later in the month—and starring the magnetic baritone Peter Mattei, van Hove’s production sees the devilish title character as no mere cad, but as a malevolent force who duly deserves his fiery demise.
Since its 1787 premiere, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s immortal version of the Don Juan story—which follows its prodigal protagonist in his life of debauchery until he’s dragged to hell by the ghost of the man he murdered—has been a mainstay on the stages of every major opera house the world over. With its grim story yet utterly tuneful score and ingenious libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, the opera offers countless interpretive possibilities for any director prepared to take it on. This season at the Met, Belgian-born director Ivo van Hove is ready to make his own mark.
Once characterized as a “maximalist minimalist” by The New York Times, van Hove has been one of theater’s most innovative and provocative directors for nearly three decades. In that time, he has risen to become general director of the Netherland’s preeminent Toneelgroep Amsterdam and mounted acclaimed productions for prominent theaters and opera houses around the globe— including hit Broadway stagings of West Side Story, Network, The Crucible, and A View from the Bridge, the last earning him a 2016 Tony Award for Best Director.
Ivo van Hove
Just as impressive are the cast that the Met has assembled to populate van Hove’s new production of Don Giovanni. Swedish baritone Peter Mattei—whose diverse portrayals at the Met in everything from Berg’s Wozzeck and Wagner’s Parsifal to Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia have cemented his status as one of today’s most captivating singing actors—stars in the title role. His is a portrayal that has been honed in numerous productions over the last 20 years—including three at the Met already—and one that had The New York Times praising “his suave, mellifluous voice and intense stage presence.” Alongside Mattei, the remarkable ensemble is filled with seasoned Mozart singers, including bass-baritone Adam Plachetka as the Don’s long-suffering sidekick, Leporello; sopranos Federica Lombardi, Ana María Martínez, and Ying Fang as Giovanni’s unfortunate conquests; and tenor Ben Bliss as the noble Don Ottavio. And on the podium, Nathalie Stutzmann, herself also a celebrated contralto, makes her Met debut conducting.
As he looked ahead to his company debut at the helm of one of the most eagerly anticipated productions of the season, van Hove spoke to the Met’s Matt Dobkin about his bold new take on Mozart’s timeless tale.
When the Met initially approached you to create a new Don Giovanni, how did you react?
I said yes immediately, of course. In a way, directing a Mozart opera is like directing Shakespeare in the theater. Why would you be an opera director if you’re not interested in Mozart? He so fundamentally reinvented what opera could be—how dramatic it could be, how human it could be, and how it could deal with big ideas and big themes. That being said, I’ve seen a lot of productions of Don Giovanni, by great directors, and it always seemed like a challenge to stage. The music is fabulous, but it’s not always easy to make it work. At the end of the opera, what has seemed like a character driven opera suddenly becomes a metaphysical opera, and it can be a challenge to balance those aspects.
Between Mozart’s score and Da Ponte’s text, there is a lot of room for different interpretations. How did you approach Don Giovanni?
We shouldn’t forget that the original title was not Don Giovanni, it was Il Dissoluto Punito, which in Italian means “The Criminal Punished.” How clear can it be? Just in the first ten minutes, we see a rape attempt and a murder on stage. So for me, an attractive, seductive Don Giovanni was of no interest to Mozart. He made his verdict clear in his title: The criminal should be punished. And that made me think, “Why was that?” That was my starting point.
How does that realization manifest itself in your production? I imagine that you’d want to emphasize the more brutal aspects of Don Giovanni’s character, rather than portraying him as some kind of legendary seducer.
Exactly. I’m quite straight with him in that I really don’t want to present anything he does as sexy. For me, there’s nothing attractive about his character. He’s somebody who has no morality, no ethics—today, we might even call him a sociopath, somebody who has no real empathy for anyone else. And on top of this, he is a person with a lot of power. He has social power over the lower class—Masetto, Zerlina, Leporello—he has a sexual power over Elvira, and he has an emotional power over Donna Anna. The whole journey of the opera is exploring these power structures that allow Don Giovanni to commit his crimes.
Above and below: van Hove’s production at its premiere in Paris
Alongside the very dark elements, though, there are a number of lighthearted moments. Mozart and Da Ponte even labeled the opera as a “dramma giocoso,” somewhat equivalent to what we would call a “tragicomedy” or a “black comedy.” How do you handle the comic elements in the piece?
Of course, the opera has comic elements, but it’s a comedy of situations. If the characters act purely as comedians, that is, just behave comically, it takes away the believability for me. For instance, Leporello—I didn’t want to make him into a joker but rather show him as a real man. Yes, he does terrible things for Giovanni, but he is also a human being who has regret. We feel a lot of humanity in him and see that he craves something more, something better in his life.
How would you describe the production?
Well, it’s contemporary. As I always do, I worked very closely with Jan Versweyveld, who is the set and lighting designer. We never situate a production in a specific era but rather try to make it into something that, if you see it in ten years, will still feel contemporary, and if you had seen it ten years ago, it would have been contemporary then too. We are always attempting to create universal dramas.
And how does that translate into the scenery?
The basic tone is night—it’s never daylight until the end of the opera. Not only is this indicated in the libretto, but you can feel the dark tones in the music. In terms of the set, the basic look is a street with five buildings that are both realistic but also inspired by artists like Piranesi and Escher, very architectural. And over the course of the opera, these buildings subtly pivot, so that what seems to be a street can also become a closed space, almost like a prison. In away, that’s what happens at the end when the Commendatore arrives. Suddenly, the whole set closes, and Giovanni is in his own prison—the prison that he has created for himself.
As your Don, you have Peter Mattei, arguably today’s leading interpreter of the role. What do you hope that he will bring to the production?
I have already seen Peter in two productions of Don Giovanni, so I know that he is a fabulous singer and also a fabulous actor. He has the perfect mix that you need for a Don Giovanni, and he knows the role inside and out. So, I’m sure that he will bring all his knowledge and past experience to this production, which I will embrace.
Do you approach your work on an opera any differently from a play?
When I do a play, I start with the text. But when I start preparing an opera, I never look at the libretto on its own, because I know it’s only partial information. As a director of an opera, I have to accept that there has been a director before me. That’s the composer. In a play, I can decide if somebody yells the text or just whispers it. In an opera, that’s not possible, because it’s indicated with a forte or a fortissimo or a piano. But within that forte, there are actually a lot of possibilities, and we can give it a lot of different intentions. By accepting that limitation—and actually finding freedom within the limitation—directing an opera becomes great fun!
Edited by Christopher Browner