Compulsion for seduction: Véronique Gens as Donna Elvira and Mariusz Kwiecie as Don Giovanni.
As the Royal Opera House prepares for a live cinema relay of Kasper Holten’s new production of Don Giovanni, conductor Nicola Luisotti gives Jason Caffrey an insight into Mozart’s tragicomedy.
“I think every man has a compulsion for seduction.”
Nicola Luisotti is at the end of a day’s rehearsal at the Royal Opera House, but shows no signs of fatigue as we sit down in his dressing room to discuss Mozart’s great seducer, Don Giovanni.
“Of course there are men that stop this impulse,” he tells me, with an animation and charisma that sit comfortably with his Italian-inflected English, “because they think it’s better to have a wife, have children, have a family.”
Hear the full interview with Nicola Luisotti on the Thump podcast:
In this quiet corner of the Royal Opera’s vast backstage complex, the conductor for the debut run of Kasper Holten’s new production ponders the lasting appeal of one of opera’s most dissolute characters.
“If we are talking about impulse, I have to be honest I have this kind of impulse. Of course…I have to stop this impulse, because life calls me.”
“Don Giovanni has a talent to seduce women”
Don Giovanni’s calling though, is to a destructive and fatal path. “What he does,” says Luisotti, “is just follow this impulse, and follow all the women that he meets, just to seduce them – because what is important for him is not just to have a woman but to seduce her.”
And this production sets out to be very clear about Don Giovanni’s power over women. “Donna Anna can’t resist him, Zerlina as well, and Elvira. Probably there is something about the way he smells – he has a talent, an attitude to seduce women.” Mischief crosses Luisotti’s face. “I think women like people that are bad boys,” he offers, “and Don Giovanni is a bad boy.”
Luisotti has enjoyed a career that has seen him raise the baton in front of orchestras from the Berlin Philharmonic to the Tokyo Symphony and the Russian National Orchestra. He holds two musical directorships, at the San Francisco Opera, and the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. “It’s exhausting,” he says, but “this is my life and my life is in the music. I’m dedicating my life – like a priest dedicates his life to god – I think that music is the voice of god so I’m dedicating my life to this voice.”
But for all his undoubted commitment to music – not to mention wealth of experience – Don Giovanni continues to present him with its own special challenge.
“The problem,” says Luisotti, “is the marble.
“Does the statue represent his conscience? He killed a man in the morning…”
“With Don Giovanni,” he continues, “there is a problem at the end when a statue comes on stage. A statue! It is impossible! None of us has seen a (living) statue before. I can’t go to the cemetery and invite a statue to dinner.”
The Don meets his fate: Alxander Tsymbalyuk as Commendatore, with Mariusz Kwiecie as Don Giovanni.
To help the audience understand that they will see something in the finale that is impossible in normal life, Mozart probably wrote the opening symphony last, to prepare at the outset for the Commendatore’s supernatural entrance at the end – something that in Holten’s production, only Don Giovanni can see.
“It’s a projection that Giovanni has in his own personal mind,” says Luisotti. “Does the statue represent his conscience? He killed a man in the morning, during the assault on Donna Anna. And now this man is coming as a statue inside of him. He will be not able to escape. It is impossible to escape something once it is inside you.”
It was this idea, Luisotti tells me, which prompted him and Kasper Holten to commit Don Giovanni to a hell not of flames or fire, but of solitude.
To drive this story, Luisotti has spent hours studying the libretto, going “inside the text deeply, to understand what Mozart wanted to do.” It’s a task he views as a responsibility as well as a pleasure.
“Don Giovanni has his own planet”
“My duty is (to) let the music live again, like it was written not 230 years ago, but just this morning,” he says, “let the music be fresh. I think every conductor that goes in front of this massive work has to do the same.”
And Luisotti believes that this opera continues to speak across centuries from what was a special vantage point in history, standing apart in the Mozart canon.
“Don Giovanni has his own planet,” says the conductor, “he is alone in the history of the music – not just for Mozart, but for all of the other composers.”
By the time Mozart’s tragicomedy premiered, his Italian contemporary, Giuseppe Cazzanigi, had already staged a version of the Don Giovanni tale set to a libretto by Giovanni Bertati. It was a popular story across Europe, “but for some reason, in the hands of Mozart, this music became important.”
Perhaps, Luisotti suggests, Mozart’s talent tapped into the zeitgeist on a continent that was veering towards a historic and violent upheaval.
“Don’t forget we are in 1787,” he says. “In two years, we will have the French revolution,” a shock that reverberated across Europe, and one that would be compounded by the sight of French kings and queens going to the guillotine. Don Giovanni’s demise, says Luisotti, would have raised eyebrows.
“If you were to see a nobleman go to hell in 1787,” he smiles, “you know politically it was not so correct.”
Don Giovanni continues at the Royal Opera House until Monday 24th February, and will be relayed live tonight to more than 1,000 locations in at least 40 countries.