Herheim’s Don Giovanni: sinning with religious zeal

Stefan Herheim’s Essen production of Don Giovanni, which earned the Norwegian director his first election (of three) as opera director of the year by Opernwelt in 2007, still impresses almost ten years after its premiere.

Coming to grips with Don Giovanni

When staging Mozart’s Don Giovanni, every stage director has to come to grips with the character of Don Giovanni and the effect he has on the other characters. Unlike Casanova, who takes his gratification from seducing the specific women he desires, Don Giovanni seems to attach little value to his individual conquests. Sheer numbers seem to be more important to the character than the individuals he seduces.

Don Giovanni also possesses little patience. When he feels that things take too long, he does not shirk away from behaviour that has much in common with rape. And after having added another conquest to his list, he doesn’t quite seem to relish the moment. Rather, he is already anticipation the addition of another number to his list.

This behaviour invites directors to interpret Don Giovanni in various ways. Warlikowski, for instance, cast Don Giovanni as a sex addict struggling with compulsive behaviour in Brussels, while Claus Guth presented a lost soul who is high on drugs most of the time and who is mercilessly and willingly spiralling downwards.

Donna Elvira (Judith van Wanroij), Don Ottavio (Michael Smallwood) and Jessica Muirhead (Donna Anna) at Don Giovanni's party at the end of Act I
Donna Elvira (Judith van Wanroij), Don Ottavio (Michael Smallwood) and Jessica Muirhead (Donna Anna) at Don Giovanni’s party at the end of Act I © Hamza Saad


For Herheim, Don Giovanni represents an irrepressible desire for sexual freedom; his credo is ‘Viva la libertà’ (‘long live liberty’). At the same time, however, he has to deal with the restraints that Christianity has put on sex and sexuality. Don Giovanni openly puts up a fight against this moralising religious attitude towards sex.

The other characters, faced with similar sexual desires, go through much more of a struggle and feel a need to confirm to Christian morality. It is for this reason that Herheim sets his production in a large church, where Leporello and Don Giovanni are priests.

The sets and costumes are very ingenious; religious statues come to life and the slightest adjustment to the set serves to create an entirely different part of the church and an entirely different atmosphere.

Don Giovanni and individual struggles

In Herheim’s production, Don Giovanni and Leporello are extremely alike and resemble two sides of one coin.They both have strong carnal desires, but Leporello seems to feel guilty at times and regularly practices self-chastisement with a particularly nasty looking whip. Perhaps this is what eventually saves him from hell, even though the Commendatore smashes him around just as much as Don Giovanni.

Herheim’s Donna Elvira faces a similar struggle. At times she is dressed as a saint or a nun, at other times she appears in an alluring red dress. She desires a sexual and amorous relationship with Don Giovanni to the very last moment, but is forced to settle with a life in a convent.

Donna Anna (Jessica Muirhead) tries to convince Don Ottavio (Michael Smallwood) to finally take action
Donna Anna (Jessica Muirhead) tries to convince Don Ottavio (Michael Smallwood) to finally take action © Hamza Saad

Donna Anna likewise goes through a struggle with her erotic and carnal desires on the one hand, and her obligations to her dull fiancé Don Ottavio on the other. She vehemently insists that Don Ottavio ‘man up’ and avenge her father’s death, but he keeps failing to do so. This lack of virility and sexual attraction makes it difficult for Anna to face a future with Ottavio.

The couple Masetto and Zerlina have aged considerably in Herheim’s production, amd have grown old. They are regularly accompanied by doubles who represent their younger ‘selves’. Their behaviour in old age is very similar to the behaviour of their younger versions. This seems to suggest that the relationship dynamics between the two will never truly change or get better. Masetto will remain the jealous huband, while Zerlina will keep looking for extramarital adventures. Neither has Zerlina lost her ability to placate her jealous husband with seductive promises of sex.

Whatever one may think of Herheim’s concept, his Don Giovanni is undeniably an impressive, gripping and highly entertaining show; not just for the audience, but also for the singer, who truly seem to enjoy themselves and display a palpable and joyful commitment to the production.

Musical aspects

This performance’s cast featured mainly ensemble singers, with the exceptions of Karel Mark Ludvik (Masetto) and Judith van Wanroij (Elvira). Again, the quality of the ensemble of the Aalto-Musiktheater managed to impress.

Zerlina (Cristina Clark) and Don Giovanni (Heiko Trinsinger) in Don Giovanni at the Essen Aalto Theater
Zerlina (Cristina Clark) and Don Giovanni (Heiko Trinsinger) in Don Giovanni © Hamza Saad

Heiko Trinsinger did not only play the role of Don Giovanni vividly; he also sang an impressive Don with a roudn, resounding voice. Alman Svilpa’s Leporello acted his part enthusiastically and sang very adequately, although his voice nowhere soared and impressed as much as that of his master.

Jessica Muirhead, who excelled the night before in Martinů’s The Greek Passion, was in just an impressive and fresh voice as the day before. As Donna Anna, a rather fast vibrato was noticeable. Neverthelesss, her voice sounded very flexible, warm and soared over the orchestra. Her acting managed to convince and redendered Anna’s frustration with her fiancé’s lack of courage or ability to take action very understandable.

Michael Smallwood sang Don Ottavio very well. His singing and acting reflected the character’s penchant for procrastination and lack of promptness of action convincingly.

Guest singer Karel Mark Ludvik sang and played a good Masetto, but was outclassed by his Zerlina, sung by ensemble singer Cristina Clark. Like Muirhead, Christina Clark sounded very fresh-voiced and energetic after performing in The Greek Passion the night before. Clark’s elderly Zerlina was physically as convincing as one could possibly imagine; her entire physique and deportment on stage had changed completely from the bubbly young girl she played the night before. If one hadn’t known that the soprano is, in fact, rather youthful, one might have taken Clark for a much older soprano.

As the night before, Clark’s singing was yet gain crystal-clear, energetic and extremely agile. Given the range of characters she can play and her impressive vocal qualities, she is surely one of the greatest assets of the ensemble in Essen.

Don Ottavio (Michael Smallwood) and Donna Anna (Jessica Muir) discover the Commendatore's body (Tijl Faveyts)
Don Ottavio (Michael Smallwood) and Donna Anna (Jessica Muir) discover the Commendatore’s body (Tijl Faveyts) © Hamza Saad

Judith van Wanroij, a Dutch mezzo, was engaged as a guest to sing the role of Donna Elvira. She acted her part convincingly and engagingly. Compared to her Elvira years ago at the Dutch National Opera, her voice seems to have become larger and warmer. Her ‘mi tradi’ was sung gut-wrenchingly convincing and earned her a loud applause.

Conductor Michael Hofstetter did not manage to get the Essener Philharmoniker to perform on such a high level as Netopil had done on the night before, but he did make sure that the orchestra played more than adequately and made sure that the singers could generally be heard clearly over the orchestra.

All in all, Essen again provided an excellent night at the opera. As with any Herheim production I have seen so far, I feel a desire to see the production again. Richness and excess, Herheim’s trademarks, invite repeated viewing. After almost ten years, Essen still has a Don Giovanni production that feels vibrantly new and alive. It is to be hoped that this production will stay in the Aalto-Theater repertoire for the foreseeable future.

Seen: 28-05-2016 (final performance of the 2015-2016 season).
Review by: Laura Roling

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