One of today’s leading voices in theatre has arrived at the Met in the form of director Ivo van Hove's long-awaited company debut, powerfully reimagining Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Conducted by Nathalie Stutzmann and starring magnetic baritone Peter Mattei, van Hove’s production sees the devilish title character as no mere cad, but as a malevolent force who fully deserves his fiery demise.
Since its 1787 premiere, Mozart’s 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 a man he murdered—has been a mainstay on the stages of every major opera house. With its harrowing story, humorous moments, sublime score, and ingenious libretto byLorenzo Da Ponte, the opera offers countless interpretive possibilities. This season at theMet, Belgian director Ivo van Hove is ready to make his 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 Netherlands’ preeminent Toneelgroep Amsterdam and mounted acclaimed productions for prominent theaters and opera houses around the globe—including 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.
Van Hove’s new production of Don Giovanni (running through June 2) stars 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. His take on the title role has been honed in numerous productions over the last 20 years—including triumphant previous turns at the Met. 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. 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. 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 10 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 manifest itself in your production?
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.
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 calla “tragicomedy” or a “black comedy.”
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 10 years, will still feel contemporary, and if you had seen it 10 years ago, it would have been contemporary then too. We are always attempting to create universal dramas.
How does that translate on stage?
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 a way, 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.