Would the Social Register types in New York hate Haneke too?

 30th January, 2006

An animated discussion took place between myself and two other others at the Café de la Paix after seeing Haneke’s Don Giovanni at the Palais Garnier, the first performance of which I had missed to attend Jean de Saint-Guilhem’s concert.

Don Giovanni is Mozart’s most avantgardist opera: it was a major benchmark for nineteenth-century composers. One person at the table adored the opera, but hated this production. I, on the other hand, liked Don Giovanni rather less than Mozart’s other operas, despite Kobbe telling us that, for many years, it was preferred to any other. Yet Haneke who directed this production, was booed copiously at Friday’s first performance. Tonight’s audience was made up of respectable, middle-aged people who had often been perturbed by last year’s minimalist production of Tristan and Isolde, and equally hated the garish Magic Flute that I had also found disastrous, both musically and aesthetically.

This time round, however, none of the above applied. I was fearing the worst, after reading a rather severe review in Libération this morning, signed by Eric Dahan, whoses views I often share. I wondered in particular whetehr Sylvain Cambreling, conducting the orchestra, would be up to the challenge.

As it turned out, I was pleasantly surprised. The Furia del Baus set for the Magic Flute was a tasteless, messy shambles; here, on the other hand, Haneke had left nothing to chance. His original, elegant, futuristic vision of the setting for the most famous libertine story of all time, with décors designed by Christoph Kanter, struck me as well in tune both with Da Ponte’s libretto and with Mozart’s music. Annette Baufaÿs’s costumes were in excellent atste too. Cambreling himself, contrary to expectations, didn’t put on a bad show at all. I had hated the slow tempo he insisted on for the Minkowski Magic Flute last year and that he stuck to stubbornly for last fall’s Cosi. Yet here the unpretentious, ego-less Cambreling turned out to have just the precision and brilliance required to show the distribution to best advantage: the female roles, especially Mireille Delunsch as Elvira, were quite superb.

So why, then, was Cambreling hissed and booed, I wondered? Maybe these people are stupid? These decrepit Parisian bourgeois, with less of a sense for music and, above all, less manners than their New York equivalents, looked as if they were taking revenge on poor Cambreling because the set, whose beauty escaped them, irritated them. The director had taken liberties with some of the characters’ on-stage attitudes, and this may have annoyed people too, I guess. I personally thought it was in such good taste that I applauded as loudly as I could, in true Pierre Bergé fashion. Not to provoke anyone; just because it was really frightfully good.

I’m quite a bourgeois, of course, in my own way. But I must say this sort of attitude wakes up the bohemian in me. It’s possible, of course, to express dislike of Haneke’s Don Giovanni intelligently, and at least person at the supper-table afterwards did so, claiming Haneke had betrayed what Don Giovanni’s character was meant to be. But the people at Palais Garnier, on the whole, were incapable of making a distinction between something beautiful and daring on the one hand, and poor taste or pointless provocation on the other. Well, Gerard Mortier deserves congratulations.