Faith restored in Opera North

18 Nov

After the truly horrible Faust of the night before, Don Giovanni on 17th November made me realise exactly why Opera North is so special.  I’d managed to miss the reviews so had now particular expectations for the evening.

It started promisingly.  Before the house lights were fully down, the two chords of the overture began and Anthony Kraus (standing in more than ably for Tobias Ringborg) conducted a  very fast overture – the orchestra had its work cut out to keep up, but it always made musical sense.   The curtain was down for the entire overture.  You could listen to it without watching whatever was going on onstage.  When it went up all you could see was a small framed curtain, rather like a Punch and Judy show.  Two hands appeared followed by Leporello.  The frame and curtains part and we are on an artificial stage surrounded by three walls with doors and, at the back a window where you can see Giovanni attempting to seduce Anna.  The walls have commedia dell’arte figures faintly painted on them.  Anna and Giovanni enter from different doors and you instantly become aware that this is not a naturalistic setting but a stage show.  Costumes look Victorian – not inappropriate.

After the death of the Commendatore, Giovanni and Leporello appear in front of that frame again, like a music hall double act, but also a bit like the clowns in Godot – very funny and absolutely apt.  That double act is carried on throughout the opera.  At one point, they (and, indeed, Elvira and Leporello and Giovanni and Masetto) appear like Punch and Judy characters for some of the slapstick.  At others, Giovanni is above the stage, manipulating the action.  For his downfall, ropes are attached to him and he flies off like some marionette taken out of the show.  For the epilogue, the characters lie there like abandoned puppets.

The costumes change – Zerlina and her friends are straight out of the ’60s.  At the end, Giovanni is in a contemporary suit and he is dragged down, or rather up, by the women that he has seduced.  Leporello’s catalogue is on an iphone.  Hats are important – Giovanni wears a bowler, Leporello a straw boater – a good way of identifying them and enabling their disguises to work.  During the first part of the Catalogue aria, Elvira is framed in the picture and lots of different hats are put on her for each nationality – you see them at the end on women who are Giovanni’s nemesis.

It works in lots of ways.  The piece owes a lot to the commedia dell’arte tradition and a naturalistic setting doesn’t work well – it needs lots of doors and it can work with a Brechtian approach.  What I admired was the way in which he caught the sheer theatricality and enabled characters to interact as if in a play or a music hall.  There were lots of interesting touches.   Giovanni and Zerlina swapped hats in La ci darem.  Ottavio plundered the dead Commendatore’s corpse of his watch and money.  Batti batti was turned in a scene where Zerlina and Masetto achieved orgasm as she mounted him in one of the most brilliantly clever versions of that aria that I’ve seen.  For Non mi dir, Anna and Ottavio were framed, as if in a portrait – you could just see their torsos and their hands.  Those were wonderfully expressive and managed to concentrate your mind on the way in which that relationship was going.  I don’t think I’ve ever got as much out of that aria.

Was all this cleverness at the cost of the humanity and horror in the piece?  I didn’t think so.  Three examples, on top of that really wonderful Non mi dir.  In Vedrai carina you actually felt that Zerlina and Masetto were reaching a compromise and understanding in their relationship that would last the test of time.  In Mi tradi, Elvira plumbed the depths of her emotion about Giovanni. In the graveyard scene, the Commendatore’s head pushed up out of the grave. And, in the finale, an arm pushed up for Giovanni to grab.  Above all, the characters interacted, worked together and you believed in them.  They weren’t just puppets.

All this was the work of Alessandro Talevi and a hugely talented cast who kept the audience interested, amused, horrified and moved. There was a theatricality and interest about it that needed no technology or video input – just intelligence and fine acting.  I’ve admired his work at the Guildhall and it’s good to see Opera North taking him up.  I hope he comes back before the major companies grab him.

The cast was great.  Of course I’ve heard every role sung better by others but that really wasn’t the point.  Everyone in that cast was absolutely convincing and right for their roles and, I felt, were putting everything into it.

William Dazeley has become a house baritone with Opera North and I’ve been lucky to see him as Posa, Marcello, Wintergreen in those ghastly Gershwins, Danilo and now as Giovanni.  It suits him marvellously.  He’s a fine, sexy actor and the voice has just the right elegance and gratefulness and he got the authority, the nastiness, the elegance and the wit of the role.  It’s a great performance.  I was, in theory, sorry not to be seeing Alistair Miles as Leporello – another artist that has done great work here and I’d have liked to see him take the role.  However, Matthew Hargreaves’s gangling, lugubrious sidekick was a gem of a performance.  Perhaps I’d like his voice to be a little ampler, but he sings the text really well and fitted in to the production perfectly.  Keeping with the men, Oliver Dunn struck me as a really promising Masetto – an alert actor and good singer – Michael Druiett was a good Commendatore and only Christopher Turner struck me as being over-parted as Ottavio – Dalla sua pace stretched him and Il mio tesoro was cut.

In some ways, however, the most impressive performance came from Meeta Raval as Anna.  She has a large voice.  It’s absolutely secure and she manages the horrible demands of that role fearlessly.  I often find Non mi dir a serious trial – it so easily becomes a whining aria for a self-indulgent madam.  She made it interesting because, with Talevi’s help, she understood the emotions behind each phrase and was able to convey them.  I think she’s likely to go very far indeed.  Elizabeth Atherton was also a really impressive Elvira.  Usually I like a slightly more varied voice, with a greater depth and range of colour and I wouldn’t like to hear her do it in a larger theatre.  Here she seized the role, getting the madness, the desperation and the integrity to perfection.  Zerlina is a gift of a role and I thought that Claire Wild seized all the opportunities – she was sexy, believable and absolutely honest and sang really beautifully.  I remember how Lesley Garrett used to do the part in the ENO production by Jonathan Miller and made everyone fall in love with her: Wild was as good.

As I’ve suggested, there was one major cut.  We moved straight from the end of the Act II sextet to the recitative before Non mi dir.  I couldn’t particularly understand why.  With Mr Kraus’s tempi we were out in almost exactly three hours and it seemed odd to cut Leporello’s escape and one of the most grateful numbers in the opera.

Now this wasn’t a “world class” Don Giovanni, whatever that means.  Talevi’s production would be lost in the vastness of the Coliseum, Covent Garden or Paris (though it would look good at Glyndebourne and, probably even Vienna).  Classier singers will do glossier, more subtle things with the roles and, often, just have nicer sounding voices. Opera North’s orchestra can’t match the elegance of the metropolitan orchestras.  What I know, however, is that I haven’t enjoyed a Giovanni more, ever.  And I haven’t seen as interesting or intelligent a response to it since Deborah Warner’s wonderful 1994 Glyndebourne production.

This is what makes Opera North special.  They hire a decent director who has a good idea and who can experiment.  They get a well-balanced cast.  They prepare it properly so that the singers react and act together and integrate.  They are irreverent and dare.  They have an ensemble of people who work regularly with the company – not just Dazeley, but Claire Wild, Matthew Hargreaves and Michael Druiett have sung with them regularly.  You feel that they are comfortable with each other.  And the result is a Don Giovanni that will stick in the mind for its daring, its great imagery and as a smashing evening in the theatre.  They show that opera needn’t be about the greatest singers in the world, the biggest budgets or the glossiest sets.  And for evenings as thoughtful and enjoyable as this, I will happily forgive them Faust.  A capacity audience loved it, too.




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