Giovanni ends the drought

19 Feb

My nearest and dearest can breathe again.  The tetchiness, snappishness and irritability have vanished: I have finally got to my first opera of 2o14.  My trip to Manon was frustrated by the inability of Southern Rail to cope with a little rain and there’s not been a lot else that appealed.  So it was for Kaspar Holten’s new production of Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House on 18th February that broke the duck.

Don Giovanni is one of those operas that we seem to find very difficult to stage: there is almost too much to it – the anti-hero, the question of how the other characters relate to him, the cosmic and supernatural side – all of them pose difficulties for a society that hasn’t worked out quite where it stands on amorality, let alone divine punishment; it must have been all much easier for the Victorians.  So a director has two problems – providing a compelling vision or narrative for the piece and managing the fiendish technical problems – including working out how on earth you end Act I.

I didn’t much admire Holten’s Eugene Onegin last year but the faults there suggested that Don Giovanni might be more suited to his clear intelligence and imagination.  You can’t get a definitive production and so whatever we get will be a director’s particular take on it.

I began by resisting the production but grew to like it better as it went on.  Famously, it makes use of video designs – projected over the basic (and very good) set of a building, filled with doors and staircases.  It starts with women’s names projected, rather irritatingly, I thought.  Then, apart from the idea that Anna and Giovanni had obviously enjoyed their time together, there didn’t seem a lot going on to distinguish the piece from any other production.   Things became clearer as the show goes on.  The video enabled some great visual effects of blood and darkness staining the building and you become aware that, more than any production that I have seen, it is about Giovanni himself and how his murder of the Commendatore wrecks his relationship with Anna and his own sanity.  The voice of the Commendatore appears as to be a sound in his own head.  The statue is an alabaster bust which Giovanni smashes at the end of the graveyard seen, leaving Anna to mourn over it in Non mi dir but also to use as a reason not to go further with Giovanni.  He is a desperate man in the last scene and faces the ghost on his own at the end in one of the sparsest final scenes that I have seen. After his final cry, the epilogue is cut until the very final chorus where he seems to be making a cry for sympathy from the audience – as if he is left entirely alone.

This required an intense and hugely convincing performance by Mariusz Kwiecen.  He looks good and has the charisma to hold the stage – standing right on the edge directly challenging the audience.  He is mercurial, quick-witted, utterly self-centred and Kwiecen provided a hugely convicning characterisation.  Vocally, he sang it pretty well (though you became aware towards the end of what a heavy piece it is to sing).  I like a bit more velvet, a bit more individuality to the voice than he provides: he doesn’t have the instantly recognisable sound and timbre that, say, Thomas Allen, Keenlyside or Finley provide but this should not detract from a pretty storming performance of the role.

The set is an elaborate building – lots of doors and stairs – which revolves.  A lot of the action seems to take place on the upper level, inconveniently to far stage left for those of us seated in the right hand part of the horseshoe. On the other hand, it pushed most of the action down to the front of the stage allowing easy engagement with the audience.  It’s wonderfully flexible and allows for multiple levels and people to appear and disappear unexpectedly.

At the same time, however, it’s a very earnest production.  There are fewer laughs than I’ve come across and the concentration on Giovanni seems to make the other characters less interesting.  It’s almost glum.

This struck me as most affecting Alex Esposito’s Leporello.   He sang it decently enough but where was the relish for the words, the ebullience of the character and the sense of one that can challenge Giovanni?  This doesn’t really fit with Holten’s vision and we had here one of the least interesting Leporellos that I’ve seen.  Malin Bystrom’s Anna conveyed the love for Giovanni and the ambivalence of the character without appearing particularly positive.  She sang nicely but not memorably.  Much the same went for Veronique Gens’s Elvira – enthusiastic and fond of Giovanni but not really suggesting the depth, almost the madness that others have found.  Mi tradi was done well enough but I remember the depths that Ann Murray and Felicity Lott have been able to convey here and she did not compete.

Antonio Poli was ill, so Ottavio was sung byAtallo Ayam, back after his pretty good Ruggiero in Rondine last year.  He sang the arias elegantly enough and navigated the production nicely.  He didn’t suggest any particular depths or any vary interesting insights but then I doubt that the production provided any.

Elizabeth Watts sang Zerlina nicely but, again, seemed discouraged from providing the sheer life and charm that the role can have.  David Kimberg was a fairly average, grumpy Masetto.  I wonder if his voice is right for the role.

The critics weren’t that impressed by Nicola Luisiotti’s conducting.  I enjoyed it very much.  Others may have brought more fire to the piece, but this struck me as a thoughtful, relaxed, confident reading that was considerate of the singers and brought out the beauties of the score.  He may not be Mackerras or Davis in this repertory, but this was elegant, intelligent and sounded right.  The orchestra played strongly for him.

It was a good evening – worth the visit, giving plenty of musical pleasure and offering insights and ideas about the piece.  I’d go and see it again.

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