Dark Don Giovanni

29 Oct

Has Don Giovanni had more new productions than any other in the UK in the last forty years?  It feels like it.  Counting Jonathan Miller’s, Richard Jones’s new production at ENO was the company’s fifth in 30 years and most of the other companies seem to reckon that one a decade isn’t quite enough.  It’s an opera that resists a “definitive” staging and I’m quite happy to see different interpretations.  Jones’s, which I saw on 24th October, is one of the best.

It’s typically questioning.  In the overture we see Giovanni in front of a series of doors.  Women come along, Leporello opens the door, the woman and Giovanni go in, then come out, then the next woman comes along.  It’s like a transaction, a conveyor belt. Anna arrives at the end. She produces a knife: she wants the sex to be violent, to be threatened by a masked man with a knife.  In the next room the Commendatore has a prostitute.   At the end, by a sleight of hand, Giovanni sends Leporello down with the Commendatore and begins his routine with women, with a new Leporello.

In between it’s more patchy.  Paul Steinberg’s set is excellent: walls of doors, revealing rooms, suggesting streets and opportunities to hide and surprise.  The look is of depressed, 20th Century Spain.  Jones’s direction of the characters is excellent.  More than anyone else he catches the tension between Masetto and Zerlina – they’re not reconciled after Batti batti and not completely after Vedrai carina.  Giovanni serenades Elvira’s maid over the phone and Anna sings Non mi dir over the phone to Ottavio  Christine Rice’s Elvira gets madder as the evening goes on, seizing a gun from Ottavio before Mi tradi.  You had a sense of lonely characters with only Giovanni and Leporello having any form of rapport.  On the down side he has no solution to the Act I finale – one of the messiest and least successful scenes I’ve seen Jones do and the sextet in Act II didn’t fare much better.

It helps that it’s sung in English – Amanda Holden’s translation has been adapted for this and is still very good.  There were no surtitles for the recits (and you didn’t need them) and you were able to follow the piece, like a play, enjoying the situations and the ideas.  After a heavy day, I was kept interested and involved throughout.

It helped to have Christopher Purves as Giovanni.  He’s one of the most charismatic singing actors on the stage today.   This Giovanni is cold, calculating, ruthless and determined.  There’s a mordant wit and cynicism.  He gets women by fascination and strength rather than charm.  But you don’t feel that he likes them very much.  There’s a relentless, driven quality about him.  His voice isn’t the most honied and he doesn’t have typical dashing good looks, but he’s one of the most believable that I’ve seen.  He got the aristocrat carelessness, absolutely certainty of what he wants and sheer bullying violence to perfection.  I’ve heard it more gratefully sung, but that wasn’t really the point.  His rapport with Clive Bayley’s sinister, red-wigged Leporello was as successful a double act as I’ve seen.

Christine Rice was an outstandingly fine Elvira – catching the sheer madness and intensity of the woman and singing outstandingly: a glorious Mi tradi and managing the difficulties of the role fearlessly.  She was matched by Caitlin Lynch’s Donna Anna, though after the interesting start, Mozart doesn’t really give Jones quite as much material as he needs to explore the character.  Ms Lynch’s singing was hugely assured.  Mary Bevan was a very good Zerlina.

Allan Clayton made a predictably fine Ottavio – concerned and ineffectual but doing his arias well.  Nicholas Crowley was a very good Masetto – nicely acted and sung and one of the best that I’ve seen.   James Creswell made a strong Commendatore.

Mark Wigglesworth conducted.  It sounded fine with generally sensible tempi and the textures interesting.  He accompanied the singers well and was clearly at one with the production.  The orchestra played very strongly indeed.

So this was an alert, highly intelligent, thoughtful, enjoyable production with really good music and among the strongest of the 19 productions of this opera that I’ve seen.

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