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A Giovanni for our Times?

English National Opera, Coliseum
11/06/2010 -  & November 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 27, 29, December 1, 3, 2010
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni
Iain Paterson (Don Giovanni), Sarah Redgwick (Donna Elvira), Katherine Broderick (Donna Anna), Brindley Sherratt (Leporello), Robert Murray (Don Ottavio), Sarah Tynan (Zerlina), Matthew Best (Commendatore), John Molloy (Masetto)
English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Kirill Karabits (conductor)
Rufus Norris (director), Ian MacNeil (set designer), Nicky Gillibrand (costume designer), Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting designer), Finn Ross (projections designer), Jonathan Lunn (movement director), Jeremy Sams (translator)

Rufus Norris’s new production for the ENO began with what looked like a gang of hooded teenagers in black, with matching T-shirts and sinister masks, messing around with a large coil of electrical wiring. Were they perhaps leftovers from last week’s Halloween revels? That would be contemporary indeed. The ‘hoodies’, when not whirling the blocks of scenery around, appeared to be under the command of Don Giovanni, although quite why Halloween Gang would be doing the bidding of a slobbish 1980s-styled Jonathan Ross lookalike was unclear – the uneradicated power of money, privilege and fame, perhaps. Leporello, in turn, appeared to have stepped out of a time capsule from the 1970s, the epitomy of Northern working class cliché, while Masetto was a 1950s teddy boy. Updated, then, but somewhat inconsistently so. That description could also cover Jeremy Sams’s new ‘translation’ of the libretto, which was, for the most part, strenuously updated to the late 20th century (e.g. Masetto being speared in the “arse” with a toasting fork he’d “nicked” from “bloody bastard” Don Giovanni’s “disco”), but now and then slipping back into the more traditional territory of “wooing” and “ruing”. Much of it was also intended to be humorous, some of which being tired old puns such as, in the opening scene, Leporello’s line “someone’s coming” being accompanied by orgasmic groaning from the Don; on the other hand, the total rewriting of the Catalogue (or rather, Spreadsheet) aria as a slideshow presentation (complete with bar charts and photos) was actually very funny indeed.

To a certain extent, productions of Don Giovanni must stand or fall on the charisma of the leading man, who – although there have been innumerable variations, of course – is commonly given a modicum of charm and seductiveness, winning the audience over to rooting for him despite his appalling acts of violence. Norris and Paterson took the brave decision to make the character, instead, an utterly charmless creature, whose numerous 'conquests' were probably dependent to a large part on rape and Rohypnol; Donna Elvira’s attraction to him thus appeared indicative of insanity. This was something of a change from Paterson's recent appearance on this stage as a suave, neat, somewhat prissy Mephisto in Faust. Vocally, this role suited Paterson better, as he produced a strong, rounded sound, with depth of timbre in the arias, vigour in the recitatives (and his lack of heft at the bottom end was not important here in the way it is for Mephisto); however, his overall effect did not provide the dramatic centre of the piece that arguably it should.

Brindley Sherratt, recently heard in venerable roles such as Pogner, Pimen and, indeed, Jesus (in Pärt’s St John Passion), was clearly enjoying the opportunity for some comedy, and his deadpan, hangdog Leporello – as repulsive as his master – was one of the more effective aspects of the production. His superb vocal control was well suited to bringing out the balanced elegance of Mozart’s phrases, and, pleasingly, there was weight and warmth all the way down to the lowest notes. Matthew Best’s Commendatore had gravitas, although felt somewhat underpowered, and the scenes near the beginning and end involving these three men were musically and dramatically the strongest.

Katherine Broderick’s Donna Anna and Robert Murray’s Don Ottavio were a well-matched pair in their scenes together. While sometimes sharp and shrill of tone in the upper register, her coloratura passages were agile (particularly considering the size of the voice), and "Or sai chi l’onore" was goosebump-inducingly lovely. (Incidentally, it has been questioned why Anna did not recognise Giovanni immediately, given that he did not wear a mask during his assault on her. Given the modern setting, I simply assume she did not have her contact lenses in at the time.) He, in turn, had a expressiveness of tone and natural manner with the music that made the dull and often irritating character of Ottavio quite bearable; this was despite the production doing him no favours in that respect, styling him as an office drone, inexplicably requiring him to strip down to his underwear at one point, and unnecessarily adding ballroom dancers to ‘enliven’ his sweetly tender "Dalla sua pace", here translated as “When she is happy”.

Sarah Tynan was a delightfully engaging Zerlina, with elegance of line and attractive tone colouring. John Molloy’s lumpen, ungainly Masetto (deliberate, I am sure) was something of a contrast; clearly aware he has ‘pulled out of his league’ (as Sams might put it), "Batti, batti" is sung in an amicably mocking way, knowing full well he will do no such thing. Although I had been looking forward to the indisposed Rebecca Evans’s Donna Elvira, Sarah Redgwick was a highly commendable substitute, not only confident in the role vocally, but in her interactions with the other characters, and as sure-footed around the whirling pieces of staging as if she had walked it a hundred times.

Despite the literal electricity on stage (or, rather, hanging above it), there were not many sparks flying from Kirill Karabits in the orchestra pit. I have a very high regard for the orchestra of this house, but this was not the best that I have heard from them. The woodwinds were warm-timbred and pleasing in their accompaniments and decorations to the singers (although I would have liked to hear more oboe), but the strings and horns lacked focus, being somewhat fuzzy at the edges. Tempi felt somewhat unsettled, and dynamic changes rather forced. However, I have every expectation that this aspect of the production will improve swiftly as the run continues.

The ending of Don Giovanni is never the most credible part of the piece, in its usual form requiring the Commendatore’s statue to come to life (and to dinner). Here, instead, he was a Banquo-like ghost, or perhaps a zombie (which is how Leporello described him). In a nod to the recent surge in popularity of zombie fiction, the hoodies’ final appearance resembled a shuffling horde of the walking undead, with multiplied images of them looming from above, which was rather effective (although hardly the imaginative use of projected images which one associates with the ENO from productions like Le Grand Macabre and Satyagraha). I was very much hoping that the Commendatore’s reciprocal invitation to dinner in hell would involve the zombies feasting on Don Giovanni, but instead he was simply electrocuted by the sparking wires hanging above the stage. Not entirely unlike the infamous Calixto Bieito production, this new reading of Don Giovanni is likely to enrage some audience members while entertaining others. On the whole, I was entertained, but, unfortunately, rarely emotionally engaged.

Carla Finesilver



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