I do believe that this is the first time I’ve seen the same opera production revived over the years with three different casts. The first time I saw this particular Don Giovanni was quite a lot of years ago, and all I can remember was that Gerald Finley was in it in a bad wig. Last year I reviewed it, when it returned with Erwin Schrott as the Don, and now I’ve been back again to see Simon Keenlyside’s take on things. It’s all starting to feel quite pleasantly familiar, like a friend’s home that I visit now and then: here is Donna Anna’s window with the attractive verdigris tiles and handy rungs for baritones to climb up and down; there is the graveyard where they have built Anna’s dead dad a giant wicker man instead of a statue; and here we are at Don G’s house (watch out for the suddenly-contracting walls in the ballroom, people!) with its novel sauna-cum-dining room.
I’ve just read over what I wrote about this production last year, and am a little suprised at how highly I rated it, seeing as overall I liked it even better this time! All the leads, although by no means flawless, were excellent, I thought. Actually, having said that, Ketelsen’s singing was pretty flawless – lovely strong, rich, effortless sound with complete control. I like him. He’s also very funny when doing comedy, including one bit in particular, when Leporello has to impersonate the Don under Elvira’s window; the way he adopted a block-of-wood heroic pose while sticking out one arm then the other was evocative of certain non-acting opera singers I’ve seen in the past. Miah Persson and Robert Gleadow were also excellent as Susanna and Figaro, oops, I mean Zerlina and Masetto – very pleasant voices, the acting skill to make me actually care about these characters, and even attractive to look at! (Not the case with Matthew Rose last year.) Eric Halfvarson was definite luxury casting as the Commendatore.
The main reason I attended this performance was because I wanted to see Keenlyside in the role, and overall I was very impressed indeed. He seemed to have thought a great deal about his interpretation of the character, and how he wanted to portray him. He was convincingly nasty, still seductive when he wanted to be, but ready to progress quickly to violence when the charm failed. However, he was not entirely without softer emotions beneath the hard shell. It intially seemed a rather odd thing to do for the Don to kiss the Commendatore after stabbing him (peck, not snog) and then cuddle up to the corpse for a minute or two until interrupted by Leporello; the interpretation that sprang to my mind was that he had lost his own father when young, or perhaps never knew him, and was significantly affected by never having a father figure while growing up. (This is probably wildly inaccurate from a historical point of view. Neither am I suggesting that children brought up without a father grow up misogynistic and murderous!) Anyway, enough of the thoughtful stuff; if you have one of the fittest baritones on the scene, you might as well make use of him, and this was parkour opera, with plenty of window-jumping, wall-climbing (yes, right to the top, unlike certain other baritones’ attempts), and singing of arias while hanging off the trellis by one arm. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I have heard him sing better on other occasions, although it was still very good. It’s possible this role doesn’t suit him so well vocally, but the overall package was excellent, so it really wasn’t an issue for me.
Marina Poplavskaya (Donna Anna) and Joyce DiDonato (Donna Elvira) were also very enjoyable overall, They both sang with great power and energy, and I had goosebumps at the appropriate times. Poplavskaya’s control seemed a little unsteady, though, and the dynamics were not always well-balanced. DiDonato chose some odd-sounding (to me) breathing places, and was a little wayward in pitch towards the end, but this really is being picky. Ramon Vargas (Don Ottavio) also made some notes which were slightly off-pitch, but weirdly it worked quite well – I think he might have been singing in just intonation rather than equal temperament! I find the character and his arias dull, but this was not Vargas’s fault.
Like the sets, the costumes were also all familiar. For those that like to read about such things, the women wore a selection of elegantly understated (for opera) dresses in tasteful shades, some of which they looked like they might fall out of (but didn’t), and looked lovely. It still puzzles me why a rich and dashing nobleman like the Don would have his companion dressed like a skanky tramp, rather than in some nice livery (like his house servants). With such a huge ego it seems unlikely that he would be concerned about the competition. Perhaps they do the clothes swap thing fairly often, though, when he needs to escape from somewhere.To complete the look, Kyle Ketelsen (Leporello) had some big clumpy boots made him look comically clodhopping and clumsy (which he isn’t) and some awful trousers that made him look like he had a fat arse (which he hasn’t). Keenlyside, of course, is no stranger to fat-arse trousers, having worn a prizewinningly offensive pair in Pelleas last year; however, this time he was sporting tight red satin ones, which did not look as bad as one might expect. The red trousers/ waistcoat/ long coat combination is actually quite a stylish one, and Mr Keenlyside would have looked rather fetching in it, had he not been cursed with what looked from the amphitheatre like a Billy Ray Cyrus-style mullet wig. (And I thought Erwin Schrott’s wig was bad…)
I’m pleased to report that the orchestra played very well under the baton of Mackerras (as one would expect). There were a few chords with dodgy intonation in the overture, but apart from that, the score crackled along throughout with energy and expression. The woodwind cut their vibrato to a minimum without losing tone quality, and on this occasion I was particularly impressed by the cello secion.
To end, the dragging-down-to-hell scene came off very well. It looks like the ROH are not allowed to have all their bunsen burners turned on at once any more, but they did have quite a few going, and managed to make the right ones whoosh up as the Commendatore gestured at them, which was good. The flaming swinging wicker-man lottery-hand at the end was daft, but the pyrophile in me says, the more flames the better. If it was my design, I’d have had them make not just a wicker hand but a whole person, and stuck Don G in the middle of it to burn… although this may have something to do with the fact that I saw the film The Wicker Man the other week (original, not remake). We were somewhat alarmed when a flimsy white curtain descended (for the unnecessary epilogue) and flapped straight into the flames, but a quick-fingered techie cut the flames out immediately, and it was obviously seriously flame-retardant material anyway. Hurrah for the backstage and Health & Safety team!