Image borrowed from http://www.roh.org.uk

First impressions are important. As the first few seconds – or so we are informed – of a job interview are vital, despite the main body of questioning occurring later, vital also are the first few minutes of an opera’s overture in setting the tone for the drama to come. Unfortunately the people sitting behind me considered their conversation more important than Mozart’s quietly brilliant shifting of harmonies and timbres around traditionally melancholic D minor, already prefiguring themes of death and social destabilisation. There being no time to point out what they were missing, a sharp instruction to desist had to suffice. I hope they then turned their attention to the music and were able to gain some enjoyment from the superb and perfectly controlled dynamic contrasts, almost dizzying in the passage of climbing scales, and the machine-level precision of ensemble playing in terms of timing, intonation and balancing of chords. Clarity and precision are an absolute must for Mozart, and throughout the performance the orchestra’s level was consistently very high indeed; however, conductor Constantinos Carydis carried machinelike precision to the extent of being somewhat robotic in his tempi, with little sense of long-line continuity, and unwilling to accommodate rubato from the singers. Still, perhaps this was a first-night effect and subsequent performances will have greater flow and flexibility.

Francesca Zambello’s 2002 production has been wheeled out regularly at Covent Garden over the last 10 years, and is for many now as familiar as a friend’s house: here is Donna Anna’s window with the attractive verdigris tiles and handy rungs for baritones to climb up and down; there is the window to the graveyard where people have constructed for the Commendatore a giant wicker man rather than the more traditional statue; and there is Don Giovanni’s villa, with its novel contracting ballroom and Turkish-bath-cum-dining room. Maria Björnson’s rusting dark green colour scheme is attractive, and the large multi-tasking wall with exposed staircase serves its purpose well in dividing scenes and assisting the simple but effective Personenregie. The first time I saw this production I was amused by the Don having dinner in a steam room, in his underpants, and thought it a gimmick. However, on reflection, I think it a brilliant idea to have the character (almost) naked for his final scene, as all his layers of artifice and subterfuge are finally stripped away and he is left looking death in the face without the protective armour of social class that comes with a nobleman’s dress.

Gerald Finley inhabits the title role with complete ease and confidence, vocally and dramatically. A dab hand at charm and sleaze, his Giovanni is astutely observant of other people’s human weaknesses (and his own), fully enjoying playing them off against one another. This makes an interesting change from the characterisations of the famous sex addict provided by the two previous incumbents – Erwin Schrott’s feral, amoral libido-on-legs, and Simon Keenlyside’s superficially-civilised psychopath bubbling with barely-concealed violence. I have yet to hear a single unpleasant note escape Finley’s mouth, and this performance was no exception, with “Là ci darem la mano” and “Deh vieni alla finestra” able to melt the steeliest of chastity belts. As his accomplice Leporello, Lorenzo Regazzo possessed a fine and, may I say, seductive voice of his own, particularly rich in the lower register. The catalogue aria was rather on the ponderous side, but made up for by pleasing tone quality.

On which subject, the Ottavio issue: always an unappealing character, ineffectual and impotent, Matthew Polenzani’s Don Ottavio was as wet and hopeless as any I’ve seen; however, his “Dalla sua pace” was quite beautiful, with richness of tone colouring, delicacy of phrasing, and very impressively projected pianissimi. “Il mio tesoro” is very far from being a favourite aria of mine, but on this occasion I was very glad that it wasn’t cut (as in the Vienna version of the opera). The blend of Polenzani’s voice and Hibla Gerzmava’s (Donna Anna) worked particularly well, and her performance was also a fine one, notable particularly for clarity at the top and emotional shading, turning in the space of a second between tender vulnerability and vengeful anger.

I was intrigued by the unconvincing nature of Zerlina and Masetto’s relationship (Irini Kyriakidou and Adam Plachetka): she with the air of having settled for the best peasant available but very ready to upgrade; he giving the impression of seriously considering whether to take “Batti, batti” literally. With no intention of criticising Kyriakidou’s instrument itself, I found her voice wrong for the role, with the wide vibrato obscuring what should be the clean lines of Zerlina’s simple melodies. Katarina Karnéus, on the other hand, turned out to be a very sympathetic Donna Elvira, strugging against both herself and the societal expectations of women’s behaviour. A little stiff in her opening aria, she warmed up in Act 2 and sang with confidence and feeling. As a generalisation, all of the younger cast members were convincing in their arias, but tended towards a rather mugging style of acting in between them.

As mentioned above, I like the steamy setting of the final scene, and dramatically the Commendatore’s return really did come off very well. It appears that the Royal Opera are not allowed to fling on all their Bunsen burners together any more, having to carefully turn up a couple at a time, but they got some impressive flames going, as the dead Commendatore did his impersonation of the God of Hellfire. Perhaps they might consider giving him a flaming hat too – although that might have diminished the gravitas so ably conveyed by Marco Spotti’s dark and ringing pronouncements. Given that the giant wicker hand was also set alight, I wonder if at any point the production team considered making a whole Wicker Man, and sticking a dummy Don Giovanni in the middle of it to burn? Anyway, if one wants to end an opera in spectacular fashion, make up for any earlier patchiness, and leave the audience with big smiles on their faces, filling the stage with huge flames and smoke is a jolly fine way to do it. Bravi, technical crew.

[Review written for and reproduced here with the kind permission of Opera Britannia.]