ROH Don Giovanni image

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

Oo, a new production of Don Giovanni at Covent Garden! And a kind friend acquired me a ticket to the dress rehearsal. Who wants to know what it looks like? (Plot and production *SPOILERS*, obviously, along with some armchair psychiatry.)

It looks like the design team have been watching Complicité productions, Sherlock, and pop music videos. Not that I disapprove – I like to watch these things myself.

I like things with interesting visual presentation, stylish imagery, maybe a bit deconstructed in their recurring themes, and yes, I’m a complete sucker for multimodal effects, so I was charmed by the overture, which opened on what appeared to be the outside of a building, on different sections of which lists of names (grouped by nationality) began to appear, first slowly, then faster, until it was covered in tiny scrawlings. This theme of obsessive listing appeared at intervals in the production, with the visualised notebook pages descending progressively into disarray, with scribbles, underlinings, angrily scratched-out names, and doodles of ladies’ eyes, bottoms, etc. This was good. Sometimes individual characters had their name projected onto one of the (bedroom?) doors of the building – and I kind of wanted there to be a few text observations floating in the air around freeze-framed characters (Elvira: romantic, delusional, stalks her exes, 3 pet cats? Ottavio: romantic, loyal, crippling anxiety attacks, smokes French tobacco? Etc.) I suppose that would have been too gimmicky…

In terms of physical set, the centre building rotated, and the four orientations provided various doors, windows, rooms and balconies with which to set the many scenes. And a set of stairs, the frequent running up and down of which will have kept the cast well-exercised. Variety was provided by projecting different video graphics onto the flat surfaces – as well as the writing, there were different colours and patterns, rain effects, and an eye-watering geometric vortex that should probably have carried a Health&SafetyWarning for migraine sufferers. The projections worked best when they highlighted different characters active in different areas (e.g. downstairs someone singing an aria, upstairs, the person they were singing about), and there were some very appealing chiaroscuro effects. However, the novelty wore off, or perhaps the effects in Act 2 just weren’t as appealing; I just wished the damn house would stop spinning and sit still, and wondered if there’d be some computer-generated hellfire effects at the end. (There weren’t.)

Director Kaspar Holten sees Don Giovanni as “an artist” whose “catalogue of sexual conquests is a vain attempt to escape his own mortality” , while Mariusz Kwiecien (title role) describes him as feeling his age, melancholy, and with ebbing energy. This didn’t really come across to me – perhaps because Kwiecien naturally has more physical energy on stage than, er, some opera singers – or perhaps because I came in, as most of us do, with a preconceived view: I think of him as a superficially charming psychopath*, sex addict, and compulsive collector (of certain experiences). On the subject of which, I was also interested to read that Kwiecien imagines Giovanni as (maybe) bisexual (“He’s tried all sorts of women, maybe men too” – Telegraph) – and to be honest, I’m surprised I’ve never seen that portrayed on stage. He (character, not singer) seems equal-opportunities enough with regard to age, size, and plenty of other personal attributes in his partners, so why not gender? I expect that the society of the time/place would have been even less approving of a little black book of Antonios and Elvises (or maybe not – historians, feel free to correct me), so Leporello might have to keep that one out of sight rather than showing it around.

* Casual armchair diagnosis of fictional characters’ psychological disorders doesn’t have to be DSM5-compliant.

One can’t help rating various DGs on how credible they are as master seducers (and unlike the route taken by some other productions, it was very clear that this one’s conquests were consensual). ‘Barihunk’ Kwiecien was stalking around the stage in his flapping designer coat, doing the posh moody arrogant thing (complete with put-upon sidekick) that ladies are supposed to go for, but the attraction wasn’t quite making it back as far as us in amphi row N. Until Deh vieni alla finestra, that is, which sounded so lovely that one member of the cast literally walked up to him and took all her clothes off. I don’t like to say too much about the singing at rehearsals, but while this aria was a highlight (as was my favourite bit, where the Commendatore returns), all the cast were solid, particularly Véronique Gens’s Elvira and Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s Commendatore). The orchestra were spot-on throughout, although some of Nicola Luisotti’s tempi were too slow for my taste. I’m not a connoisseur of continuo parts, but Luisotti (fortepiano), Paul Wingfield (harpsichord) and George Ives (cello) really breathed life and interest into their moments in the spotlight. Ottavio fans (are there any?) will be pleased that he got two arias; purists (of which there are many) will be annoyed by the chunk lopped out of the final scene (post-death, pre-chorus).

Those Covent Garden patrons familiar with the somewhat unsubtle but satisfying Zambello production might also be disappointed by the lack of Actual Stuff On Fire at the end. This version seemed to be placing the Descent to Hell, along with the ambulant Statue of Murder Victim, in the realm of Giovanni’s hallucinating imagination, and Leporello’s fear seemed to be not of the haunting, but of seeing his master lose his grip on sanity. At the end he is broken and isolated from other humans. Fair enough. Although I do slightly miss the adrenaline rush of wondering if I’d die fried by an out-of-control operatic flaming dinner sauna.

Stray observations:

Anna was definitely keen on Giovanni at the beginning, but confusingly, seemed to know perfectly well who he was, and appeared to go back for a second shag even after discussing him being her father’s murderer. Maybe she’s a psychopath too? She didn’t seem that upset by dad’s death, and manipulated and lied to Ottavio without batting an eyelid.

As an unexpected take on the problematic Batti, batti, Zerlina seemed to be proposing a BDSM session with her betrothed.

 

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.]

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”… [read more here]

Performers

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)

Production team

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)

Image borrowed from www.musicomh.com

Image borrowed from http://www.musicomh.com

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!

Image borrowed from www.thisislondon.co.uk

Image borrowed from http://www.thisislondon.co.uk

Don Giovanni is my favourite Mozart opera, and I should start by saying I had an extremely enjoyable night out. Unusually, I came to this performance with expectations. Well, of course there are normally expectations for a performance, but in this case, I have been reading reviews beforehand, which I normally avoid. I also saw this very production a few years ago (with Gerald Finley as Don G), but it was before I became particularly interested in opera, so I don’t remember much. Additionally, being unable to wait until tonight, I went and watched Act 1 on the big screen in the plaza for the broadcast a couple of weeks ago. Why no Act 2? Because it was raining, windy, I didn’t have enough padding for my arse sitting on the cobbled stones, and I had brought a friend with me who had never been to an opera before and hadn’t realised how long they were and was cold and hungry.

So, all the reviews I read went on a LOT about how sexy Erwin Schrott is as the hyper-priapic Don Giovanni (as did certain of my friends), and how much (or little, rather) clothing he has in various scenes. Schrott is, in fact, an excellent Don G; I’d almost say the ideal casting (out of those singers I’ve had the fortune to see/hear so far, of course). He is certainly very convincing as a charmer, and played the character as shallow and amoral rather than downright nasty, as some do. I had no difficulty believing his obsessive woman-chasing, but I did have some difficulty with the idea of him killing an old man in cold blood and then never giving it another thought; still, perhaps it was a case of Scarlett O’Hara “I won’t think about that today”. To aid him, Schrott has both a handsome face, and the body of someone who’s spent a lot of time down the gym. Unfortunately, his look also had several offputting features, for me, at least – tight shiny trousers, long scraggy hair (wig), waistcoat often worn without shirt, and dripping with sweat (baby oil? chip fat?) in the sauna, I mean dinner, scene. Overall, this gave the impression of a singer from a glam rock band, and this is not a good look. As for the musical side of it, he made a very nice noise when singing properly, but I didn’t particularly like his sprechstimme style for the recitatives.

In opera, one gets quite used to accepting that characters can be mistaken for eachother when they look nothing alike whatsoever, so it was quite a treat to be presented with such a plausible Don G – Leporello pairing. Leporello was Kyle Ketelsen, and a pair had a fantastic rapport in their scenes together. Being of a similar age(?), build, and colouring, their impersonations of eachother were highly convincing (at least, from the amphitheatre), and, to put icing on the cake, they even imitated eachother’s vocal style. Those who have read my previous reviews will be aware that I’m a big Ketelsen fan, and he certainly did not disappoint on this occasion. Lovely singing (as always), strong, resonant and carrying right to the bottom of the register; obviously very comfortable in the role, and had clearly given thought to bringing out the different facets of Leporello’s character; plus an excellent sense of (black) comedy.

This being quite a dark opera in terms of subject matter, the comic moments are very important as a counterbalance to the themes of violence, death and revenge. Ana María Martínez’s Donna Elvira was another which was brilliantly acted, and a masterpiece of comic timing from the moment she appeared, wearing a wedding dress with a shotgun slung across her shoulders. It took me a while to get used to her voice, as I found it a little harsh around the edges at first, but by her first aria in Act 2 I was really enjoying it, and very impressed with her technique and control. Anna Netrebko (Donna Anna), on the other hand, is one of those rare sopranos whose voice can give me goosebumps. Being picky, she can sometimes be a little imprecise in terms of intonation and phrasing, but she makes such a beautiful sound that I really don’t care. The two of them were both highly convincing in their roles, and also, as a bonus, happened to be very attractive to look at. Even when wandering around wearing bed sheets.

For the rest of the cast, Matthew Rose was very convincing as sulky slow-witted lump Masetto, and Sarah Fox as a dippy, impressionable Zerlina, and both acquitted themselves decently in their parts. Reinhard Hagen was Commendatore; his final entrance in the dinner scene happens to be one of my favourite operatic moments, and I have to say I like it rather more powerful and scary than he was able to provide. Don Ottavio is a somewhat thankless role, and unfortunately, every time Robert Murray started singing, I just wished he’d stop. Harsh, but true. (And to cap it all, the poor man’s wig was a particularly stupid mullet. At least, I hope it was a wig.)

I’d heard some bad things about the orchestra, or rather, the conducting of the orchestra by Ivor Bolton. For example, “who … should stick to conducting something he can handle. A bus, perhaps.” (SJT, writing on RMO) I didn’t think it was that bad, at least, not the night I went. However, the overture is one of my favourites, and should start dark and brooding, then fizz with energy, but this was distinctly lacking in any power and intensity. I found the rest of it a bit on the wooly side, lacking precision of ensemble, and often giving the impression of dragging. No criticism of any individual instrumentalists, though, and some nice woodwind moments.

Regarding the visual aspect of the production… Costumes were mostly rather fetching, especially Don G’s red outfit (when actually fully dressed), Donna Elvira’s purple velvet drag ensemble, and, well, Netrebko in whatever she wore. Zerlina, less fetchingly, got to wear a white sack, and Leporello was unfortunately dressed like a tramp for a lot of the time, although at least his bad wig wasn’t as bad as the thing he had stuck on his head in Orlando. A fairly minimalist set, but an attractive one which worked well, mostly in shades of verdigris and rust, and a big curving tiled wall (with handy sticking-out bits so Don G and Leporello could climb up and down it when required), doubling as stairs, balcony, etc., with the other side painted as a wonky-perspective ballroom. I have no idea why it started closing in as if it was going to squish the cast at the end of Act 1, but for that matter, I have no idea how, at this point, Don G managed to escape from 5 people waving a variety of guns and sharp things at him. Maybe the two things are related – explanations on a postcard, please? For the graveyard scene, some sinister monks came and stood on the stage for no apparent reason, but the Commendatore statue was nowhere to be seen. The characters peeked through a hole in the wall to talk to it, but I couldn’t see much from where I was, except a glimpse of some bizarre structure that looked more like a bit of a large wicker man. Or wicker basket. I don’t know why dinner was being served in the sauna, but I have no problem with it being so. I might have thought it was a cool effect when the flames of hell rose from the sauna… if I hadn’t seen this production before, and remember from last time half a dozen of the ‘gas rings’ all whoomphing on together, with great big flames, rather than randomly going on one or two at a time, being a bit feeble, and sputtering out after a few seconds. A tightening up of health and safety regulations, I assume.