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Don Giovanni

Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, translation by Jeremy Sams
English National Opera
London Coliseum

Don Giovanni

Rape and deception by an upstanding member of the community who rejects suits for more eccentric attire. Sound familiar? This first revival of Rufus Norris’s 2010 production of Don Giovanni is at times uncomfortably so.

Award-winning theatre director Rufus Norris’s first opera production, Don Giovanni, invited mixed reviews when performed at the London Coliseum in 2010.

‘Brutal, ugly and cruel”, “very unpopular with the audience” and a “chaotic, teenage Halloween party of a show” were some critics’ comments.

Rupert Christiansen from the Telegraph said “ENO are clearly trying to be ‘groovy’ by shopping around for a young theatre director to chase younger audiences... but these directors tend not to know what’s involved with taking on an opera, and so often just produce a lot of clichés”. Stephen Pritchard at The Observer argued that “Norris feels he has always to add some distraction, particularly at moments of great intensity... clogging up the action and getting in the way of the music”.

ENO has made no apology for its objective of attracting younger audiences to opera, but denied that it was using theatre directors to dumb down the operatic form or trying to shock for shock’s sake.

At the time time, ENO’s artistic director John Berry was quoted as saying “pushing the barriers of what opera can be is part of our vision at ENO and is why we are moving forward with productions by both established opera directors and directors from across the arts spectrum.

"Audiences are changing, and there is clearly an appetite for adventurous work from artists who test the art form of opera and connect with a contemporary audience.”

It does, however, seem that the first production failed by trying too hard when Mozart has already done so much. So has this revival tidied up the unnecessary distractions in order to communicate its message with a more concise and chilling punch?

Norris certainly hasn’t backed down from his aim to shock. Rape is still shown on stage and Don Giovanni is still a calculating, abusive man, but a veritable shopping list of changes for this production shows that Norris has taken on board the comments of the opera community.

Gone are many of the visual distractions and in their place remains the central set, moving on wheels to open up different rooms, staircases and forts around which the action plays out. Designer Ian MacNeil achieves his edginess with hints, rather than overdoing it in spades, with the blue and pink helium heart balloons standing out against the dark stage as the little moments of comedy do against Don Giovanni’s darkness, though perhaps the stagehands donning Halloween masks were still a little unclear. Do they represent evil spirits? It is implied that Don Giovanni can see them as they carry Leporello back to him when he attempts to run away. Are they his helpers? Does he actually come from Hell in the first place? This device could still do with some focus.

With the absence of the unconnected actions present in the 2010 production (Donna Anna’s Irish jig, Don Ottavio’s strip, Zerlina’s aloof comfortings), Jeremy Sams’s translation is finally allowed to sing. It is clear in this revival that the text retains Da Ponte’s buffa opera use of innuendo, bringing the original libretto up to speed with the sexually up-to-date production (“I will thank you on my knees”) but without dumbing down this opera to appeal to younger audiences.

The catalogue aria now stands out as a clear example of this re-reading in order to connect with audiences today. Leporello sings with a Powerpoint presentation, using graphs to show the monthly targets achieved in the style of a banking presentation. For an generation obsessed with numbers, targets and statistics, this serves to inject much-needed humour into the famous aria.

A major improvement comes from the pit. A new conductor for this revival, Edward Gardner (James Burton will conduct the final three performances from 10 November) has the orchestra on point, and any pacing issues with the recitative were no longer present.

The proof that the changes have served to refocus this production comes in the climactic closing scene. The confusing electric rig now gone, the return of the Commentadore is allowed to take centre stage. Even for modern audiences used to images of zombies and ghosts, the image of him emerging to take Don Giovanni to Hell will shock.

The multi-presence of bloodied white suits, perhaps representing all the innocent women Don Giovanni has plundered, now has a purpose too. As the flames of Hell are projected onto the resulting wall of white and red, the onstage cast seem to burn up in front of your eyes.

And what of Iain Paterson’s performance this time? Though extolled for his singing, dramatically he was criticised previously for “fatally lacking in charisma” and “testosterone-fuelled dynamism”. Paterson now, sporting a new blond hair and goatee combination, has chilling down to the bone. He plays the famous lothario with not a more energetic but a more grounded stage presence. Cold, cunning, and eerily understated, this character is pure evil.

It is through this re-reading of the great Don that we see what Norris was aiming for in his controversial new production. A cheeky Casanova with a gift for charming the ladies? That’s not going to make a young audience want to send him to Hell. Visit any nightclub on a Saturday night with that attitude and the streets would become ghost-like. But a cold rapist, predating on those within his trust?

The stories of Jimmy Saville prominent in the press currently prove that even the strictest non-believers would wish for a Hell to send him to.

Reviewer: Felicity Turner