Don Giovanni

Music by W A Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte
Opera North
The Lowry

James Platt (top) as the Commendatore, William Dazeley as Don Giovanni, and members of the Chorus of Opera North Credit: Bill Cooper
Elizabeth Atherton as Donna Elvira and John Savournin as Leporello Credit: Bill Cooper
Kathryn Rudge as Zerlina, Ross McInroy as Masetto and members of the Chorus of Opera North Credit: Bill Cooper
Elizabeth Atherton as Donna Elvira Credit: Bill Cooper
William Dazeley as Don Giovanni and Jennifer Davis as Donna Anna Credit: Bill Cooper
William Dazeley as Don Giovanni and members of the Chorus of Opera North Credit: Bill Cooper

Musically, Opera North’s new version of Don Giovanni upholds the high standards of this excellent Leeds-based company, as conductor Christoph Altstaedt makes a welcome return to the orchestra pit. The notoriously complex vocal ensemble in the ballroom (act 1, scene v), for example, is carried off with immaculate timing and diction. All of the principals deliver, with Jennifer Davis (Donna Anna) and Kathryn Rudge (Zerlina) in particular giving performances to delight the ear.

The night is not an unqualified success. The production draws upon two ideas—the notion that each era has its own view of Don Giovanni, and the historical fact that, in Mozart’s time, the story of the ruthless libertine was largely a subject for street theatre. The problem here is that these ideas are quite distinct—neither seeming to serve the other—the result being that one needs to resort to the programme notes to make sense of what is going on before one's eyes.

Nevertheless, while director Alessandro Talevi’s vision leaps confusingly from century to century (and back again), throwing in teddy boys, an aviatrix, a stage hypnotist, a dash of Prospero, a music hall double act, “marionettes” and more, it consistently entertains. Opera North likes an adventure and this Don Giovanni certainly provides that.

Though it opens with a forcible seduction (perhaps even, attempted rape) and the killing of the victim’s father, comedy runs through this tale (the character of Leporello ensures this). Described as dramma giocoso (though Mozart himself classified it as opera buffa) the challenge is how to balance the humour with the horror. For my money, this production has too much gioc, too little dramm. To be fair, I may be in a minority. Tonight's audience revels in some genuinely laugh out loud moments.

Talevi has an eye for a comic opportunity and is prepared to exploit it, even when the humour risks doing violence to the apparent sentiments of the libretto. Thus, Zerlina’s grovelling appeal to her new husband, Masetto, to "tear out my hair" and "gouge out my eye", if he truly believes her to have strayed with Don Giovanni (“Batti, batti o bel Masetto”), here becomes a cunning, bawdy seduction, with Zerlina’s coloratura trills morphed into squeals of sexual ecstasy. It gets plenty of laughs, so who am I to quibble?

There are so many novel ideas crammed in here (for example, the 1960 film, The Time Traveller, starring Rod Taylor, is explicitly referenced, onstage and in the notes), that it’s hard to suppress the feeling that, with a restraining hand on his shoulder, Talevi is capable of a great production. There is the merest glimpse of something special in act two, when Donna Elvira slumps to the floor and, pulling off her wig, reveals the grey and wispy hair of a woman grown prematurely old in her relentless pursuit of a man she both loathes and loves ("Mi tradì quell'alma ingrata"). It’s a moment of breathtaking pathos. More of this next time, please, Alessandro.

The emphasis on comedy makes it hard for William Dazely’s title character to develop the necessary blend of charisma and menace, working more to the benefit of Leporello (John Savournin) than his master. Still, they make a good team and get a deserved ovation. James Platt brings suitable gravitas to Il Commendatore, with Ross McInroy’s Masetto, supplying the rough-edged disgruntlement of the cuckolded young groom. For reasons unfathomable to me, the applause is more muted for Elizabeth Atherton’s Donna Elvira and Nicholas Watts’s Don Ottavio—audiences, huh? Brava and bravo, say I.

Madeleine Boyd’s set is appropriately dark, with hints of a bleak toile de jouy—the vague figures of women (no doubt a small sample of Giovanni’s 1800 conquests) barely visible through the grime of the walls. Periodically, the set closes to a single window, through which we view the singers—sometimes as humans, sometimes as “marionettes” (human heads on puppet bodies). It’s witty and certainly draws the eye to centre of the action, but does it always serve the tale?

Matthew Haskins’s lighting design achieves the difficult task of establishing an air of subterfuge and murkiness, without ever leaving the audience to squint through the gloom; highly skilled work.

Victoria Newlyn has fun choreographing a mash-up of moves that straddles three centuries.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson

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