Don Giovanni

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Welsh National Opera
Millennium Centre, Cardiff

The truth laid bare - Elvira, Leporello and that catalogue Credit: Richard Hubert Smith, WNO
May he burn in hell - Giovanni condemned Credit: Richard Hubert Smith, WNO
Ottavio and his beloved Anna Credit: Richard Hubert Smith, WNO

It’s agony for Donna Elvira as she learns for the first time the extent of her lover Don Giovanni’s philanderings—640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, and in Spain… one thousand and three!

But what’s this? As Elizabeth Watts listens to David Stout’s Leporello recite from the Don’s infamous catalogue, she borrows a pair of glasses to leaf through its pages—fully illustrated.

Admittedly awful, the scene nevertheless has its comic element, as does our first encounter with Gavan Ring’s anti-hero, trying to flee after assaulting Donna Anna in her bed. He’s a monster no doubt, but there’s light relief in the street outside as Leporello has brought the escape ladder to the wrong parapet.

Unseemly though it may appear today, Mozart entitled his opera a “dramma giocoso,” and the humorous disparity is there in the music too. As Emily Birsan’s Anna later recounts the terrifying attack and subsequent murder of her father, there’s playfulness, almost frivolity in the accompaniment, with conductor James Southall bringing just sufficient of a pause in the orchestra to make clear she had actually been raped.

WNO has been particularly successful of late in turning works with problematic librettos into effective and convincing dramas, and this revival under director Caroline Chaney is no exception. The awkward balance of tragedy and comedy is just right, and the acting impeccable.

Chaney’s hand is immediately detectable in the act one quartet, with admirable dynamism on stage as the Don, Anna, Elvira and Benjamin Hulett’s Don Ottavio move around each other with the fluidity of their changing convictions and alliances.

Ring is not the most imposing Don, but he’s exultant in lust, all fire, defiance and the energy of a man with thousand notches on his belt, and with a suitably seductive silky tone to boot. Stout’s Leporello obviously fancies himself as a bit of a charmer too, so there’s added spice when the master goes after the maid who has caught the servant’s eye.

Even among a fine cast, Watts is outstanding. Her Elvira is clearly not a woman to be messed with, yet her long confessional aria of conflicting emotions is heart-rending in its credibility. Hulett too is impressive as Ottavio—no patsy as the part can easily become, but a determined and eloquent champion for his wronged Anna.

The singing could hardly be faulted, with Birsan a lovely Anna, Katy Bray a spirited Zerlina and Gareth Brynmor John laying on the heavy sarcasm as Masetto pays his enforced ‘respects’ to Giovanni.

My major reservation was with the set, a replica of Rodin’s Gates of Hell, impressive at first but increasingly distracting as its great side panels were trundled into place. And in a final act of revenge on all, those very gates seemed reluctant to close upon the doomed Don, who was forced to scramble his way to Damnation. No rest for the wicked.

Reviewer: Colin Davison