Don Giovanni

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Samling Opera
The Sage, Gateshead

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The Don may have become an archetype, male lust personified, but that just means he’s always ready for a new incarnation - and the same can be said of Mozart’s opera. The capacity to be simultaneously familiar and fresh is the sign of a classic well played, and that elusive combination was exemplified by this youthful Don Giovanni, directed by National Living Treasure Sir Thomas Allen. Samling Opera offers big roles to singers at the start of their careers, infusing the traditional operatic repertoire with a boost of energy. It’s a useful reminder that you don’t need alienating, iconoclastic productions to add a sharp edge to old favourites – you can play them utterly straight, with a production pared down to its bare dramatic bones, and let the voices unwrap what it’s all about.

Of course, it does help if you start with the Northern Sinfonia conducted by Thomas Zehetmair, but it came as a surprise to find the orchestra invisible. The last few operas I’ve seen performed in Hall One of the Sage have placed the orchestra boldly on stage, with the action played out in front, in the midst of or actually winding through the instruments. (This sounds cumbersome but can work surprisingly well, as was demonstrated by Opera North’s emotionally devastating 2005 production of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle). Hiding the orchestra in its pit creates its own problems: the stage here is a great open sweep of pale wood, offering not a hint of the framing refuge of a proscenium arch. Every entrance and exit is fully apparent, and there’s a lot of ground to be covered by a small cast. Sensibly, this starkness is used rather than disguised. The platform is built up with a sweep of deep steps, like a section of an amphitheatre. These can separate the singers without theatrical subterfuge, while a gallery plus single door at the back add a surprising dept of possibilities. Include a few portable chairs, a black cloak and a couple of coloured hankies and you can create everything from a moonlit graveyard to a complete change of identity. Yes, of course it isn’t realistic, but even with the full panoply of stage effects, it never ever is. In such a wide open space it’s surprising how effective a subtle change of lighting can be, and there’s something strangely moving about the imposed necessity of straightforward spatial interaction. When the Commendatore is killed in Act 1, it comes almost as a surprise to realise that yes – several chorus members will have to walk, pick him up and carry him off in full view. No muffling here.

And that’s the strength of the principal roles too. In modern dress deliberately constrained enough to suggest the hierarchical formalities of the Don’s world, they aren’t given the means to distract. This doesn’t mean that they don’t act, but where every gesture is baldly visible you don’t have to make too many. The Commendatore traditionally makes use of stony stillness, which helps overcome the fact that Ronald Naime is the one singer visibly too young for his role (still, that just means he has plenty of time to grow into a voice already splendidly resonant). Leporello (Marc Labonnette) gets to engage in an amount of comic scrambling and the Don (Christopher Maltman) is suitably agile to suggest a man who can get in and out of bedroom windows in a flash, but there’s as much drama just in the stance and expression of, for example, Lisa Milne as Donna Elvira. Mind you, it helps that she presents what we were once permitted to call “a fine figure of a woman”. The body has its own dialects and hers speaks volumes – an inestimable boon for the career to come.

Masetto and Zerlina flirt and fuss as they are meant to do, with the addition of a surprising piece of stage business when Zerlina’s hands get tied behind the back of a chair. Necessary, because later in the scene she must be trapped, this also heightens our sexual alertness. The day-to-day characters may actually have time for some erotic awareness, but Don Giovanni doesn’t. He’s played here with self-regarding street cred that hints tellingly at the central void: the Don isn’t really in it for the sex, he’s in it for the numbers. He’ll cram in three a night just to keep the list going, and when Maltman wolfs down his dinner not for the food but for the effect, you know he’s got the Don sorted.

Best for last – I’ve never seen a notably youthful casting of the virtuous lovers Don Ottavio and Donna Anna, but Adrian Ward and Kate Valentine made perfect sense of those (let’s admit it) sometimes tediously long-suffering roles. Constrained by rigid formality and a sense of duty, they are the opposite of Don Giovanni. A disruption of their social order is almost unthinkable, self-expression is private and painful and yet they have to (and often don’t) win our hearts. Valentine’s performance reminded us that Anna might be a girl in a state of shock, fighting to express loss and indignation way outside her pattern of expectation. Ward’s Ottavio was a revelation. Looking like a public school prefect, a figure more suggestive of suppression than emotion and scarcely relying on gesture or expression, he simply uncovered the great wells of feeling that Mozart’s music gifts to the character. Direct, pure and clear, his arias were the perfect demonstration that when you get it all right, singing is acting.

Reviewer: Gail-Nina Anderson

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