Thursday, 18 October 2012

Don Giovanni at London Coliseum

ENO Don Giovanni: Iain_Patterson, Darren Jeffery (c)Richard Hubert Smith
ENO Don Giovanni:
Iain_Patterson, Darren Jeffery
(c)Richard Hubert Smith
ENO have revived theatre director Rufus Norris’s 2010 production of Don Giovanni, which was Norris’s operatic debut. Bringing in directors from outside the operatic world has always been a way of introducing interesting and innovative ways of thinking about opera, but does not guarantee it. Sometimes operatic inexperience can generate something truly innovative, but other times just a mess or even worse. Norris is musically literate and has staged musicals but Don Giovanni was his first attempt at a full opera. He avoided the worst solecisms and did not make the mistake of staging the libretto rather than the music. Of course, with this revival, there was also the chance to tidy things up a bit as well.


The revival was produced with substantially the same cast as the original production (Darren Jeffery, Ben Johnson and John Molloy were new), with many of the singers still quite young. This gave the drama an interesting edge in terms of the youth of the protagonists but musically meant that sometimes we were seeing a promising character in development.

Norris and his designer Ian MacNeil seem to have a very dystopic vision of the opera. Giovanni (Iain Paterson) seemed to inhabit a grim world of squalid flats and urban wasteland. Using the full stage with black flats, MacNeil designed pieces of mobile scenery which supers, masked as devils, constantly moved about. Some scenes were played out on a bare stage, with just lights, or party balloons as setting. The settings were reused for various scenes and it was never really clear where we were supposed to be.

In Don Giovanni Mozart and Da Ponte had a pretty strong sense of who the characters were and what their backgrounds are. Like its predecessor, Figaro, the opera is firmly rooted in class and class distinctions. MacNeil’s costumes did go some way towards making it clear who these people were, but by having the whole action take place in the same gritty urban waste, Norris did rather throw this away and there were too many times when you wondered who on earth these people were. For example with Elvira (Sarah Redgewick) her first entrance was in a bleak and bare flat, the set for which was whizzed across the stage by supers, complete with Elvira herself being pushed in a mobile chair. Redgewick looked suitably dressed for a business woman, but why was she in that squalid flat?

It seems likely that Mozart and Da Ponte viewed the opera as rather more buffo than we play it today. Norris’s view took that further and Darren Jeffrey’s Leporello was grimly ironic rather than buffo and there was little sense of him engaging with the audience, instead he produced grim asides.

The couple who suffered the most from this approach were Anna (Katherine Broderick) and Ottavio (Ben Johnson), it was never clear why they were also marooned in this grim no man's land. Broderick’s costuming seemed rather less than flattering, which is strange as she was in the original cast. With Johnson’s suit as with many modern dress productions, the quality and style of the tailoring simply failed to convince.

To a certain extent the production worked because it made us fall back on the music. In Handel’s opera seria you can get away with setting the operas almost anywhere because the piece work as self contained entities, with little sense of naturalism in the drama. Mozart is different, his dramatic genius is rooted in the naturalism of the drama itself. Playing Don Giovanni without a clear sense of the character’s histories leaves one element of the music bereft.

Norris seemed to want to replace this with a series of images which helped us to know what to think. Whilst Ottavio (Ben Johnson) sang of fidelity in love lots of couples appeared, the catalogue aria became a spreadsheet presentation, the supers in devil masks were ubiquitous eavesdropping on many scenes when they were not moving the scenery about at break neck speed, the chorus appear with candles, in Elvira’s scene in act 2, there is an altar and monks to comfort her.

In fact, Norris’s vision seemed very filmic in the way he intercut scenes, moved things about and illustrated moments in the music with a brief vision on the stage. Perhaps his whole approach could best be appreciated by seeing it as a film. He also felt the need to introduce non-musical, spoken interjections into the dialogue, as if the music (mainly the recitative) did not quite express everything he felt was necessary.

Don Giovanni, Iain Patterson, Sarah Redgwick, Ben Johnson, Katherine Broderick (c) Richard Hubert Smith
Don Giovanni:  Iain Patterson, Sarah Redgwick, Ben Johnson, Katherine Broderick (c) Richard Hubert Smith
And what of the title role? Iain Paterson was gorgeously suave when seducing women and you could believe that he was able to be a serial seducer. And he sang the serenade as a lament to himself for his ideal, lost woman; a very nice idea which helped us understand his character a bit more. But there was never really a clear idea of why he was able to gather up Zerlina (Sarah Tynan) and Masetto (John Molloy) and their friends and take them away to his ‘villa’. In fact the party scene looked more as if Paterson was a host at a nightclub and perhaps that was what was intended.

But, underneath the suave exterior, Paterson’s Giovanni was squalid and thuggish. Ironically there was little of the feeling of danger to Paterson’s activities, certainly his seductions never had that thrill of eroticism and danger combined, which the best Giovanni’s can bring to the role. Norris’s vision seems to have been a little too reductive.

The quality of the singing was generally, of a decent to high order helped by the fact that Edward Gardner was in the pit. It was ironic though that some of the most finely aristocratic of singing came from Sarah Tynan’s Zerlina. Tynan sang the role beautifully, with poise and a fine sense of line and shape, making her stand out from the others. She was well partnered by John Molloy’s violent, but well sung Masetto.

Katherine Broderick had a moment in act 1 when she vowed vengeance, when she produced a glorious stream of gleaming tone, beautifully focussed and cutting through everything. It was a glimpse of the potential Donna Anna that she has in her, as yet only partially realised. There were other moments, particularly in act 1, when the top of her voice seemed a little hard pressed, a little unfocussed and undisciplined. But her account of the first half of Anna’s final aria in act 2 was glorious, though she did not quite convince with the fioriture at the end. Broderick is a dramatic soprano in the making and her voice is at an interesting stage of its development, there were moments when she did not seem quite in control. But her singing at its best gave us a promise; she is definitely an artist to watch.

Ben Johnson sang Ottavio’s arias beautifully, but they felt a little like concert arias, not quite connected to what was going around them. To a certain extent this seemed because Johnson’s Ottavio was rather ineffectual and content to follow everyone (notably Broderick) around. His one distinctive moment being when he started to disrobe, taking his shoes and socks off, for reasons I was unclear about.

Sarah Redgwick substituted for an indisposed Rebecca Evans during this production’s first run. She garnered good reviews then and did not disappoint. Her Elvira was an edgy woman, a business woman on the verge. She managed the difficult act of being edgy and touching, with some beautifully finished singing. Only her passagework, which was a bit smudgy, let her down.

Darren Jeffery did everything asked of him as Leporello, the result was sometimes thuggish, sometimes unlovely and lacked charm; but Jeffery had enough about him to make it work and at odd moments we caught glimpses of another Leporello, the one Jeffery might be in a more traditional production.

Matthew Best was an impressive Commendatore. There was no cemetery, of course; Best sang the role from off stage during this scene. But in the closing scene, attended by a chorus of similarly clad bloody spectres, he was grimly eloquent.

There was little sense of fun in the production, little sense of light and shade; all was dark. I could not help contrast this with Co-Opera Co’s Don Giovanni this summer, also modern dress, but with a feeling of light and shade and with a far clearer delineation of character and class. Norris seemed to be too intent on telling us exactly what to think, if you surrendered to his vision then things worked fine. But for my taste, it left too much out.

Jeremy Sams’ translation was a little bit too clever and a bit too casual for my taste. The surtitles themselves engendered laughs, which is always a worry especially when the scene was a serious one. Sams’ words seemed to contribute to the lack of grandeur and danger in the production, his text was a little bit too casually demotic and rather too cleverly rhyming.

It was good to have Edward Gardner in the pit. His account of the score was dramatic and propulsive, very sympathetic to Norris’s vision of the drama and to the singers themselves. This wasn’t historically informed, but there was a litheness about the playing.

Sometimes, you feel that opera companies ought to have more than one production of a major opera. Whilst Norris and MacNeil’s vision seems to chime in with contemporary dystopia, there would seem scope at ENO for an alternative vision of Don Giovanni to complement this one.

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