Monday 14 March 2016

Lloyd Wood's new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni at English Touring Opera

George von Bergen, Matthew Stiff - Mozart Don Giovanni - English Touring Opera - photo Richard Hubert Smith
George von Bergen, Matthew Stiff - Mozart Don Giovanni - photo Richard Hubert Smith
Mozart Don Giovanni; George von Bergen, Matthew Stiff, Piotr Lempa, Susanna Fairbairn, Robyn Lyn Evans, Ania Jeruc, Bradley Travis, Lucy Hall, dir: Lloyd Wood, cond: Michael Rosewell; English Touring Opera at Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 13 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Enchanting and vividly characterised production of Mozart's perennial classic

Ania Jeruc - Mozart Don Giovanni - English Touring Opera - photo Richard Hubert Smith
Ania Jeruc - Mozart Don Giovanni - photo Richard Hubert Smith
The new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni from English Touring Opera was inspired by the writer Max Winter who chronicled the lives of the lower classes in Vienna who lived in the sewers. That director Lloyd Wood and designer Anna Fleischle were going to set the opera in an early 20th century Viennese sewer seemed like the promise of a production overburdened with konzept. In the event the performance on Saturday 12 March 2016 (the second performance of this production) was a complete delight, and one of the most enchanting productions of this opera I have seen.

George von Bergen was the Don, with Susanna Fairbairn stepping up from covering Donna Anna to sing the role (she was scheduled to appear in the production in May and sings in the ensemble). Matthew Stiff was Leporello, Robyn Lyn Evans was Don Ottavio, Ania Jeruc was Donna Elvira, Piotr Lempa was Il Commendatore, Bradley Travis was Masetto and Lucy Hall was Zerlina. Michael Rosewell conducted. The opera was performed in the Prague version (so no 'Dalla dua pace' and no 'Mi tradi'), and sung in Jeremy Sams' English translation.

George von Bergen, Bradley Travis, Matthew Stiff - Mozart Don Giovanni - English Touring Opera - photo Richard Hubert Smith
George von Bergen, Bradley Travis, Matthew Stiff - Mozart Don Giovanni
photo Richard Hubert Smith
The set was a striking chamber with tunnels going off in various directions at the lower level, and some Klimt-esque mosaics, and windows onto the outer world at the upper level, thus providing a clear metaphor of the different levels of hierarchy in the opera, something which is profoundly important in making the plot work. Once you got over the idea that these stylish Viennese aristocrats were in the sewer, and accepted that this was simply a theatrical space, then the production worked extremely well. Lloyd Wood used Anna Fleischle's set intelligently to bring out the structure of the plot.

And it helped that Wood had drawn out superbly vivacious and intelligently engrossing performances from his young cast. Again with had young singers playing young people, and this really worked. in writing Don Giovanni Mozart was interested in taking the type of complex opera buffa that he and Lorenzo da Ponte had created in Le nozze di Figaro and introducing opera seria characters. The production was notable for the way it respected this. Jeremy Sams' English translation was very funny (and full of filthy double entendres) but the production flowed seamlessly between comedy and tragedy, creating a real sense of Mozart and Da Ponte's 'Dramma giocoso'

This started from the first notes in the overture, where Michael Rosewell drew playing of enormous grandeur, to be followed by stylish scurrying in complete contrast. Throughout, the orchestra impressed with the sense of style in the music, and a combination of vigour and elan.

Lucy Hall and ensemble - Mozart Don Giovanni - English Touring Opera - photo Richard Hubert Smith
Lucy Hall and ensemble - Mozart Don Giovanni - photo Richard Hubert Smith
George von Bergen made a suave Don Giovanni, highly plausible yet fundamentally not very nice. You could understand his success, as von Bergen made us fascinated with the character. There was also an admirable sense of Don Giovanni's perceived position in the social hierarchy (at the top!), this Don Giovanni was never one of the boys, thankfully. His attraction was done through character as much as sex appeal, and yet such moments as the serenade and 'La ci darem' were beautifully sung. Von Bergen has a warm, slightly grainy toned voice that reminded me a little of Benjamin Luxon (not a bad model).

Matthew Stiff is a singer whom I have encountered many time over the last few years (I think my first review of him was as Kecal in British Youth Opera's production of The Bartered Bride), often providing strong support in roles such as the heroine's father. It was a surprise and delight to find him as Leporello, in a very funny and very finely sung incarnation. Stiff is a big bloke and he used his body for really comic effect in Lloyd Wood's physical production. Yet, moments like the catalogue aria were finely sung and still full of comic timing, as were all the wonderful asides the character gets. He and George von Bergen created a real double act, almost comic and straight man, which was the real engine of the production in ways that others sometimes miss.

Susanna Fairbairn is a member of English Touring Opera's ensemble for this tour and I was impressed by her trenchant Bice in Thursday's Pia de'Tolomei. She was due to sing Donna Anna on 25 May, so this assumption of the role came two months early. She has a big, bright voice, a classic Donna Anna voice, which rose over the orchestra admirably yet was able to be tender and touching. This was an intense, very serious portrayal and a notable assumption. I do hope to encounter Susanna Fairbairn's Donna Anna again soon.

Even without 'Mi tradi', the role of Donna Elvira is a substantial one and takes the singer from Donna Elvira's 'demented' ravings to music of real poignancy. Ania Jeruc has a rich, vibrant voice which brought out the serious tones of the role. There was a sense that her rich vibrato occluded some of the details in the music, but overall this was a moving performance. She made you really care for Donna Elvira. Dressed in a stylish, highly cutting-edge black and white Secessionist style frock, she also cut a highly dramatic figure.

Ania Jeruc, Robyn Lyn Evans, Camilla Roberts - Mozart Don Giovanni - English Touring Opera - photo Richard Hubert Smith
Ania Jeruc, Robyn Lyn Evans, Camilla Roberts - Mozart Don Giovanni
photo Richard Hubert Smith
Robyn Lyn Evans has a fine grained, straight toned tenor and he cut quite a strong figure, rather less than the wimp that Don Ottavio can sometimes be. He sang his aria, 'Il mio tesoro' ith grace and throughout conveyed his feeling for Donna Anna. Lucy Hall was a slightly pert Zerlina, full of charm in a winning performance. Light voiced, she brought grace to the music yet was full of character. Bradley Travis was a vivid Masetto, clearly a bit at sea between the his manipulative sweetheart and aristocratic Don Giovanni. Piotr Lempa sang Il Commendatore with an incredibly black-voiced firmness that, in the final scenes, really lifted the drama of the opera into something darker and more threatening.

Whilst Lloyd Wood's production might have had an unusual setting, Wood clearly paid attention both to the libretto and to the music so that the narrative followed both admirably and there were no awkward pensées. This would be an ideal production to encounter the opera for the first time, as well as being a performance that old-timers could enjoy too. It was very much an ensemble performance, with each of the soloists fitting into a larger, vividly conveyed whole. Sung in Jeremy Sams' lively translation, the diction was so good we hardly needed the surtitles.

Michael Rosewell was a firm yet friendly hand in the pit, ensuring that the performance went with elan but also with a certain sense of style which made the music such a joy. The orchestra responded with a really fine performance.

I have to confess that for me, Don Giovanni can sometimes pall in performance, feeling like a series of fine arias strung together with necessary recitative. Here everybody worked together in a performance which combined vigour and engaging vividness. Audiences on ETO's tour are in for a treat.

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