Saturday 1 October 2016

Mozartian Hollywood noir: Don Giovanni at English National Opera

ENO Don Giovanni Christopher Purves (c) Robert Workman
English National Opera - Don Giovanni - Christopher Purves (c) Robert Workman
Mozart Don Giovanni; Christopher Purves, Clive Bayley, James Crewell, Caitlin Lynch, Christine Rice, Allan Clayton, Mary Bevan, Nicholas Crawley, dir: Richard Jones, cond: Mark Wigglesworth
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 30 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Richard Jones' dystopic vision opens ENO's new season

ENO Don Giovanni Allan Clayton (background), Christine Rice (c) Robert Workman
Allan Clayton (background), Christine Rice (c) Robert Workman
English National Opera's 2016/17 season opened on Friday 30 September 2016 with a new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, directed by Richard Jones, with sets by Paul Steinberg, costumes by Nicky Gillibrand, lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin and movement by Sarah Fahie. Christopher Purves was Don Giovanni, with James Creswell as the Commendatore, Caitlin Lynch as Donna Anna, Allan Clayton as Don Ottavio, Christine Rice as Donna Elvira, Clive Bayley as Leporello, Nicholas Crawley as Masetto and Mary Bevan as Zerlina.

This was never going to be a straightforward production of Mozart's opera, what with the combination of Richard Jones, Christopher Purves and Clive Bayley. There has been a tendency recently for performers in the opera to be on the young side, but here we had two mature singers providing a fascinatingly different response to the opera. Jones's view of the piece seems to be rather dystopic over all with more than a hint of Hollywood noir about the production. There wasn't a lack of humour in the production, but Jones certainly did not bring out the buffo elements that are implicit in Mozart's treatment of the story.

ENO Don Giovanni Clive Bayley, Christopher Purves (c) Robert Workman
Clive Bayley, Christopher Purves  (c) Robert Workman
At the centre of the production was the remarkable double act of Christopher Purves and Clive Bayley. Purves providing a brilliant depiction of the sheer sexiness of power, this wasn't a suave Don Giovanni nor a sleazy one, but a bullish man whose revelling in his sheer power created an aura. He was aided and abetted by Clive Bayley's red haired Leporello the badinage between them taking on a sarcastic edge rather than buffo dialogue, with a strong sense that Leporello wanted to be Giovanni. And of course, he does get to do this in Act Two, in a striking gesture Purves removed the red wig from Bayley's head revealing a bald pate the equal of Purves own. A gesture which was both funny and rather disturbing, saying much for the awkward intimacy of the two men.

Purves wasn't the most suave of Don Giovannis, I have heard the role better sung so that the champagne aria did rather go for nothing. But he invested the dialogue with a great sense of intense power. The recitatives were taken at a furious lick (and not surtitled so you had to concentrate hard), reflecting the sheer intensity and pell-mell nature of the production. Bayley's Leporello was a remarkable and rather unnerving creation. He turned in a fine account of the catalogue aria, brilliantly sung yet still with the same unnerving, rather mocking sense that imbued his whole performance. I am not sure why, but the the actor and comedian Peter Sellers kept coming to mind.

ENO Don Giovanni James Creswell, Caitlin Lynch and Christopher Purves (c) Robert Workman
James Creswell, Caitlin Lynch and Christopher Purves (c) Robert Workman
The opera had opened with a striking image. As Mark Wigglesworth and the orchestra gave us a strong account of the drama in the overture, the curtain rose on a huge wanted poster for Purves' Giovanni. This gave way to a corridor with doors and we watched Purves' Giovanni go briefly into a room with a whole series of elaborately dressed women, whose willingness was variable. There was no sense of Giovanni's power over them, we had to take it for granted. It was an interesting idea, but went on too long, in danger of becoming a stale joke. Until a man dressed as a younger version of Leporello (same wig, same glasses) did the same, was this Jones trying to say something about the repressed sexual nature of Giovanni and Leporello's relationship. He wouldn't be the first director to do so, but this was not explored.

The set was a simple arrangement of screens and doors, providing a series of flexible spaces. Rendered in olive green and brown, it provided a dull space. Not exactly neutral, it provided a dark, rather lowring background which underlined the dystopic view of the plot. The setting provided little sense of the hierarchy of the opera, though Nicky Gillibrand's costumes did give us something of a sense of the different classes involved, but this was not as strong as in some productions and the lack of a sense of class hierarchy rather weakened the dramaturgy.

ENO Don Giovanni Caitlin Lynch and Allan Clayton (c) Robert Workman
Caitlin Lynch and Allan Clayton (c) Robert Workman
It was clear from the opening that Caitlin Lynch's Donna Anna was complicit in Don Giovanni's 'rape', this was set up as a sex game. And whilst it went on we also saw James Creswell's Commendatore indulging himself with a woman in another room, so that when he appeared in the scene between Giovanni and Donna Anna, Creswell's Commendatore was in his underwear. Lynch made a relatively light voiced Donna Anna, though there was something of a sense of her holding her voice in, singing with lighter tone than she might elsewhere. This had the effect of making her character rather less intense than usual. That we knew she was complicit meant that it was difficult sometimes to take her protestations completely seriously, and her Act Two aria was delivered by phone to Allan Clayton's Don Ottavio, thus allowing Purves to come into the room and show her the hood he wore in the first scene, demonstrating his continuing hold over her. This meant that the aria, though impressively and fluidly sung, was rather cooler than usual.

All this meant that Christine Rice, making her role debut as Donna Elvira, rather dominated things in the firecracker stakes. This was a performance that was so intense that Donna Elvira was almost unhinged, and there was certainly no sense of Donna Elvira being a quasi buffo character. There was no strain at the top, as can sometimes happen when mezzo-sopranos sing Donna Elvira at concert pitch. Instead we were able to revel in the wonderful combination of musicality, intensity and sheer commitment which Rice brought to the role. As can happen when the traditional version is done with two arias for Donna Elvira, Rice really dominated the proceedings.

ENo Don Giovanni Danielle Meehan and Christine Rice (c) Robert Workman
ENo Don Giovanni Danielle Meehan and Christine Rice (c) Robert Workman
Allan Clayton was a normal bloke caught up in a nightmare. He took Lynch's Donna Anna at face value, and delivered a pair of beautifully phrased and remarkably powerful arias. Clayton combined strong tone with a lovely sense of line, so that his Don Ottavio had rather more a strength of character than in some performances. His performance made me glad, for once, that we heard both of Don Ottavio's arias.

Mary Bevan made a poised Zerlina, slightly cool with a sense of being rather in control. This was not a pert, servant girl interpretation but something more stylish and certainly lacking in any sense of the role's buffo roots. Bevan gave us beautifully phrased accounts of the roles arias. The was complemented by Nicholas Crawley's strong and remarkably angry Masetto.

James Creswell was a darkly impressive Commendatore, and I was pleased Jones gave us the full stage directions, so that there was a statue, it did come alive and did return for supper at the end, finally dragging someone down to hell. Creswell made the most of this, and not for the first time, made you regret that the role wasn't longer.

Danielle Meehan as Donna Elvira's maid played a far larger role in the opera, obsessed by Giovanni from the very beginning, with Meehan turning in a remarkable performance.

But Jones did introduce a twist at the end, Purves' Giovanni managed to swap places with Bayley's Leporello so that it was Leporello (again sans red wig and glasses) who was pulled down to hell as Purves took Bayley's place in the final ensemble. And then as the curtain came down we saw a repeat of the opening parade of women, but this time with the younger incarnation of Leporello. All was as it had been.

ENO Don Giovanni ENO Chorus (c) Robert Workman
English National Opera -  Don Giovanni - ENO Chorus (c) Robert Workman
Mark Wigglesworth and the ENO orchestra gave us a dramatic but lithe account of the score. Unlike his recent appearances here, Wigglesworth thankfully abandoned his wall of sound approach and here gave us something rather more historically informed, with lively speeds and a focused vibrancy.

Inevitably all productions of Mozart's Don Giovanni are in some sense reductive, homing in on particular aspects of an opera which is remarkably rich. Whilst I found Jones' ideas interesting, the way he tended to push characterisation towards expressionist stylisation meant that I felt that we lost something of the rich humanity in the music. Mozart had a sympathy to his character's foibles and fallibility so that we can understand and sympathise with them. Jones pushed many of his characters towards the unsympathetic, with Allan Clayton's Don Ottavio as almost the only normal person there, though the results were undoubtedly striking.

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