Monday 23 August 2021

Folk ritual and drama: Mozart's Don Giovanni at Nevill Holt Opera rises to the challenge

Mozart: Don Giovanni - Roman Ackley - Nevill Holt Opera(photo Lloyd Winters)
Mozart: Don Giovanni - Roman Ackley - Nevill Holt Opera(photo Lloyd Winters)

Mozart Don Giovanni; Seán Boylan, Nicholas Crawley, Anna Patalong, Aoife Miskelly, Joshua Owen Mills, Olivia Warburton, Benedict Nelson, dir: Jack Furness, Shadwell:Ensemble, cond: Finnegan Downie Dear; Nevill Holt Opera

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 August 2021 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A profoundly satisfying production, using disturbing English folk-ritual alongside some vividly theatrical elements

Mozart's Don Giovanni is an opera which takes place in an urban landscape, much of it at night, so setting the piece outdoors in the middle of the afternoon might seem something of a stretch. But for their production of Mozart's Don Giovanni (seen Sunday 22 August 2021), Nevill Holt Opera and director Jack Furness have risen to the challenge. Conducted by Finnegan Downie Dear and with the new Shadwell:Ensemble, the production featured Seán Boylan as Don Giovanni, Nicholas Crawley as Leporello, Anna Patalong as Donna Anna, Aoife Miskelly as Donna Elvira, Joshua Owen Mills as Don Ottavio, Olivia Warburton as Zerlina and Benedict Nelson as Masetto. Designs were by Alex Berry, movement by Jenny Ogilvie and the sound design by Mark Rogers.

The opera was performed in Mozart's Vienna version, though without the cuts to the Act Two finale which Mozart made in Vienna, and the costumes were 17th century, a decision which at a stroke gives very clear visual definition to the class hierarchy which is so important in the opera.

Mozart: Don Giovanni - Nevill Holt Opera (photo Lloyd Winters)
Mozart: Don Giovanni - Nevill Holt Opera (photo Lloyd Winters)

When I chatted to Jack Furness earlier this year [see my interview], he talked about his feeling that 'there is a tendency when working on an opera to think of the job as like writing an essay, to make a cogent argument about the piece', and how he wanted to 'create a space on stage where people can tell a story, to create insight'. Furness and Berry's approach to Don Giovanni might seem counter-intuitive at first, but it succeeded brilliantly in doing just what Furness had been talking about.

The 17th century setting was placed within the context of the wedding rituals for Zerlina (Olivia Warburton) and Masetto (Benedict Nelson), with Furness, Berry and movement director Jenny Ogilvie utilising the wonderfully disturbing element that can be found in English folk ritual. These happened on and off stage, so that during the early part of Act One, we could see Warburton, Nelson and the chorus in the area between the theatre and the stable block. Furness used the chorus movements as a commentary during the scenes with the aristocratic cast, often seemingly providing a strange and threatening backdrop. This was brilliantly demonstrated in the Act One finale, where the space meant that Ogilvie and Furness really had the ability to create three very different dances, the aristocrats and two different round-dances for the 'lesser folk', yet at the end this turned threatening as the chorus put their masks back and faced Boylan's Don Giovanni en masse, suddenly threatening and strange. 

For Act Two, the folk rituals took a back seat whilst never quite disappearing, until the finale when Furness thrillingly used the idea of the burning man to creative effect. And in Act Two, the rules started to be broken, boundaries blurred. We saw elements of the mechanics behind the 'opera production', hints of modernity, of stage-hands, of the fact that the people in the opera were we just actors in wigs. Yet Furness took the story quite seriously, the production thankfully lacked any of the irony which modern directors often bring to the work's dénouement. Here we really did have a statue that came alive (Dingle Yandell in brilliant form). What there was however, was wit and fun. The production mixed the funny and the serious in fine manner. The result was one of the most satisfying productions of Don Giovanni that I have seen in a long time, lacking any annoying directorial pensées and creative rewriting of the plot.

It helped that we had a finely balanced young cast who each created strongly etched characters.

Mozart: Don Giovanni - Aoife Miskelly, Sean Boylan - Nevill Holt Opera (photo Lloyd Winters)
Mozart: Don Giovanni - Aoife Miskelly, Sean Boylan - Nevill Holt Opera (photo Lloyd Winters)

Seán Boylan made a highly charming and plausible rogue, constantly changing his look and dress just as the character changes depending on who he is dealing with. This wasn't a nasty Don Giovanni, his sexual aura and personal charms were to the fore as was his complete amorality. Boylan had a whale of time in the way he constantly changed, yet was the same underneath, enjoying the chaos that he creates within the highly structured society that he belongs in. After all, that is why we love him, as Furness said in our interview Giovanni is 'a chaotic neutral, working against the society's structures for his own benefit yet offering no alternative.'

Nicholas Crawley was his delightfully curmudgeonly side-kick Leporello, his dress differentiating him both from his master and from Zerlina, Masetto and their friends. Crawley delivered the catalogue aria with deft comedy and nicely sly underlining of the issues. This was a performance which was engaging, yet without any sense of comic business, simply a strong character sketch. And despite the open spaces and distance, Crawley and Boylan created a definite sense of physical connectedness and their mutual inter-dependence. 

As Donna Anna, Anna Patalong was warmer, less grand than some performances. Patalong made a very human Anna, giving us a bit more sympathy with a character who can sometimes seem a bit chilly. Patalong rose finely to the work's vocal challenges and gave us a passionate performance which rose to a climax with 'Non mi dir'. Patalong's Anna was a woman whose deeply felt emotions left no room for anyone or anything or anyone else.

Mozart: Don Giovanni - Dingle Yandell - Nevill Holt Opera (photo Lloyd Winters)
Mozart: Don Giovanni - Dingle Yandell - Nevill Holt Opera (photo Lloyd Winters)

Directors' approach to the character of Donna Elvira has varied over the years, and indeed Mozart and Da Ponte's view of the character seems to have adjusted depending on who was singing it. In Prague, the approach had been very much as an in-between character, part of the way between the opera seria of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, and the opera buffa of Leporello and Zerlina. But in Vienna, Donna Elvira got the great scena 'Mi tradi' added to the role, which moves the character far closer to the serious.

Here Aoife Miskelly (in her role debut) was serious and intense. There was no doubt of her strong feelings, and 'Mi tradi' was finely done indeed, yet the character's intensity and involvement in the fates of others set her apart from the other aristocrats. This Donna Elvira was very much concerned over the fate of Zerlina and Masetto, and was rather an active element to the extent of appearing at Act One's masked ball dressed as a youth.

Joshua Owen Bell made Don Ottavio dignified and concerned, yet just a little ineffectual. But his aria was beautifully sung and there was no doubt about Bell's strong physical presence in the drama. Olivia Warburton made Zerlina a strong, rather pert character. Singing with beautifully clear, bright tone she provided an aural and characterful contrast with the other two female characters, and she was certainly a match for Benedict Nelson's Masetto, you felt that the two were going to have an interesting relationship. Furness included the shaving scene (which Mozart and Da Ponte wrote for Vienna but which is rarely done nowadays), yet rather than having it as a bit of buffo fun, Warburton (aided by the female chorus) and Crawley made it rather disturbing and threatening. Nelson was a very real physical presence as Masetto, a character who relied on his fists when problems occur. This was a strong and interesting account of a role which can sometimes simply seem a stepping stone for the singer towards one of the lead roles. Dingle Yandell made a dignified Commendatore with a striking physical presence which he really utilised when he returned at the end, a statue vividly brought to life and sounding equally threatening

Mozart: Don Giovanni - Benedict Nelson, Olivia Warburton - Nevill Holt Opera (photo Lloyd Winters)
Mozart: Don Giovanni - Benedict Nelson, Olivia Warburton - Nevill Holt Opera (photo Lloyd Winters)

The chorus took a very active role in the drama, and often filled the stage with action which commented on and complemented the stage drama. This was very much a communal effort, and though the actual amount of singing needed was relatively small, the impact of the chorus was high.

Finnegan Downie Dear and Shadwell:Ensemble provided a vivid, lithe accompaniment which gave quite a modern sound to the opera. Downie Dear's avoided the over-romantic approach, but drew full drama from moments such as the opera's opening bars, and the return of the same material at the end. The orchestra provided a fine complement to the stage action, the sound-world being all of a piece with the drama.

Mozart: Don Giovanni - Anna Patalong, Aoife Miskelly, Sean Boylan (with Joshua Owen Mills behind) - Nevill Holt Opera (photo Lloyd Winters)
Mozart: Don Giovanni - Anna Patalong, Aoife Miskelly, Sean Boylan (in bear suit), Joshua Owen Mills (behind, in gown) - Nevill Holt Opera (photo Lloyd Winters)

Don Giovanni is a tricky opera to bring off at the best of times, with so many different components to balance, and Furness, Downie Dear and the Nevill Holt team's sterling achievement was to do so in a setting and situation which would have seemed to make life even more difficult. The opera was filled with striking performances which I look forward to seeing again in the relative intimacy of the opera house, but the event never lacked communication nor the sense of the characters speaking directly to us.

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