Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Don Giovanni @ Coliseum, London

13, 16, 20, 23, 26, 29 June, 2, 6 July 2001

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: Grant Smith)

With critics spitting feathers and the first night audience reportedly booing for all they were worth, I approached ENO’s new production of Don Giovanni with mixed interest and trepidation. The Coliseum is no stranger to controversial productions – to their great credit, the management is always willing to be ambitious and push back boundaries.

Sometimes it works (the groundbreaking Jonathan Miller production of Rigoletto, which now seems quite normal) and sometimes it doesn’t (a chain-saw massacre will never have a place in Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa, in my view).

Last year at Glyndebourne the new Don Giovanni was panned by the critics – but was the most exciting production I’ve ever seen. So what had Spanish director Calixto Bieito done at the Coliseum that was so objectionable?

Well, this was certainly not a production for purists, and probably not for real music lovers either. The action takes place in a contemporary brightly-lit urban wasteland, and kicks off with The Don having sex with Donna Anna in the back of a car while a drunken Leporello keeps watch.

Actually, this works rather well, and Donna Anna as a middle-aged slag is quite a welcome change from the normal prig. Don Giovanni himself is a youngish slob, out for anything he can get – drink, drugs or women, in any order.

One point this production does make is that he is truly addicted to sex: any woman will do. Donna Elvira is no more attractive (in person or in character) than Anna (though many of us might sympathise with her chocolate binge when she finds Giovanni, only to be rejected).

Bieito’s version of the opera is quite coherent, but whether it succeeds in ‘allowing the character of Don Giovanni to live for a contemporary audience’, as he is reported to have intended, is a moot point. Is it necessary to portray the early 21st century in all its seediness and ugly brutality, to do that? Don Giovanni is a figure who can surely be understood in almost any setting, or century – one of the truly universal characters, who probably doesn’t need to fuel his appetites with drugs.

The main problem with this production, however, is the singing (and the orchestra under Joseph Swensen was dodgy, too). With a couple of notable exceptions, the standard is well below the ENO norm. Claire Rutter and Claire Weston as Anna and Elvira respectively are unfocussed, shrill and at times out of tune.

Linda Richardson is a good Essex girl Zerlina, however, both looking and sounding the part. Garry Magee is the Don – a slight figure with a pleasant but slight voice to match. Nathan Berg is a more than usually repulsive Leporello, but his voice at least is impressive, and both he and Magee show that they can act more than a bit.

My prize of the evening goes to the smallest part, however: The Commendatore is sung by Canadian Phillip Ens, principal bass with the Staatstheater in Stuttgart, making his ENO debut. He has a thrilling voice and is definitely a name to watch.

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