Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Don Giovanni @ Coliseum, London

30 September, 2, 4, 9, 14, 16, 20, 22, 27, 29 October, 2, 5 November 2004

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: Grant Smith/ENO)

An unqualified triumph! There was enthusiastic acclaim – without a dissentient voice – for controversial director Calixto Bieito when he was brought on by the cast for a curtain call on the first night of this revival of his 2001 production.

Bieito’s penetrating analysis of Mozart’s masterpiece proved immediately accessible to the first-time opera goers (including a group of secondary school pupils) while reserving a few touches which would be noticed only by old timers – such as the retention of the unaltered text for Donna Anna’s recounting to Ottavio of her “rape” by Giovanni (Don Ottavio, son morta) which so differs from what we in the audience have seen, thus revealing a thread of mendacity in Anna’s character, or the (for this production) uncharacteristically bloodless repeated stabbing of Giovanni in what has become an hallucinogenic dream sequence at the Epilogue.

This production, set minimally in a post-modern world, is coherent. Little or nothing jars, save perhaps the mutual impersonation of Giovanni and Leporello; but given that there is no way around it without significantly butchering the libretto, we are invited to suspend belief by the extreme device of having them strip and change clothes on stage.

The stage itself functions as the collective memory of the principals, accumulating the detritus of their dysfunctional lives, beginning with Giovanni’s used condom flung away as soon as he has withdrawn from Anna. By the interval the stage is littered with cast-offs. By the end considerable quantities of food have joined the blood and piss, broken glass and discarded costumes, cans and bottles, and boxes and billiard balls – the lees of tawdry lives that stain and pollute everything around them. Finally, the car into which the body of the Commendatore has been dumped backs on for his last scene, one that is part of a drug-induced dream for Giovanni. We have come to see things through Giovanni’s eyes, and we realise that he is the most transparent of all the characters.

Zerlina is revealed to be a slut – something always present in the text that has caused a good many other producers considerable anguish and usually resulted in at best a degree of ambiguity about her – and Masetto is a Sun reading, male chauvinist pig: he thinks it’s OK for him to cheat on her but not the other way around. All that traditional rustic wedding crap has been laid to rest. And how refreshing to see Don Ottavio brought to life – and sung so beautifully by Barry Banks; the stock cardboard cut-out is replaced by an all-too-human sex-addict who tries to get into Anna’s knickers even when comforting her over the death of her father. Leporello as skinhead medallion man could not be bettered. They all use Giovanni, but they pretend that they are being used by him. Few producers/directors in the past have come to grips with this fact.

Diminutive Mary Plazas acted Donna Elvira charmingly and convincingly – her re-creation of a teenager indulging an eating disorder as a means of coping with unpleasant reality (during Leporello’s catalogue aria) is most memorable – in fact the only thing I instantly remembered from the original production; unfortunately her diction was not always clear. But she was alone among the cast in this imperfection.

The credibility of this production is hugely reinforced by the adaptation of Amanda Holden’s racy translation of the libretto. Iain Paterson (Leporello) and Mark Stone (Giovanni) will settle in not far from the top of the thirty or so I have seen in these roles over many years. They often sang with panache, purity of tone and clarity while negotiating rather tricky stage manoeuvres. Giovanni’s upper body, much on display, is just well-enough developed to attract favourable attention.

David Parry generally kept the orchestra under control, and was particularly attentive to the volume lest the singers get drowned out. The playing improved steadily from a slightly sketchy (under-rehearsed?) overture. Two members of my party said they would definitely be going again; so, if you haven’t booked tickets yet, you’d better get in there in a hurry.

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Don Giovanni @ Coliseum, London