Various artworks in genres some four hundred years apart, stashed in what looks like a painter’s garage, and a scruffy chap in overalls. What is this, Tosca for the new age? Will the scruffy chap turn into Cavaradossi, and will Tosca come rushing in from behind the topiary? No – it’s the onstage ‘entertainment’ with which Michael Boyd’s production of Don Giovanni has favoured us. Or not. Who was it, one wonders, who first decided that an audience requires constant stage business whilst the overture is being played? Some feel that it is insulting to both composer and orchestra, since the entire purpose of an overture is to set the mood of the work and delineate some of the key themes and characters in music. The Garsington opera took it at a cracking pace under the house’s artistic director Douglas Boyd – some of us just looked out the window.
Rant over. Don Giovanni, perhaps more than any other opera, is all about the singing, and we had some superlative examples of that on this evening, led by the Elvira of Sky Ingram, who rose to every challenge of her fiendish music and made the most of the very interesting characterization she had been given. This Elvira is not the usual rather drippy, love-hungry donna but a whirlwind of a girl, all flaming red hair, determined gait and searing passions. Hers was the performance of the Summer Festival scene so far.
Mireille Asselin’s Zerlina was not far behind – again, an interesting characterization, with little hint of gullible peasant but plenty of practicality. Her lovely, silvery soprano was a pleasure to hear. The trio of women was completed by Camila Titinger’s dignified Anna, singing with perhaps a little too much forte in parts but making ‘Non mi dir’ the centre piece it should be. Much kudos to her, too, for coping so well when an audience member had to be carried out (it was extremely hot) – it takes some guts to keep singing your aria with such seeming confidence in those circumstances.
This was the ladies’ evening, with only Thomas Faulkner’s sturdy, very finely sung Masetto and Paul Whelan’s suavely sombre Commendatore reaching the same level. At times it felt as though the girls were fully conceived characters, whereas two of the leading men were almost peripheral. Jonathan McGovern has delighted audiences here with his very fine voice and his energetic stage presence, but he seemed to have been under-directed so that we never really knew what kind of a Giovanni he was supposed to be. His singing was mostly well phrased but the ‘Champagne’ aria was a bit flat (not musically but dramatically). He sang the Serenade most beautifully but that scene gained nothing from having the two characters metres apart on the stage.
Trystan Llŷr Griffiths fared much better as Ottavio, his very poignant tone ideal for the part, and like Sky Ingram he made the most of his unusual portrayal as not a drip but a force to be reckoned with. His two arias were delivered with accuracy and aplomb. With David Ireland’s Leporello we are back to that sense of vagueness seen in the Don – his singing was decent enough but he seemed to have been left to his own devices in terms of characterization.
The orchestra was on fine form, and it’s sad to note that this will be their last season at Garsington. You could hardly ask for more verve in the ensembles, or more gentle support in the arias, and Douglas Boyd seems to have a genuine connection with each player. The production is colourful, with plenty of slick stagecraft but little in the way of illumination; only the scenes with the sopranos seemed to take fire. The supper scene and the descent into Hell were flabby. Should you go, in spite of that? Of course you should – the music is sublime, and you’ll get to hear an Elvira, Zerlina and Ottavio who would be at home on any stage anywhere in the world.