A visit to Glyndebourne is always a treat, partly because of the glorious setting but mostly because the performances are so consistently stunning – both musically and artistically. Year after year there are exciting new singers, seemingly perfectly cast, and apparently having sprung fully formed from some mysterious nursery.
However this year the dire reviews of Don Giovanni made me nervous. The production was, according to some reviewers, just appalling. Was Glyndebourne going to let me down, making me regret the long journey (not to mention the frightening cost of tickets)?
I shouldn’t have worried. This was perhaps the most exciting Don Giovanni I have ever seen – both the production as a whole and the singer in the taxing title role.
This is post-modern opera with a vengeance. Graham Vick sets the scene in a decaying, graffiti-clad mansion half submerged by a drift of sand. Don Giovanni and Leporello are dressed in (more or less) 18th century garb – though the Don’s fabulous changes of costume include a gorgeous zebra-striped frock coat. 18th century as designed by Gaultier, perhaps. Other characters reflect many different periods and cultures. Zerlina’s wedding party comes straight out of the Godfather.
The Commendatore is cosy in checked dressing gown and pyjamas. Donna Elvira makes her first appearance amongst a band of Commedia del’Arte freaks. The ball scene is a riot of different styles of dancing, culminating in a group of flunkies whipping out their hankies for a Morris dance… If this all sounds like a mess, it isn’t: it’s electrifying. I just wish I’d had more than one pair of eyes to catch all the references.
One of the reasons I undoubtedly missed many is that it was difficult to take one’s eyes off the eponymous libertine. Natale de Carolis is, quite simply, the best Don Giovanni I have ever seen. He sings like a dream, but there are lots of baritones who do that. His diction is perfect so every word is audible – but then he is Italian, which helps. He has a very expressive face (he can say more with one raised eyebrow than most actors) and he looks like Antonio Banderas without the chubby cheeks. He has long, long legs that look awfully good in black leather. But there is something more – a seductive quality combined with palpable danger. This Don Giovanni really is evil, but the audience, like his hapless victims, is powerless to resist the pull.
The biographical notes say that Natale de Carolis’ engagements include Belcore (L’elisir d’amore) and Figaro at the Royal Opera House – treats to come. He was ably supported by a fine cast – notably Alessandro Corbelli as Leporello, Sandra Zeltzer as Donna Elvira, Nathan Berg as Masetto and Barbara Frittoli as Donna Anna. The last named sang beautifully but few words were audible: in an opera house with acoustics as good as Glyndebourne, that’s strange. I forgave her, though, because the trio by the masqueraders just before the ball – surely one of the most sublime moments in Mozart opera, and often one that doesn’t quite come off – was exquisite.
So why the bad reviews? I can only assume that English sensibilities were offended by the Damian Hirst references – chiefly the dead horse in the second act, which becomes Don Giovanni’s banquet. I’m no Hirst fan either, but it worked, and to ignore the power of this production seems perverse.