Martin Constantine’s new production of Don Giovanni for Longborough Festival Opera proves clever in making the opera feel relevant to the modern day. At the same time, while this does necessitate a slightly different slant being placed on some aspects of the story, no ‘changes’ feel arbitrary or jar with the spirit of the original. In fact, one could surely make a case that what this production is highlighting is only what those enlightened individuals Mozart and Da Ponte were already saying under the surface anyway.
In Will Holt’s set, the action takes place in the changing rooms of a sports centre with characters frequently receiving massages and walking around in bathrobes or substantially less. All of this creates an area in which Don Giovanni almost seems to have a licence to behave as he pleases, and that is the danger that this production highlights. Donald Trump used the phrase ‘locker room banter’ to suggest something that was harmless, but as this production reveals it is anything but. In this way, as Trump declared ‘Make America Great Again’ when it seems his intention was to make himself great, so Don Giovanni adopts the line from the libretto ‘Viva la libertà!’, which, in this translation, becomes ‘Freedom for All Mankind’. The words appear on his bathrobe and the wall of the sports centre, but really he is using a ‘populist’ slogan to justify his own freedom to behave as he pleases.
A conventional telling of Don Giovanni might suggest that all of the women that the Don conquers are, in the moment, willing, and that, while they may feel ashamed and betrayed afterwards, they still have a habit of coming back for more. In this production this may still be true of Donna Elvira, who Claire Egan, with her sublime soprano, suggests warns others against him because she longs to be special to him herself. In the case of others, however, things feel quite different. The Overture sees Don Giovanni quite forcibly taking three women into the shower (the last of whom is Donna Anna), implying that there is no willingness on their parts at all.
The fact that he is witnessed by several other men who think nothing of it makes the episode quite chilling, and after this the production continually highlights Donna Anna’s state of mind. She has been raped and seen her father murdered, and her sense of traumatisation comes across as she sits practically motionless listening to Don Ottavio’s ‘Il mio tesoro’ and Donna Elvira’s ‘Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata’, while also spending much of Act II clutching a gun. When time periods are expressed in opera they often have an unorthodox ring, given the intensity of feeling we are usually experiencing in the moment, but when Donna Anna tells Don Ottavio she needs a year to mourn before she can marry him, it feels believable that this is the type of space that a person would need in real life.
None of this means that there is no light relief as the production includes, quite literally, toilet humour in the form of men using a urinal. Similarly, during ‘Madamina, il catalogo è questo’ Leporello opens different lockers to reveal a wide variety of shoes, handbags and underwear that highlight the vast range of women with whom the Don has slept. The party at the end of Act I sees the area filled with inflatable palm trees and paddling pools, but after the interval Don Giovanni’s supposed ‘paradise’ is exposed for what it really is. Although much of Act II would normally be set outside, the sense of dark streets in which people can hide is represented by the lockers no longer being set in a neat, orthodox row so that people can be spied lurking behind them. Now, the place looks like a wreck as the palm trees have been cast aside following the party, and half of the letters on the ‘Freedom for All Mankind’ sign are gone.
The production is performed in English, using an Amanda Holden translation, which makes the action feel particularly immediate and relatable, as Leporello calls Don Giovanni a ‘tosser’ and Masetto accuses Zerlina of being a ‘slapper’. It also reveals how Trump and Don Giovanni legitimise certain behaviours so that the state of affairs they have helped come about do not end with their own departures. Here, once Don Giovanni has descended to hell, Leporello wastes absolutely no time in donning his bathrobe and taking his place.
The best singing of the evening comes from Paula Sides as Donna Anna, whose soprano is rich, nuanced and beautifully controlled, and Emyr Wyn Jones as Leporello, whose lower register is particularly fine. In the title role, Ivan Ludlow asserts a clear and strong baritone and very much embraces the character of the Don in all his danger and allure. The parts of Zerlina and Masetto, here presented as staff at the sports centre, are also taken well by Llio Evans and Matthew Durkan, while the evening is conducted persuasively by Thomas Blunt.
The disadvantage of all of the soloists revealing such powerful voices is that they do not always blend to reveal the type of beauty that could be forthcoming, and the ‘mismatch’ in sound feels most prevalent between Donna Anna and William Morgan’s otherwise effective Don Ottavio. Nevertheless, this issue never seriously undermines the overall impression left by the evening, and the final scene in which Don Giovanni is taken down is especially tense. As much as anything it makes us lament the fact that the part of Il Commendatore is not bigger, so strong is Lukas Jakobski’s bass and so chilling his performance as his right hand shakes frenetically throughout the encounter.
Longborough Festival Opera’s 2019 season continues until 3 August. For details of all events and to book tickets visit the designated website.