Opera + Classical Music Reviews

In The Royal Opera’s revival of Don Giovanni, hell is a state of mind

13 September 2022

Hell hath no fury in Covent Garden.

Don Giovanni

(Photo: Marc Brenner)

The Royal Opera was due to open its 2022-23 season on 8 September with another outing of Kasper Holten’s eight year old Don Giovanni staging (faithfully revived by Greg Eldridge). However, due to the announcement less than thirty minutes before curtain up that The Queen had died, the performance was cancelled as a mark of respect – as was the one scheduled for Monday 19 September, the day of the late Queen’s funeral. Last seen in July 2021, with a reduced orchestra due to social distancing constraints, it duly returned albeit a few days later than originally planned – and proved to be a serviceable, if hardly memorable evening.

Although Holten’s vision of the piece as an illusionary nightmare divided critics when it was new, it has gone on to become a firm favourite at this particular address. Its excessive use of video (Luke Halls) which distracted, rather than illuminated when new, now feels more integrated into the action and overall concept. It nicely mirrors our protagonist’s state of mind and now comes across as a natural extension of his mental decay as the evening progresses.

Es Devlin provides a boxed set which is a veritable Dr Caligari’s cabinet of hidden delights. Nothing is ever what it seems, revealing unexplored nooks and crannies as it revolves, providing the perfect backdrop for the action, and different locales. It makes us question whether what we’re witnessing is actually real, and how much is taking place in Don Giovanni’s fevered mind.

In the graveyard scene we’re left in no doubt that the voice of the deceased Commendatore is a figment of Giovanni’s imagination – which is borne out in the closing passages of the opera, where there’s no fire, or demons to drag him down to hell. Hell, it seems, is a state of mind. And given the character’s woeful lack of any moral fibre whatsoever, seems a fitting comeuppance. 

Having seen this staging many times, many different singers have made their mark. Last year the company fielded a strong cast – as it has done by and large this time round. Making his house debut, Italian baritone Luca Micheletti cut a dashing figure, and embodied Holten’s view of the character to perfection. Yet despite his vivid stage presence, at times he sounded rather anonymous. ‘La ci darem la mano’ was somewhat matter of fact, but he did go on to deliver a charming ‘Deh, vieni alla finestra’. Capable of hair-raising violence as his plans of seduction are thwarted, Micheletti portrayed Giovanni as a man on the edge. His descent into madness was perfectly etched.

“…it has gone on to become a firm favourite…”

Don Giovanni

Maria Bengtsson & Luca Micheletti (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Christopher Maltman – here singing his first Leporello after having appeared in the title role in many of the world’s leading opera houses – was pitch-perfect both musically and dramatically. Maltman’s slightly down at heel interpretation was the perfect foil for his master’s more urbane demeanour. As expected from this fine artist, his performance was fully rounded and he came close to stealing the show on several occasions, especially in his ‘Catalogue aria’ which he managed to make both hilarious and disturbing – his comic timing was impeccable.

Although her voice is a notch too small for Donna Anna in this house, Swedish soprano Maria Bengtsson was both musical and engaging, perfectly poised throughout and rising to a formidable ‘Non mi dir’ in the second act. Paula Murrihy brought mezzo warmth to Donna Elvira, yet wasn’t at all fazed by the high lying tessitura of the role. ‘Mi tradi’ was a lesson in Mozart singing of the highest order, while earlier she impressed with a spitfire ‘Ah chi mi dice mai’ – the embodiment of a woman scorned. Christina Gansch was luxury casting as Zerlina, and was an utter delight from start to finish. She was ably partnered by Thomas Faulkner’s hot headed Masetto, making a belated, yet auspicious house debut. 

Although his voice has grown, and he’s taken on more Verdi and Puccini roles of late, it was a pleasure to be reminded what a fine Mozartian tenor Charles Castronovo is. In this staging he’s allowed both his arias, and brought a honeyed, mellifluous tone to ‘Dalla sua pace’, going on to deliver a heartfelt, ardent ‘Il mio tesoro’. Adam Palka completed the cast, thundering effectively and menacingly as the Commendatore.

Last year I found Constantin Trinks’ conducting at times slow and ponderous, and regrettably little had changed this time round. The overture dragged, while Leporello’s opening number was taken at a snail’s pace. Things did improve once past these opening pages, but it felt as if his foot was hovering over the brake pedal too often and the singers were trying to nudge him on, but to no avail. Having said that, his continuo playing in the recitatives (fortepiano) alongside the impeccable Christoper Vanderspar (cello) was very much on point. Nevertheless, the orchestra played well, while the chorus was in sovereign voice too. Maybe this show will coalesce during the run, once the occasional lumps and bumps have been ironed out.

• More information of future performances can be found here.

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In The Royal Opera’s revival of Don Giovanni, hell is a state of mind