Kaspar Holten’s austere, uncluttered production, revived here by Amy Lane, restored our faith in the Royal Opera’s Mozart after the crass Idomeneo and indeed the messy, pretentious Don Giovanni which preceded it. The singing is often world class, and there are some notable house debuts including that of the conductor, Alain Altinoglu.
Christopher Maltman is well known to audiences at both Covent Garden and the Wigmore Hall, and the significance of his recital career is obvious in his finely phrased, elegantly nuanced singing of the title part. Deh, vieni alla finestra was so seductively performed that not only was it very easy to imagine any woman falling for him, but it was heard by the audience in a silence which would have been more typical of the latter venue above. He may not have quite the ideal heft for the ‘champagne’ aria but that is more than compensated for by his fluent legato line, his crisp delivery of the text and his unaffectedly skilful acting.
Maltman’s singing in La ci darem la mano was an object lesson in phrasing as well as the even production of beautiful tone, and he was equalled in this by the enchanting Zerlina of Julia Lezhneva, in a notable house debut. This young Russian soprano has everything wanted for the great soubrette roles – sparkling high notes, creamy tone, vivacious manner and captivating looks, and her Zerlina was a complete delight. That duet was also a rare example of how to direct singers in this music: why, Giovanni actually took her glove off and kissed both it and her hand – what, you mean they were not on opposite sides of the stage, or faffing about with cocktails?
Albina Shagimuratova’s Donna Anna was remarkable for its dramatic strength, confidence and dynamic singing. She achieved that feat which so few Annas can, which is to make the cabaletta of Non mi dir appear effortless. In this production, Donna Anna does not have an easy time of it: is she complicit in Giovanni’s desires throughout, or just can’t resist him at first given the pallid / vibrant contrast between him and Ottavio?
Dorothea Röschmann is a well known Donna Elvira, and her fervent, passionate style in both singing and acting is exceptionally suited to the role, but on this occasion she was not in her best voice, her first aria lacking her customary colour and crispness of diction; as the run progresses she will no doubt match her singing to her ever-committed acting.
Alex Esposito was a superb Leporello, vividly characterized and mellifluously sung with real italianità, and that peerless Hunding, Eric Halfvarson, was a commanding, sonorous Commendatore. Surprisingly, this was the first time that Rolando Villazón has sung Ottavio at the ROH, and he gave the part his all, creating a frustrated, well-meaning figure whilst showing that when it comes to allure, sweetness cannot really compete with swagger. He was given both his arias, and some of their more challenging lines (are there much of any other kind in Ottavio’s music?) stretched his resources.
The orchestra played superbly for Altinoglu, whose reading of the score emphasizes its lightness, elegance and ironic qualities, although there was no shortage of high drama when required. He is clearly a ‘singers’ conductor’ in that he allows them time to shape their music and refrains from engaging in the blood sport of tenor-torturing.
The production is spare, elegant and beautiful, with Es Devlin’s set design based upon the ‘light box’ effect which emphasizes the intimacy of individual encounters and recalling the interiors of Dutch painters such as Dou and Schalken. Extensive use is made of mapped video projection, with designs by Luke Halls which are breathtaking in their execution, and lighting by Bruno Poet which evokes the right atmosphere for both surreptitious seduction and noisy celebration.
There are a few things we’d question, such as why Anna seems to welcome the Don’s embraces and why there is so little evidence of Giovanni’s gluttony in the Supper scene, but the ending, controversial for some, was not one of them. Don Giovanni’s arrogance has taken second place to his isolation from the start, so it’s appropriate that he should end the opera alone, the fallen anti-hero. One might have wished for some of those wraith-like figures – presumably the ghosts of women he’d ruined – to come and tear him to pieces, but even without that, this low-key ending was effective. We can happily live without the homily with which the work usually ends: it’s not a tragedy but an opera buffa – this is not King Lear, and we don’t need to be told that some will taste “the cup of their deservings.”
The production will be screened live and free on 3 July 2015 at 20 locations across the UK. Details can be found at roh.org.uk