The first new production at Covent Garden this year, Francesca Zambello’s Don Giovanni has two casts – the first, theoretically the starry one, with Bryn Terfel as the Don. This sounds appealing, but the live radio broadcast was very disappointing. In contrast, the first night with the second cast was a musical triumph, under the more than capable baton of Charles Mackerras, though the production itself is flawed.
I had wondered whether Simon Keenlyside, recently seen in London as the urbane and noble Prince Andrei in War and Peace, would be a little too smooth as Giovanni – but no. He was a menacing figure, establishing from his first appearance that beneath the fine clothes this was no gentleman, as he killed the Commendatore in the most underhand fashion. However he cuts a fine figure, and his silky voice (in terrific form, with his usual crystal-clear diction) makes him a highly credible seducer.
He’s also a real action man, zipping up and down the staircase of the set and escaping his accusers at the end of Act I by swarming up a rope. He’s well matched by Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Leporello (soon to sing Don Giovanni in Naples). Looking as rough as they come, he’s a splendidly vivid character with a rich voice that perfectly complements that of Simon Keenlyside, and he’s a fine actor too.
The other exceptional performance comes from Ana Maria Martinez as Donna Elvira, making her Royal Opera debut. She’s a petite, feisty figure who arrives on stage spitting feathers and continues to delight throughout the opera, with a gorgeous clear tone and thrilling delivery. Donna Anna is Christine Goerke, less secure in her (admittedly fiendish) arias but certainly a woman it doesn’t pay to cross. Her Ottavio is John Mark Ainsley, singing sweetly in this rather lacklustre role, and her father the Commendatore is played solidly by Andrea Silvestrelli.
Zerlina is fun, played with great charm by another tiny singer, Natalie Christie. Darren Jeffery stood in for an ill Quentin Hayes as Masetto, and towered over Zerlina (and everyone else in the cast) – he is simply huge. This made for a striking contrast between rustic, dim husband and svelte, cunning would-be lover.
Well, I can’t put off talking about the production any longer, I suppose. It’s not terrible, it just doesn’t make too much sense, and the designs are not what one would expect from an old pro like Maria Björnson. There is one basic set, a curved wall which for most of the first act looks like a tiled 1970s toilet block sporting, for some unfathomable reason, a large Madonna. When swivelled ninety degrees we see an internal staircase, which does provide handy vantage points for various characters, and a narrow roofscape over which Don Giovanni drapes himself to great effect.
The inside of the curve provides an 18th Century interior for the masque, the first time that any attempt has been made for the set to work alongside the stylised traditional costumes. The last scene, always awaited with interest to see how Giovanni is taken down into hell, was fun but very silly – now we seemed to be in an ancient Roman villa, in which the hypocaust had become a dining room. However the flames were spectacular and from the vantage point of a box close to the stage, I can vouch for the heat they gave off.
The direction too was rather undistinguished – nothing terrible, but little of interest, and some rather inconsistent relationships between characters.
However, don’t let that put you off. There are still a few performances left and although it’s pretty well sold out, it’s well worth queuing for an unusually well-matched and exciting cast.