Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Don Giovanni: Welsh National Opera @ Theatre Royal, Plymouth

9 July 2003

Set in 16th-century Seville at its premiere in Prague in 1787, Katie Mitchell’s 1996 production, revived by Elaine Kidd, suggests the back streets of a southern European city in the 1930s. The night, in which the opening scenes are set, emphasises the dark themes of Don Giovanni’s cold heartedness, as do the undercurrents of the overture and much of the score.

Musically this production, with Anthony Negus conducting, is tautly controlled and impressively sung. Of the donne Geraldine McGreevy’s Anna showed a high degree of skill, particularly in the vengeance aria, and Catrin Wyn-Davies as Elvira rose to the challenge of Mi tradì with the same commitment that she brought to her acting. The third object of Don Giovanni’s attentions, Natalie Christie’s Zerlina, sings as prettily and as sensually as the character she portrays, manipulating Mazetto’s affections in the same way that the philanderer does her own.

Unlike Graham Vick’s 2000 Glyndebourne production, this one does not attempt to galvanise and indeed the lack of real electricity generated by the characterisation of Garry Magee’s Don means that there is little obvious sign of what has turned the heads, or hearts, of the formidable trio of females on stage – or indeed his 2065 previous conquests. There is calculated and covert viciousness – the Commendatore is stabbed by an unsuspected and unseen knife in a scuffle rather than duel, Elvira receives a pre-emptive strike to the cheek, and Zerlina is bundled into an anteroom to emerge a dishevelled rape victim minutes later. What is missing is a sense of the magnetic seductiveness, of the Casanova, to which these victims have been irresistibly attracted.

In contrast to Giovanni’s thuggishly brutal reactions when challenged or thwarted, Masetto throws the furniture around in jealous frustration but without inflicting injury. And therein perhaps lies the answer to one of the operas ambiguities: Zerlina’s aria Batti, batti insists on violent punishment: that Masetto beat her and gouge her eyes, knowing he would never do such a thing. With Don Giovanni this is likelihood rather than a possibility. Can we believe that this is all that his victims really want?

While the setting may be 1930s drab, the surtitles provide more modern humour and Neal Davies’ Leporello is a comic show stealer in the ensemble scenes. Peter Wedd brought intensity to what is a worthy yet wimpishly noble role as Don Ottavio, but the sheer commanding power and chilling presence of Christopher Purves’ Commendatore stood out as the most impressive performance of the evening.

The ambiguities of the characterisations were less successfully treated in this production’s second act. In the last scenes the sombre colours of the sets, from the chapel in which the Commendatore’s coffin stands to the graveyard and his statue, are contrasted only by the golden luminosity of an iconic depiction of Fra Angelico’s Christ in Majesty. This becomes transfigured in the Commendatore’s ghostly re-appearance at what is to become the Don’s last supper. Rather than being dragged down to face his demons, Giovanni confronts the flames of hell which are brought to him by hooded monk-like figures, and which are extinguished only when he descends, unrepentant, to his doom.

In the final chorus the feminist trio symbolically tear their tormentor to pieces by shredding the lists of his conquests before trying to burn them. But rather than being consumed by the intended fire the pages scarcely ignite before guttering out – a candle-like flame of libertine, having provided – like this performance – little to satisfy in the way of either heat or illumination.

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Don Giovanni: Welsh National Opera @ Theatre Royal, Plymouth
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