10 Jun 2014

Don Giovanni, Glyndebourne

Having become so jaded with indifferent — or, sadly, far worse than merely indifferent — stagings of an opera I love more than words can tell, it proved a relief and indeed a joy for me to attend this first revival of Jonathan Kent’s 2010 Glyndebourne production, especially its first act.

It was not perfect; perfection we leave for Mozart. But Kent’s staging, as revived by Lloyd Wood — I am afraid I am in no position to say how much is Kent and how much is Wood — treats this masterpiece seriously and joins a select group of productions I should happily see again, not least because I suspect there would be intriguing points revealed to me that I had missed upon a first viewing. (Incidentally, its Glyndebourne predecessor, from Graham Vick, forms part of that small band.)

Kent’s staging may lack the cocaine-fuelled kinetic energy of Calixto Bieito’s unforgettable ENO production, or the (apparently) all-encompassing, Calderón-like Salzburg World Theatre of Herbert Graf’s production for Furtwängler (the most precious opera DVD this side of the Boulez-Chéreau Ring?), but even such magnificent achievements as those can only begin to hint at the possibilities Mozart and Da Ponte offer us. Most stagings come nowhere near accomplishing even that. Social tensions are either absent or underplayed — an all too common shortcoming — but a seriousness and sensibility it is perhaps not unduly exaggerated to call theological nevertheless comes to the fore. Giovanni’s unflinching, libertine atheism is of course the true heroism of the opera. The dark force of what to him may be reaction is symbolised by the darkness of Paul Brown’s excellent set designs, from out of which the action seems to emerge and into which it retreats. But some in the audience — and some of the characters too — might equally decide that it is the temporal stability of the revolving cube (the Mother Church, perhaps?) which protects and which ultimately proves the villain’s downfall.

Such openness to interpretation is quite different from a lack of direction. There is room for the burning conviction of strong directorial lines — Bieito is surely one of the greatest and unquestionably one of the most celebrate examples — and for more reticent yet nevertheless intelligent productions, permitting of various understandings. In that respect, Kent’s likening, in his brief director’s note, of Brown’s spinning cube to ‘a kind of Cabinet of Curiosities or, perhaps, a great sarcophagus,’ proves fruitful both in itself and for the further consideration it might suggest. Moreover, such properly Baroque references, in a more broadly cultural sense rather than the narrow conceptions of ‘style’ prevalent today, prove equally stimulating to the imagination — just as they do in Mozart’s score and Da Ponte’s libretto. The 1950s updating registers if one wishes: Kent suggests a ‘time of transition, in which a sexual, social and moral revolution, a dolce vita world, coexisted with the remnants of a devout society. However, at least to my eyes, it does not force itself unduly upon one’s consciousness. The staging is again, then, suggestive; it does not make the mistake of trying to shoehorn the drama into a pointlessly narrow conception, let alone somehow attempt to make Don Giovanni ‘about’ the era in question.

There remains, however, one significant reservation. I do not know whose decision it was to serve up what seemed pretty much to be the Vienna version of the score, but I wish he or she had thought again; it made a change, though, from the unholy conflation of Vienna and Prague generally foisted upon us. To anyone who cares to think about it, Prague wins every time, although I have yet to attend a single performance in which Mozart’s dramatic sensibility is thus honoured. At any rate, we heard both of Donna Elvira’s arias, just the one of Don Ottavio’s (‘Dalla sua pace’), and the very rare Vienna duet for Zerlina and Leporello, ‘Per queste tue manine’. It was not, of course, uninteresting to hear the latter, for once, but it is almost unworthy of late Mozart, and holds up the action just as much as if we were to hear both of Ottavio’s arias (and/or, for that matter, both of Elvira’s: just as much a problem with Vienna). There was, at least, no messing about with the scena ultima — a relief, given the recent butchery perpetrated by the Royal Opera. It was a great pity, though, about the surtitles, whose translation was unworthy of Da Ponte’s matchless marriage of wit and profundity.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s Mahler I greatly admired in Vienna a year-and-a-half ago. At first, that is, in the Overture, I found him somewhat wanting in Mozart. I have learned to live with the opening being taken at an allegedly alla breve tempo far too fast to my ears; off the top of my head, only Barenboim and Muti, amongst living conductors, come close to what I hear in my head. More concerning were a general thinness of tone and apparent lack of concern with harmonic rhythm. If those were not actually natural trumpets — I could not see the pit — they certainly sounded like them; others, of course, respond better to that rasping sound than I do. However, once past that disappointing opening, there was much to admire, though such tendencies were far from entirely banished. There will always be tempi with which one can quibble, but this was a variegated performance which did not harry the music, and which permitted both the on-stage drama to develop and the excellent London Philharmonic Orchestra to have its say. The Stone Guest Scene, however, was strangely un-climactic: partly, I think, a matter of the failure to use the Prague score, but it was more than that, for that failing is common to many other performances. Though beautifully played by the LPO and — for the most part — well sung, the final scene therefore did not jolt quite as it should.

Indeed, the main factor was probably the underpowered singing of Taras Shtonda’s Commendatore. The other disappointment amongst the cast was Layla Claire’s vibrato-laden Donna Anna, whose musical line really needed to be clearer throughout. Otherwise, a cast almost entirely unknown to me acquitted itself well, with a fine sense of company. Ben Johnson, whom I had heard before as Ottavio, albeit in English, sang exquisitely, almost to the extent of having one regret the lack of ‘Il mio tesoro’. Serena Farnocchia was a stylish Elvira, whilst Lenka Máčiková and Brandon Cedel offered vocally lively assumptions of the roles of Zerlina and Masetto. If Elliot Madore lacked the charisma of the great Giovannis, then he nevertheless delighted in the musico-dramatic quicksilver of the role, sufficiently differentiated from the equally lively Leporello of Edwin Crossley-Mercer. There was genuine chemistry between them. Perhaps ironically, given the ‘loss’ of his aria, it was only Johnson’s Ottavio which continued to ring in my ears; but this, like the production and performance as a whole, was a cast that proved considerably greater than the sum of its parts.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Leporello: Edwin Crossley-Mercer; Donna Anna: Layla Claire; Don Giovanni: Elliot Madore; Commendatore: Taras Shtonda; Don Ottavio: Ben Johnson; Donna Elvira: Serena Farnocchia; Zerlina: Lenka Máčiková; Masetto: Brandon Cedel. Director: Jonathan Kent; Revival director: Lloyd Wood; Designs: Paul Brown; Movement: Denni Sayers; Lighting: Mark Henderson. The Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus master: Jeremy Bines)/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrés Orozco-Estrada (conductor). Glyndebourne Festival Theatre, Saturday 7 June 2014.