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Katherine Broderick as Donna Anna and Iain Paterson as Don Giovanni [Photo by Donald Cooper courtesy of English National Opera]
08 Nov 2010

Don Giovanni, ENO

There’s nothing wrong with updating an opera as long as the director, designer and conductor share an understanding of the work’s principal ideas and motivations, conflicts and contexts, and have a clear vision of how they intend to communicate these in a new setting.

W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni: Iain Paterson; Donna Elvira: Sarah Redgwick; Donna Anna: Katherine Broderick; Leporello: Brindley Sherratt; Don Ottavio: Robert Murray; Zerlina: Sarah Tynan; Commendatore: Matthew Best; Masetto: John Molloy. Conductor: Kirill Karabits. Director: Rufus Norris. Set Designer: Ian MacNeil. Costume Designer: Nicky Gillibrand. Lighting Designer: Mimi Jordan Sherin. English National Opera, Coliseum, Saturday 6th November

Above: Katherine Broderick as Donna Anna and Iain Paterson as Don Giovanni

All photos by Donald Cooper courtesy of English National Opera

 

Sadly, director Rufus Norris, designer Ian MacNeil, and conductor Kirill Karabits, are desperately out of kilter in this miserable, in all senses of the word, production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

A sparking, spluttering lighting rig occupies centre-stage as the opening notes of the overture strike up; gradually it rises, resting askew, half-way to the rafters, and there it dangles redundantly for the rest of the performance, occasionally emitting a spark or flash. As the Stone Guest’s motif sounds, there’s some vacuous brutality in the dark recesses, a nameless women is brought before Giovanni to be abused, and we are clearly being told that this is going to be a ‘nasty’ evening. Never mind that Da Ponte’s Giovanni proves to be a rather ineffectual Casanova, not once carrying out a successful seduction in the course of the opera. We are in a modern degenerate dystopia, and Mozart and his librettist have clearly been left far behind in the eighteenth century.

With this re-reading, a crucial aspect of the original is lost: namely, the class conflicts inherent in the amorous entanglements and betrayals. The erratic costumes don’t help. Dressed initially in jeans and scruffy trainers, the Don dons an aquamarine eighteenth-century frock coat for his opening sexual encounter, complete with antique wig; he then exchanges this outfit for a slick red suit, aptly devilish over a black thug’s t-shirt, as debonair man-about-town, gaily throwing parties for the plebs; and finally, he slips into slobby black pyjamas adorned with the face of Christ and topped off with a hallowe’en mask. Frankly, Masetto’s shiny blue Primark suit is more stylish. This confused costuming destabilises our sense of the power relations between the protagonists; and makes a nonsense of the Masetto’s avowal, ‘At your service, sir’, when Giovanni interrupts the wedding party. The Enlightenment’s strict stratification of society, with its attendant modes of behaviour and codes of honour, has been jettisoned, making the Don’s philandering seem like tedious self-indulgence as opposed to radical subversion.

Hyperactive periaktoi, spun wildly in the urban gloom by masked marauders, present us with fleeting visions of dingy street-corners, Elvira’s Formica flat, a Seventies’ discotheque, as MacNeil tries in vain to conjure up an air of reckless abandon and amoral depravity.

All this is a waste of good translation and some strong singing. Jeremy Sams perhaps indulges in a few too many vulgar double entendres — ‘I’m tired of playing sentry/while he tries to force an entry’ — but his wit sparkles and the rhyming couplets spill out easily (perhaps a bit too profusely in the final scene), reminding us of the fun and alertness of Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s buffa opera. Sadly, at times it is clear that the director does not care what the cast are actually singing about: when Zerlina tries to wile her way back into Masetto’s affection after his beating at the hands of Giovanni’s thugs (where does it hurt … here, or here …?), providing, one might think, ample opportunity for some affectionate petting … there is no chance of an ardent quiver or two, as Norris has seated her on a window sill, 15 feet away.

Don_Giovanni_Brindley_Sherratt_credit_Donald_Cooper.pngBrindley Sherratt as Leporello

Part of the problem was the pace, or lack of it. Kirill Karabits never once whipped up the necessary excitement and zip in the pit; the overture was ponderous and fuzzy, the recitative almost static, and during one of the greatest of operatic denouements, as Giovanni is sucked down to hell, the only thing electrifying was the exploding circuit which descended and despatched Giovanni to his death. Thus, Leporello’s catalogue aria — skilfully and side-splittingly re-imagined by Sams as a spin-doctor’s statistical presentation of his master’s conquests month by month, powerpoint, spreadsheets and all — never generated enough momentum to suggest the rush of the Don’s romping rampages, despite the artful timing and neat delivery of Brindley Sherratt’s yobbish Leporello.

The cast tried their best to inject some frisson. The women fared best. Deputising at the last minute for Rebecca Evans (afflicted with infected sinuses), Sarah Redgwick was dramatically convincing as the scorned and scornful Donna Elvira. Attired in a sharp red suit, her ‘Mi tradi’ was clear and penetrating, and she never once became the nagging harridan or neurotic hysteric of Giovanni’s imaginings. Katherine Broderick has a sufficiently hefty voice for Donna Anna, but at times it was rather shrill and ragged, especially in Act 1. Sarah Tynan’s Zerlina was ravishingly sweet, and she minced delightfully; her bright sound was consistently matched by John Molloy as Masetto. But whatever happened to subtle innuendo: why, oh why, was Masetto offered a boxing glove on a silver platter during Zerlina’s faux-subordinate ‘Batti, batti’?

Don_Giovanni_Sarah_Redgewick_Iain_Paterson_Brindley_Sherratt_credit_Donald_Cooper.pngSarah Redgewick as Donna Elvira, Iain Paterson as Don Giovanni and Brindley Sherratt as Leporello

In the title role, Iain Paterson showed that he is a composed, accomplished singer, able to vary and control his voice, a confident stage presence. Yet, though the text was clearly enunciated and singing flexible and relaxed, he didn’t generate sufficient testosterone-fuelled dynamism — maybe the baggy Jesus t-shirt was to blame. Moreover, it was no fault of Paterson’s that his ‘Senerade’, delectably sung, made no dramatic sense: for, after a surfeit of comic crudities, Sams’ inserts sentimental longings for an ideal love, ‘the one I miss the most’, yearnings which are totally unconvincing. Mawkish projections of this ‘muse’ — assumingly an idealisation of female beauty — did not help.

As Don Ottavio, Robert Murray produced a warm tone and presented a generous heart as Donna Anna’s loyal, steady ‘protector’; he performed ‘Dalla sua pace’ with a consistently smooth line and striking radiance. Unfortunately, his portrait of integrity and loyalty was not assisted by the spangly, heart-shaped balloon he was forced to clutch, or the smooching couples dancing in distance. Murray suffered a fair share of the director’s indignities, encouraged inexplicably to remove his clothes at the end of the great Sextet? Matthew Best lacked a monumental majesty in the opening scene, but was suitable imposing at the close and made a striking image, slumped, white-suited and pallid against a graffitied wall. The chorus of identikit demons were, like their surroundings, unfocused and lacking spark.

The closing scene begins with Giovanni and his side-kick, slouched like drunken tramps on a grimy street, preparing a pavement picnic of takeaway left-overs drawn from a discount-store carrier-bag: an image that ironically rather sums things up — for, like the stale bread rolls they fling contemptuously at the Commendatore, there really is a lot of garbage in this production. The mock-fugue finale presents a simple moral: “if you’re bad you’ll go to hell” — relevant in more ways than one.

Claire Seymour

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