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Gerald Finley as Don Giovanni and Katarina Karnéus as Donna Elvira [Photo by Mike Hoban courtesy of the Royal Opera House]
27 Jan 2012

Don Giovanni, Royal Opera

Introducing the winter-spring season, ROH Chief Executive Tony Hall explains the (perhaps a tad spurious) Olympic ‘concept’ which has inspired the season’s programming, the five interlocking rings of the Olympic insignia motivating the performance of a series of works staged in ‘cycle form’.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni: Gerald Finley; Leporello: Lorenzo Regazzo; Donna Anna: Hibla Gerzmava; Donna Elvira: Katarina Karnéus; Don Ottavio: Matthew Polenzani; Zerlina: Irini Kyriakidou; Masetto: Adam Plachetka; Commendatore: Marco Spotti. Royal Opera Chorus. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Conductor: Constantinos Carydis. Director: Francesca Zambello. Designs: Maria Bjørnson. Lighting Design: Paul Pyant. Fight Director: William Hobbs. Movement: Stephen Mear. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Saturday, 21 January 2012.

Above: Gerald Finley as Don Giovanni and Katarina Karnéus as Donna Elvira

Photos by Mike Hoban courtesy of the Royal Opera House


Thus, having kicked off in autumn with Puccini’s triptych, Il Trittico, we now have a triple dose of Mozart-Da Ponte, beginning with that delicious blend of the dissolute and the delectable, flavoured with a dash of the supernatural that, mimicking its slippery ‘hero’ himself, so often evades the directorial grasp: Don Giovanni.

Francesco Zambello’s staging, first seen in 2002 and revived several times since, is certainly full of fire, nowhere more so than in the final scene when flames literally threaten to lick the curtains and engulf the auditorium. But, although the ‘dissolute one’ is ultimately punished, this opera is about more than simply a ‘just’ meting out of hellfire and damnation; it is a ‘dramma giocoso’, and getting the right balance between menace and mischief, between horror and humour, is a tricky task.

DON_GIOVANNI_10200_2347.pngHibla Gerzmava as Donna Anna

Maria Bjørnson’s sets certainly tend towards the dark and dispiriting: a steely, curved wall suggests a suitably sepulchral edifice, festooned with crucifixes. Aloft perches a brooding, kitsch Madonna; it glowers judgmentally upon the degenerate goings-on, later prompting both a sacrilegious outburst from the frustrated sinner and a sentimental serenade from Don Ottavio. The ugly vertical construction revolves at the end of the first act to reveal a painted perspective of a grand banqueting hall, effectively transposing us from an abstract age scattered with assorted period allusions, to an unambiguous eighteenth-century Spain. By the beginning of the second act, the wall has crumbled into a pile of bricks and rubble.

This rather unappealing visual design is enlivened by the striking costumes whose deep, rich hues evoke the intense, contrasting palette of Goya, and integrate class signifiers and moral codes. The aristocrats sport royal blue and noble purple, while the peasants are dressed in simple (‘pure’?) white frocks; Don Giovanni is cloaked in crimson, as are his servants, excepting Leporello whose shabby, grey attire reflects the seediness and squalor of his existence.

Zambello’s ideas, though at times original and interesting, do not always add up to a complete whole; but if the show ‘works’, it is largely due to the musicality and muscularity of Gerald Finley as the eponymous philander, by turns imperious and charming, threatening and mesmerising. He is self-knowing but never self-pitying. Strikingly swathed in scarlet, from the first Finley is ruthless and dangerous, recklessly slaying the Commendatore, and later assailing Masetto with malice and spite. But, such viciousness is forgotten in a flash, as his voice enchants and allures. It is obvious why Zerlina submits so willingly, for ‘La ci darem’, like the subsequent Canzonetta, ‘Deh vieni alla finestra’, is breathtakingly sweet. Although we can see that the Don is oblivious to everything but his own satisfaction — sexual, gastronomic and material — Finley’s audacity, self-belief and independent spirit thrill us just as much as his vocal powers.

DON_GIOVANNI_10200_0069.pngMatthew Polenzani as Don Ottavio, Hibla Gerzmava as Donna Anna, Marco Spotti as Commendatore

It is fitting that, following the ‘victors’ moralising fugato, it is the scorching silhouette of the wrong-doing reprobate bearing aloft a naked woman, anticipating continuing gratification, that is the image that brings down the final curtain; for it is Finley who has monopolised our attention and interest throughout. It is an image that neatly captures the irony that Mozart and Da Ponte surely intended, and the ambivalence that the score and libretto constantly declare.

Finley’s Leporello, Lorenzo Regazzo, could not match or, more appropriately, complement and counterpoise, his master’s dramatic or musical stature. In a disappointingly low-key performance, Regazzo’s fairly insubstantial bass offered neither comic capers nor buffo vengeance. There was much shoulder shrugging and miserable moping, but the catalogue aria was disappointingly dull — even Elvira looked bored, as she drifted about, disengaged and disinterested in the servant’s notebook flinging. However, Regazzo did perk up for the mock seduction of Elvira, enjoying his role-swapping adventures, his excited anticipation of the joys that his master’s costume endow, quickly turning to disillusionment when he gained not gratification but grief from the vengeful wronged.

DON_GIOVANNI_10100_0046.pngGerald Finley As Don Giovanni, Lorenzo Regazzo As Leporello

But, underpowered vocally and dramatically, Regazzo got ‘lost’ in the chaos that concludes Don Giovanni’s party and in the final banquet scene, in which Leporello’s heartlfelt terror should serve to emphasise his master’s insouciant self-assurance, he went unnoticed.

The big surprise of the evening was Matthew Polenzani ’s Don Ottavio; this effete aristo was a far cry from the ineffectual posturer and grumbler of far too many productions. Indeed, Polenzani won the loudest applause of the night, for his pianissimo da capo of ‘Dalla sua pace’ which was truly refined.

There were strong performances too from Adam Plachetka (Masetto), a dark voiced bass-baritone of stature, and Marco Spotti, who was a commanding Commendatore.

The female leads were all making house or role debuts. Wearing a Havisham-esque gown, Katarina Karnéus was an overly melodramatic Elvira; with little help from the director, her perfectly plausible anger lacked focus, and often lapsed into deranged ranting and raving. Moreover, why is she borne in in a sedan chair? She is surely savagely incensed, rather than self-composed and sedate? Despite this, Karnéus did convincingly convey Elvira’s unpredictable mood swings: she has gloss and clarity at the top, but lacks weight and richness in lower range. And she didn’t quite have sufficient stamina, tiring in ‘Mi tradi’.

As Donna Anna, Hibla Gerzmava’s hard-edged tone was a good match for her ‘hard-to-get’ stance with Ottavio, but won her character little sympathy. Irini Kyriakidou was a mature, knowing Zerlina but, while mostly secure, she lacked variety of tone.

Zambello’s banquet scene is a mixture of the banal and the blood-curdling. There is no statue — although, puzzlingly, the chorus stand stock-still, like frozen figurines, when Don Giovanni invites his ghostly guest to dinner. Instead of an imposing effigy we have an enormous swinging, pointing finger - the hand of God, we suppose, or else that of the Commendatore himself, mocking the beguiling invitation of the Don’s seductive serenade.

DON_GIOVANNI_10200_0768.pngScene from Don Giovanni

While there were dazzling pyrotechnics on stage, there was disappointingly little fervour in the pit, despite the breakneck pace of the overture which promised so much. Constantinos Carydis, conducting from memory, let the momentum droop and drag, at times unsettling his soloists (even Finley, who surprisingly anticipated the start of ‘La ci darem’) and wrong-footing his chorus, who tripped and stumbled through the Act 1 finale. Carydis clearly possesses a detailed knowledge of the score but there was simply not enough attention to the overall ensemble, which was sacrificed for momentary nuances. The recitatives were enlivened by some witty continuo playing from Mark Packwood, and the ‘Girl-bands’ and other musicians at the Don’s wedding feast — playing from memory — provided impressive entertainment.

Ultimately, whatever the flaws of conception, design and performance, Finley’s masterful performance ensured a satisfying evening was had.

Claire Seymour

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