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Mariusz Kwiecień as Don Giovanni [Photo © ROH / Bill Cooper]
06 Feb 2014

Don Giovanni, Royal Opera

Kasper Holten’s new production of Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House risks laying the house’s Director of Opera open to charges of antiquated mores and misogyny: for he seems to suggest that the women are just as bad, if not worse, than their seducer — and that a soulful man who seeks genuine love is likely to find his ‘ideal beloved’ forever out of reach.

Don Giovanni, Royal Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Mariusz Kwiecień as Don Giovanni

Photos © ROH / Bill Cooper


This is a (forgive the pun) grave, serious Don Giovanni. Although Mozart wrote to his father that ‘The most essential thing is that on the whole the story should be really comic’, the phrase ‘on the whole’ leaves room for some equivocation and the term dramma giocoso has given the musicologists much to chew over. (Indeed, the esteemed Mozart scholar Tim Carter titles his programme article ‘Serious, Comic Or…’)

But, if the overall effect of the production is somewhat sombre, and the ending leaning towards existential, then the action itself is full of life, the stone-grey façade of Es Devlin’s inventive set illuminated by the engaging video animations of Luke Halls and Bruno Poet’s lighting design.

DON_GIOVANNI-RO_362.pngAlex Esposito as Leporello

As the foreboding tones of the introductory andante are swept aside by the overture’s Molto Allegro onward scurrying, so the curtain rises on a bare exterior wall, imposing facing the auditorium. But, it doesn’t stay bare for long; like a visual representation of the musical narrative, the names of Don Giovanni’s sexual conquests appear — at first slowly then in a frantic rush of calligraphic etching. It is as if an invisible pen of light is reproducing before our eyes the inscriptions in the Don’s catalogue of paramours.

As the central cube of Devlin’s architectural design rotates, a doll’s-house labyrinth of staircases reaching into perpetuity and interlocking rooms for lovers’ trysts, washes of colourful graffiti — patterns and petals, tears and tessellations — tell the Don’s tale. In the second act the side panels of the façade draw back, isolating the geometrically intricate cube within a black void and emphasising the Don’s loneliness. It’s all visually engaging and thought-provoking, the disorientating vortex which accompanies the ‘Champagne aria’ — with Giovanni suspended at the centre of the geometric maelstrom — is a highpoint, suggesting both the effervescent fun of popping of champagne corks and the uncontrollable consequences of the reprobate’s debauchery.

The mid-nineteenth century costumes (by Anja Vang Kragh) are handsome — the ladies’ frocks are especially luxurious and eye-pleasing — but they fail to communicate the class differences which drive the conflict, most noticeable with the vengeful interlopers at the wedding party cry, ‘Viva la libertà!’

DON_GIOVANNI-RO_458.pngVeronique Gens as Donna Elvira and Mariusz Kwiecień as Don Giovanni

Mariusz Kwiecień’s Don is more pensive quester than glib libertine or irrepressible rake, but his poise and good looks are effortlessly charming. His rich baritone is even and flexible, and complemented by a beautiful silky tone — showcased in a wonderful ‘Serenade’. Not surprising, then, that the woman are bewitched: who wouldn’t be charmed by the eloquent elegance of Kwiecień’s ‘Là ci darem la mano’?

Certainly, Donna Anna is in his thrall. Sung with unfailing power (a little too much at times?) by Swedish soprano Malin Byström, this Donna is a woman who knows her own mind, what she wants and how to get it. It’s clear from the opening moments that she is hot for Giovanni as he is for her; as her loyal Ottavio declares his adoration in ‘Dalla Sua Pace’ — “What pleases her gives life to me … joy I cannot know unless she shares it” — his tenders words are mocked by his betrothed’s heartless actions: Anna climbs the staircase for an assignation with the expectant, colluding Giovanni.

Byström was committed but sometimes the brightness of tone had a harder edge, and her Italian diction needs some work. That said, she more than mastered the technical challenges.

Véronique Gens’ Donna Elvira couples ardent passion with resentful fury. Although Gens offered an impassioned ‘Mi tradi’ — a fiery denouncement of the perfidious betrayer — with superb breath-control and dynamic variation, Elvira remained determined to believe the best (or ignore the worst) of the man who has deceived her. As Leporello recited the catalogue of inamoratas, she clutched Giovanni as if the warmth of her embrace might erase the evidence from the page. Gens’ stylish ornamentation was also exemplary.

DON_GIOVANNI-RO_446.pngMalin Byström as Donna Anna and Mariusz Kwiecień as Don Giovanni

Leporello was expertly sung and acted by Italian bass-baritone Alex Esposito, the above-mentioned catalogue aria suave and stylishly phrased. The sleazy servant’s roguery was credible and his vulnerability to the whims of his untrustworthy master touching. Esposito is fast making a name for himself as a consummate Mozartian — especially in this role — and it was a shame that the production does not offer more opportunity for him to showcase his skills as a master of musical comedy and irony.

Powerful, well-crafted singing from Italian tenor Antonio Poli gave stature to Don Ottavio, a character who can sometimes be over-shadowed by the charisma of his adversary and the hysterics of his affianced. ‘Dalla sua pace’ was particularly sweet of tone, and a delicately floated pianissimo was bestowed with heart-rending poignancy by the concurrent betrayal of his false-hearted Anna.

Elizabeth Watts’s Zerlina is no unworldly country girl; lively and vivacious, she is eager to submit to Giovanni’s advances — although it isn’t clear why, having succeeded in evading Masetto’s watchful surveillance, she should then felee from Giovanni’s embrace, tearing her dress to suggest an assault? Last minute doubts, or simply a tease? Watts’s voice was sumptuous but always polished; Dawid Kimberg’s Masetto, despite showing his potential for violent outburst when delivering Zerlina a vicious clout in a fit of jealousy, was no match for her guile in ‘Batti, batti’. Kimberg himself sang with attractive tone, musically precise and verbally crisp.

Making his house debut, Ukrainian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk was impressive as the Commedatore. Although presented as a fabrication of Giovanni’s increasingly disorientated imagination, Tsymbalyuk — positioned aloft, above the figure of an eye — projected with commanding impact into the auditorium, dignified and intent on justice.

DON_GIOVANNI-RO_678.pngA scene from Don Giovanni

At the helm conductor Nicola Luisotti led the orchestra of the Royal Opera House vivaciously through the score; oddly, the brightness and grace of the orchestral playing was not matched by Luisotti’s own rather heavy-handed fortepiano-continuo, which was overly loud, flamboyantly intrusive and inappropriately dissonant at times.

It was a pity that such a large cut was deemed appropriate in the final scene. But, the conclusion itself was powerful: rather than the customary flames of damnation and desperate descent to Tartarean depths, Holten and Devlin fade to grey, the light and colour of life withdrawing, leaving Giovanni alone, arms-outstretched, uncomprehending. As the fugal chorus — much truncated — assails him from the wings, Giovanni is an isolated, confused figure, unable to make sense of a world indifferent to his experiences, recognising that the freedom he has enjoyed brings inescapable consequences.

Not a defiant nihilist, rather a man yearning for life: this dissoluto is certainly punito.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Don Giovanni, Mariusz Kwiecień; Leporello, Alex Esposito; Donna Anna, Malin Byström; Donna Elvira, Véronique Gens; Don Ottavio, Antonio Poli; Zerlina, Elizabeth Watts; Masetto, Dawid Kimberg, Commendatore, Alexander Tsymbalyuk; conductor, Nicola Luisotti; director, Kasper Holten; set designs, Es Devlin; video designs, Luke Halls; costume designs, Anja Vang Kragh; lighting designs, Bruno Poet; choreography, Signre Fabricus; fight director, Kate Waters; orchestra and chorus of the Royal Opera House. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Saturday 1st February 2014.

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