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<em>Don Giovanni</em>, Investec Opera Holland Park
05 Jun 2017

Don Giovanni takes to the waves at Investec Opera Holland Park

There’s no reason why Oliver Platt’s imaginative ‘concept’ for this new production of Don Giovanni at Investec Opera Holland Park shouldn’t work very well. Designer Neil Irish has reconstructed a deck of RMS Queen Mary - the Cunard-White Star Line’s flag-ship cruiser during the 1930s, that golden age of trans-Atlantic cruising. Spanning the entire width of the OHP stage, the deck is lined with port-holed cabin doors - perfect hideaways for one of the Don’s hasty romantic dalliances.

Don Giovanni, Investec Opera Holland Park

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Ashley Riches (Don Giovanni) with members of the principal cast and OHP Chorus

Photo credit: Robert Workman

 

Moreover, 1930s ocean-going offered a panoply of pleasures and luxuries: the Queen Mary featured everything from indoor swimming pools and beauty salons, to libraries and outdoor tennis courts. Just the right leisured milieu for a libertine hedonist eager for a ‘good time’. Irish’s visually arresting design allows the centre of the deck to crease backwards, revealing evocations of the smoking rooms, grand salon, richly decorated with art deco details. Dramatically, too, an ocean liner seems a potentially acute setting. Britten’s Billy Budd confirms just how the claustrophobic tension can rise aboard ship, and unless he takes to a life-boat, there will certainly be no possibility of the Don escaping his pursuers mid-ocean.

But, peer a bit closer, and the rust spreading between the steel panels is disconcerting. In the event, the concept proves a bit leaky too. One problem is the strict class stratification on board: strolling on the Sun Deck, or dining in their exclusive restaurants, first-class passengers such as Donna Anna and Don Ottavio would never cross paths with the likes of Masetto and Zerlina, who would be confined in cramped third-class cubby-holes in the bowel of the ship. In fact, what are Masetto and Zerlina doing on board in the first place? They haven’t even married yet!

Two of the crucial dramatic features of Don Giovanni thus run aground on Platt’s idea. First, Don Giovanni’s ‘slipperiness’ - his ability to make himself at home amid company from any social class - is essential to his musical identity, or lack of it: for, apart from the ‘champagne aria’, Giovanni has no real aria of his own and instead adopts the musical idiom of those he is attempting to charm. But, class-crossing between the staterooms and the Starlight Club of first-class and the lower realms of steerage just wouldn’t be possible on board in the 1930s. Thus, the opera’s political radicalism is also weakened. When Don Giovanni offers to host a wedding feast for Zerlina and Masetto, he does so to deflect the latter’s jealousy, using his wealth and status to take advantage of the peasant pair. But, in Platt’s production, Giovanni comes across the wedding party when he’s wandering, implausibly, around third-class decks, and when the masked aristocrats later appear too, their cries - ‘Viva la liberté!’ - have lost their dramatic context.

- Lauren Fagan as Donna Anna.jpgLauren Fagan as Donna Anna. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

But, perhaps this is to take it all a bit too literally. One advantage of Irish’s design is that it pushes the singers to the front of the stage and reflects their voices back into the large auditorium, helping them to project across the orchestra, who are not housed in a pit. However, it does mean that there is not a lot of space for the sort of ‘stage business’ which creates both tension and humour; a case in point was Zerlina’s ‘Batti, Batti’ which seemed, in terms of the drama, rather like driftwood. At times, Platt must resort to ‘gags’ - albeit often witty - to create some energy, such as when Zerlina attempts to ‘hide’ behind the celery stalk in her cocktail glass. Elsewhere, things take an unexpectedly violent turn: there’s blood on the walls when the Commendatore is stabbed and Giovanni threatens Donna Anna with a revolver before making his end-of-Act 1 getaway.

Ellie Laugharne as Zerlina and Ian Beadle as Masetto.jpg Ellie Laugharne as Zerlina and Ian Beadle as Masetto. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

The centre of the stage does open up, though wisely Platt does not allow the angled rooms to recede too far. The complicated Act 1 ending is well-choreographed and a sense of intrigue is created when, in Act 2, Leporello and his master change cloaks and we zip between various cramped cabins. But, some of the set-piece arias are a little too ‘set’. Leporello literally teaches Elvira a lesson, as she sits before a blackboard and chalks up the Don’s conquests - you do the Maths, the schoolmaster seems to mock! Don Giovanni’s champagne aria is delivered as he attempts to change for dinner in a cabin which brought to mind Charles Dickens’ description of one of Cunard’s cabins as a ‘profoundly preposterous box’.

Fortunately, the talented young cast do much to stabilise the rocky vessel. As the eponymous libertine, Ashley Riches looked debonair in his light-tan sports-suit, Panama hat and two-tone shoes, and he demonstrated a vocal suavity to match in ‘Là ci darem la mano’. Riches’ tone was firm and warm throughout, cunningly veiling his contemptuousness; he had the breath control to whirl through the champagne aria, too, despite having to simultaneously squeeze into evening dress in a cupboard.

John Savournin as Leporello and Victoria Simmonds as Donna Elvira.jpg John Savournin as Leporello and Victoria Simmonds as Donna Elvira. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

John Savournin was an effective partner for Riches; Savournin made Leporello more sympathetic than is sometimes the case, revealing the natural comic timing which was in evidence when I saw him perform in WNO’s Kiss Me, Kate in November last year.

Of the trio of duped women, Lauren Fagan shone brightest, as Donna Anna, injecting real drama into both recitatives and arias. The Australian’s soprano is powerful and bright, and she mastered the vocal acrobats of ‘Non mi dir’ with ease. As her consort, Ben Johnson struggled a bit with Don Ottavio’s ‘Il mio tesoro’, seeming to need a slightly broader pace than that set by conductor Dane Lam.

A year ago, I enjoyed Ellie Laugharne’s Zerlina for Classical Opera at Cadogan Hall, and she charmed with the same sweetness of tone and wicked sparkle here, forming an effective contrast with Victoria Simmonds’ fervent - sometimes quasi-hysterical - Elvira. Simmonds’ was not entirely on top of the role’s demands - the intonation strayed at the top - but this was a convincing performance dramatically. Ian Beadle (Masetto) and Graeme Broadbent (Commendatore) also gave accomplished performances. The latter’s bass had lots of colour, helping to make the vengeful patriarch a more credible figure, in the absence of a statue, after he’s spent most of the opera on a slab in the ship’s food refrigeration unit - one dreads to think what was served for dinner.

Dane Lam drew forthright playing from the City of London Sinfonia, though at times it was lacking in stylishness; the Opera Holland Park Chorus were in good voice.

Unable to conjure the fires of hell in the middle of the Atlantic, Platt has Giovanni plunge overboard and meet a watery end. Overall, there is much fine singing to enjoy in this Don Giovanni, and no doubt the cast will settle into their roles as the run progresses. But, I couldn’t help thinking that the production itself is not waving but drowning.

Claire Seymour

Mozart: Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni - Ashley Riches, Leporello - John Savournin, Donna Anna - Lauren Fagan, Don Ottavio - Ben Johnson, Donna Elvira - Victoria Simmonds, Il Commendatore - Graeme Broadbent, Zerlina - Ellie Laugharne, Masetto - Ian Beadle; Director - Oliver Platt, Conductor - Dane Lam, Designer - Neil Irish, Lighting Designer - Mark Howland, Choreographer - Caitlin Fretwell Welsh, City of London Sinfonia, Opera Holland Park Chorus.

Investec Opera Holland Park, London; Saturday 3rd June 2017.

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