Thursday 18 October 2012

Don Giovanni - ENO @ The Coliseum

Returning to the Coliseum this season is Rufus Norris' 2010 production of Mozart's 'dramma giocoso', following his directing of last season's visually exciting (if flawed) Dr Dee.  Don Giovanni is less of a spectacle, but a more assured venture into traditional opera.

This production is far from traditional, however.  From the start, a single heart-shaped balloon hovers helplessly on-stage, used symbolically throughout the opera to represent love as a fragile play-thing for the Don and suggestive of the hedonistic events to come.  The set design, from Ian MacNeil, is sparse, involving a number of revolving sets that are wheeled on to the stage with dizzying effect.  The surrounding black emptiness creates an ever-present darkness mirrored by an ensemble of devilishly masked servants who control the drama under the Don’s bidding.  Norris also continues his penchant for rolling screens masking swift set changes.  Along with clever use of silhouettes and colourful masks, the vibrant cast literally pop from the set.

Modernisms are abundant in Jeremy Sams’ English translation of the libretto.  Bawdy sexual innuendo, frequent nods to the audience and a twist with Leporello’s list aria conducted on a graphical spreadsheet all combine for a contemporary rollick that emphasises the comic aspects of the opera over the darkly dramatic.

This extends to the cast, who excel at comedy rather than pathos.  Particularly noteworthy is Darren Jeffery’s Leporello, whose bumbling bass is ripe with comedy, his patter with Iain Paterson’s Don Giovanni providing frequent moments of hilarity.  Paterson’s luxurious baritone is suitably seductive though his stage presence is not always as commanding as it could be.  Sarah Tynan’s light, warm soprano is befitting of Zerlina’s delicious charm and her chavvy dress and demeanour allowed for plenty of titillation with John Malloy’s Masetto. 

By contrast, Katherine Broderick’s Donna Anna feels overtly melodramatic, constantly followed by Ben Johnson’s doting Don Ottavio.  Though she sings with grace and control, her occasional shrieking and over-acting negate any sense of poise.  Sarah Redgwick’s Donna Elvira, far from balancing comedy and seriousness, is often laughable.  Looking like a cross between Cherie Blair and Liza Minelli, her arias are well sung but difficult to empathise with.  Matthew Best’s Commendatore, meanwhile, sings in thunderous tones to match the orchestra.

Conducted by Edward Gardner, the orchestra play with power and liveliness.  Swift tempi keep the drama moving along at a pace, even if the Act 2 sextet becomes something of a tongue-twister.

Norris’ main innovation is turning Don Giovanni’s second Act aria from a dainty seduction to a declaration of love to a long lost lover.  Certainly this is an attempt to give the Don a heart, which is a welcome exploration of character, though this does somewhat undermine the hellish ending – is he really deserving of such punishment?  But is it even a punishment?  As the ensemble sing in the finale, hell itself is filled with women.  Perhaps it’s a step too far to ask the audience to empathise with an eternal philanderer.


Watch: Don Giovanni runs until 17th November.