Friday, 2 May 2008

Don Giovanni, English Touring Opera, 2 May 2008

Cambridge Arts Theatre

Don Giovanni – Roland Wood
Leporello – Jonathan Gunthorpe
Il Commendatore – Andrew Slater
Donna Anna – Julia Sporsén
Don Ottavio – Eyjólfur Eyjólfsson
Donna Elvira – Laura Parfitt
Zerlina – Ilona Domnich
Masetto – Adrian Powter

Orchestra and Chorus of English Touring Opera
Michael Rosewell (conductor)

Jonathan Munby (director)
Barnaby Rayfield (associate director)
Soutra Gilmour (designs)
Guy Hoare (lighting)

The raison d’être of English Touring Opera is a good one, indeed a very good one: performing opera across England, largely in venues untouched by larger companies. On the last occasion that I had heard the company, also in Cambridge, it had been in Ariadne auf Naxos. I had not attended with great expectations and had therefore been pleasantly surprised with a perfectly respectable, often witty presentation of Strauss’s opera. If only I were able to say the same about this Don Giovanni, which really did not pass muster. This was a slightly cut version that conformed more to Prague than to Vienna in terms of versions, although not quite to either. That, however, was the least of its problems.

One expects a reduced, even somewhat hard-pressed orchestra in such situations and, if one is reasonable, one does not expect the tonal quality of the Vienna Philharmonic. But I think one has a right to expect more than the scrawniness with which the strings, especially the violins, presented Mozart’s score on this occasion. The woodwind, however, sounded unexceptionable but perfectly acceptable, as did the brass, even though the latter sounded strangely subdued; for instance, it would have been good to have heard more from the trombones in the ‘Stone Guest’ scene. I assume that the failing woodwind during the first number of the Tafelmusik was deliberate; if not, then Leporello’s reaction to it was quickly improvised. However, I could not understand what was the point of transforming the aria from Vicente Martin y Soler’s Una cosa rara into an intimation of Siegfried’s hapless attempts to communicate with the animals of the forest. Michael Rosewell kept things going on, and if there was no especial insight from his interpretation and there was certainly a lack of loving phrasing, there were no true horrors, such as one may often be faced with in Mozart.

So far, then, not quite so bad, but I am afraid there was little good news elsewhere. The updating to the fascist era might have worked, but did not really come off. Perhaps budgetary constraints were involved here; I suspect they must have lain behind the unimaginative trellis-set that formed the backdrop for almost everything. Don Giovanni’s transformation into what seemed to be a local police or military commander at least had the merit of preserving some element of social differentiation, so crucial to this work’s success. This was utterly squandered, however, by the inexplicable decision to have the nobleman act as the coarsest of peasants at table. Such was not reckless abandon; it was, again, merely embarrassing. Moreover, the fascist salutes at various junctures were more embarrassing than chilling, not least at what should be that most terrifying prospect of social collapse, the extended cries of ‘Viva la libertà’ (here, ‘Freedom for one and all’) in the Act I finale. Balanced against that, I thought the exchange of clothes between Giovanni and Leporello during the second act worked better than I have often seen, partly on account of the physical similarity between Roland Wood and Jonathan Gunthorpe. It was when the drama demanded something more than comedy – which, I should argue, is almost all of the time – that the production failed to deliver. There was no sense of the metaphysical, no sense of Giovanni’s almost Faustian heroism, but rather a reversion to the world of burlesque – and it seemed more a case of faute de mieux than a challenging reversion. Many members of the audience seemed to find the arrival of the Stone Guest amusing rather than terrifying; I found it neither.

The English translation did not help at all. I find it difficult at the best of times to endure a work I know so well in anything other than Lorenzo da Ponte’s skilful original libretto. Since ETO was performing Bellini’s Anna Bolena in Italian, I do not understand why it could not have done so with a far better-known work. If translated it must be, though, it would benefit from something considerably superior to the strange mixture of vaguely archaic forced rhyming and free association of an ‘only slightly after da Ponte’ variety.

It was with the singing, however, that the gravest of problems lay. First, the good news: Adrian Powter was a winning, musical Masetto, far more sympathetic than one often finds him, not without his violent side but also torn between differing impulses. I should unhesitatingly describe his performance as a true success. Ilona Domnich also made an attractive Zerlina, although her stage persona was often in advance of her vocal quality. The rest of the cast ranged from adequate to disastrous. Wood and Gunthorpe’s Giovanni and Leporello were largely wooden and/or caricatured. There was a great deal of dissociation of pit and stage, most egregiously during the ‘Champagne Aria’, in which at one point singer and orchestra found themselves a bar apart. Laura Parfitt just about managed the notes as Elvira, albeit with little insight and a far from attractive voice. Andrew Slater was underpowered as the Commendatore, usually a gift of a role to a stentorian bass. As for the seria couple, Don Ottavio and Donna Anna, Julia Sporsén coped with her coloratura, but seemed hopelessly at sea when it came to acting; she lacked dignity, let alone characterisation. Eyjólfur Eyjólfsson was not too bad at acting on stage, but could barely sing the role. In fact, he could not sing the role, although this minor handicap did not prevent irritating applause after 'Il mio tesoro'. He emphatically did not cope with his coloratura; he was often startlingly out of tune, and produced an unpleasant nasal tone throughout.

I wish I could have been more positive, and have tried to point to relatively more promising aspects of the performance. Don Giovanni, however, is an extremely difficult work to pull off, even in the most favoured of circumstances. ETO needs to consider whether it would be better advised to bring smaller, more practicable, perhaps more unusual works to the stage. Should it decide against, then it really must do better than this in mainstream repertoire.

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