Thursday 5 July 2007

Don Giovanni, Royal Opera, 4 July 2007

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Don Giovanni

Royal Opera House, Wednesday 4 July 2007

Don Giovanni - Erwin Schrott
Commendatore - Robert Lloyd
Donna Anna - Anna Netrebko and Marina Poplavskaya
Don Ottavio - Michael Schade
Donna Elvira - Ana María Martínez
Leporello - Kyle Ketelsen
Masetto - Matthew Rose
Zerlina - Sarah Fox

Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House
David Syrus (conductor)

Francesca Zambello (director)
Duncan Macfarland (revival director)

The Overture, and especially the first section of the Overture, did not augur well. Strings sounded wiry and anaemic; the natural brass (why, oh why...?!) sounded as it perforce would: alternating between feeble and rasping; there was little space (not just a matter of tempo) to breathe. Part of this, I suspect, was a product of David Syrus taking over simply for the final two performances, and therefore dealing with an orchestra versed in a reading that in large part would have been Ivor Bolton's. Bolton has been a curious case when I have heard him conduct Mozart: a haplessly frenetic Mass in C minor in which the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra was split between glorious woodwind and the rest as signalled above, a surprisingly fine Entführung (aided by a superb production), and a Symphony no.34, which, despite a few irritating 'period' touches and a recklessly fast 'slow' movement, displayed elsewhere a festive weight that would not have sounded out of place chez Klemperer or Colin Davis. After the Overture, however, things settled down. Whilst this in no sense ranked as a great interpretation - prepare to forget Furtwängler, Giulini, Klemperer, Böhm, Davis, Haitink, Muti, et al. - it supported the singers well and rarely drew narcissistic attention to itself. How much of this was Syrus and how much Bolton is impossible, at least for me, to say. I should add that parts of the Stone Guest scene, sadly, reverted to the hard-driven, underpowered tendencies of the Overture. And the natural brass remained, well, like natural brass: nothing could be done about that...

The cast was generally fine. Anna Netrebko, her cold notwithstanding, managed to convey dignity and glamour (and fine musicality) as Donna Anna. Unfortunately, her illness rendered her incapable of singing for the second act. Her last-minute replacement did well enough under the circumstances, though her tuning was often alarmingly awry, and there was little attempt at modulation of her rather strident voice. Michael Schade acquitted himself with honour in the thankless role of Don Ottavio. Ana María Martínez presented a wholly credible Elvira - and one who was far more than a wronged harridan. In 'Mi tradi', she lent a suitably erotic, proto-Wagnerian or -Straussian element to her interpretation, without ever overdoing such premonitions. Bringing off Leporello is often difficult, but Kyle Ketelsen had clearly thought through the balance of comedy, charisma, and class struggle, and was unfailingly musical in his shaping of lines.

This, however, was Erwin Schrott's show. I can say without hesitation that, of the various Giovannis have seen on stage, his was the most complete. He exuded charisma through stage presence and through his dangerous, honeyed tones, hued with a quicksilver, predatory dialectic between darkness and light. One felt that he could have had anyone in the theatre. His libertine defiance was duly heroic, although the orchestra and its direction unhelpfully threatened to run away with themselves during his final moments. Nevertheless, Schrott's confrontation with Robert Lloyd's predictably fine Commendatore was gripping enough for Mozart's truly extraordinary re-dramatisation (one almost dare call it intensification) of the Fall. It would take a sterner, more puritanical constitution than mine not to consider - and perhaps rather more than consider - siding with the Devil on the strength of this magnificent performance.

This brings me to the production. Francesca Zambello was clearly thinking along the right lines, in presenting a world suffused with Catholicism. Everything about Mozart's opera - and in this, he goes far beyond da Ponte's libretto - shows awareness of the theological stakes, which could hardly be higher. Unfortunately, Zambello, as is her wont, seemed too easily seduced by concessions to theatrical spectacle, not least the fires of the climactic scene. More worryingly, the 'religion' remained stubbornly at the level of religious tat. Whilst there may be good reasons for displaying highly visible manifestations of such Mediterranean piety, it should never be an end in itself. This was a pity, because the approach promised a great deal. It could have strengthened Schrott's astonishing portrayal, rather than provided a merely picturesque backdrop thereto. This was undoubtedly, however, a Don Giovanni to remember, if largely for its hero.