Wednesday 7 July 2010

Don Giovanni, Opera Holland Park, 6 July 2010

Don Giovanni – Nicholas Garrett
Commendatore – Simon Wilding
Donna Anna – Ana James
Donna Elvira – Laura Mitchell
Don Ottavio – Thomas Walker
Leporello – Matthew Hargreaves
Zerlina – Claire Wild
Masetto – Robert Winslade Anderson

Stephen Barlow (director)
Yannis Thavoris (designs)
Colin Grenfell (lighting)
Sam Spencer-Lane (choreography)

Opera Holland Park Chorus
City of London Sinfonia
Robert Dean (conductor)

Opera Holland Park’s new production of Don Giovanni marks a definite step up from its Fidelio, at least as presently conducted. (The production is excellent.) I do not think I had heard Robert Dean before, but he and the City of London Sinfonia presented an eminently creditable account of the score: not the last word in exploring its unfathomable depths, but mercifully free of the doctrinaire point-making that mars so many present-day performances. By and large, Mozart was allowed to speak for himself and benefited from doing so. Tempi were sensible; if the overture had sounded the odd alarm bell (for another reason, see below), then the music soon settled down. Woodwind solos were a particular joy, but the strings too appeared to be enjoying a new lease of life following their leaden direction the previous night. There were a few occasions when I missed greater heft, but surprisingly few, given the extraordinary nature of Mozart’s proto-Romanticism and the relatively small forces. Ornamentation can often irritate, but here, whether in the orchestra or from the soloists, it was tastefully, interestingly, yet not at all shyly accomplished. Eighteenth-century style is quite a different thing from what those who most loudly trumpet their supposed adherence would have you imagine. There was, however, a questionably prominent harpsichord: both loud and strangely ‘present’ in sound. Surely it was amplified? It seemed to me an interesting idea, though hardly necessary, to employ it during the Handel parody of Elvira’s ‘Ah, fuggi il traditor’, but its appearances became tiresomely frequent and increasingly inappropriate, culminating in unmerited – and out of sync – clattering during the Stone Guest scene. Choral singing impressed.

Stephen Barlow’s relocation to the High Victorian era worked well. As ever with such things, there are words that jar: the work is not in any real sense ‘about’ Seville, but why are it and Spain mentioned so much? That may not matter much, but it does more than in an abstracted, mythologised setting, in which specificity does not arise. If anything, the relocation might have benefited from greater concentration upon its new specificity: the weird, behind-closed-doors world of much Victorian sexuality might fruitfully have been explored. The costumes and sets were beautifully done, however, for which plaudits should be handed to Yannis Thavoris. And the focal, Dorian Gray-like narcissism – several wall portraits and all – of Don Giovanni was convincing to a degree. An especially effective idea was to have the Commendatore step forward from one of those portraits, an elderly version of the young libertine. Giovanni’s defiance acquires another layer of understanding when seen as rejecting the fate of growing old (relatively) gracefully. Some other touches convinced more than others. The comely bell boy – subsequently seen in the chorus of damnation – who thought it worth a play for the hero’s affections during his serenade amused, though surely not quite so much as the excessive guffawing from some well-oiled members of the audience might have suggested. However, the portrayal of Zerlina as a Plain Jane – who only at the end removes her spectacles and lets her hair down, to initiate sex with Masetto – is quite at odds both with libretto and, more importantly, Mozart’s music. A peasant girl who should exude natural fertility seemed more like a failed candidate for IVF. No wonder that Claire Wild seemed uncertain what tone to adopt for her music.

Her Masetto was the weakest link in the cast: strong on stage presence but sadly lacking in voice. Laura Mitchell was not dissimilar, though her lopsided portrayal, neurotic to the exclusion of the erotic, may possibly have been a product of directorial line. Simon Wilding was a powerful Commendatore, whilst Ana James sang beautifully as her almost-namesake. The production, however, seemed a little uncertain what to do with her. (I remain wedded to the post-ETA Hoffmann idea of Donna Anna as truly desiring Don Giovanni, but there are other possibilities.) Don Ottavio is, of course, the very definition of the thankless role, but Thomas Walker impressed with his style and musicality. Matthew Hargreaves was suffering from some ailment, but nevertheless caught attention as a fine Leporello, alert to the quicksilver shifts demanded and commendably attentive to the finer points of the libretto. Nicholas Garrett proved a splendid Giovanni, handsome of tone as well as aspect, suave, cruel, and yet credibly heroic at the last. This, then, was a Don Giovanni of which Opera Holland Park can justly be proud.

A few words, however, concerning the audience: whilst there was hilarity to be had during the overture from the sight of a former Conservative Cabinet minister, no Chelsea strip in sight, and his young companion engaging in a slanging match with the couple seated in front, there are perhaps better ways to appreciate Mozart’s shift of tempo – here a little abrupt, as it happened – than by having an ex-politician shout ‘Shut up!’ and his guest offer a one-finger salute at the row in front. For whatever reason, the happy couple rushed away the moment the final chord was heard. For connoisseurs of Conservative politics of a slightly earlier vintage – perhaps they exist – Lord Lawson of Blaby was also in attendance.