A rewarding and satisfying Don Giovanni from Welsh National Opera

18/09/2011

  Mozart, Don Giovanni: (Premiere) Soloists, chorus and orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Lothar Koenigs (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 16.9.2011. (GPu)

Cast:

Don Giovanni – David Kempster
Leporello – David Soar
Donna Anna – Camilla Roberts
Commendatore – Carlo Malinverno
Don Ottavio – Robin Tritschler
Donna Elvira – Nuccia Focile
Zerlina – Claire Ormshaw
Masetto – Gary Griffiths

Production:

Director – John Caird
Designer – John Napier
Costume Designers – John Napier and Yoon Bae
Lighting Designer – David Hersey
Choreographer – Kate Flatt
Fight Director – Kevin McCurdy
Chorus Master – Stephen Harris
Continuo – Stephen Wood, Alexandra Robinson

It is something of a cliché to call Don Giovanni Mozart’s most Shakespearean opera. It depends, of course, what you take to be typical of Shakespeare (and any such attempted definition would necessarily be a reduction of his great variety). But one thing that largely unites the Shakespearean canon is the dramatist’s refusal to adhere to the ‘rules’ of genre. Voltaire and other neo-classical critics were right when they said that Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies were alike ‘improper’, in the sense that they failed to adhere to the neoclassical rules. Where they were wrong was insisting that this therefore made them bad plays. In our own time Peter Conrad (as trenchant and perceptive a writer on Shakespeare as he is on opera) has argued that what Voltaire and others took to be Shakespeare’s distinguishing vice is actually his distinctive virtue – that he did, indeed, not write a single ‘proper’ comedy or tragedy, but did find ways of escaping from the limitations of genre to create a more comprehensive account of human life than any one classical genre can provide. Horace Walpole’s familiar aphorism declares that “life is a tragedy for those who feel, but a comedy to those who think”. Some of the very greatest works make us do both. The best of Shakespeare does, for example – and so does Don Giovanni.

That John Caird has a distinguished track record as a director of Shakespeare may perhaps have informed the way he approached Don Giovanni (insofar as he can’t have ignored his own past, one supposes that it must have done). Certainly this new production managed more adroitly than most performances of the opera I have previously seen to give dramatic coherence to the ways in which tragic and comic exist side-by-side, both attitudes often expressed simultaneously by different characters, or follow one another in rapid succession, the one turning into the other. The work refuses – and denies to its audience – the easy assurance of generic certainty. Indeed it deliberately flouts such certainties. We all know that, more often than not, comedies end with marriages, feasts or banquets – but not one at which the host is dragged off to hell. We know, on the other hand, that tragedies end with the death of the hero – but in, say, Marlowe’s Doctor Faust, the tragic hero comes to some recognition of the error of his ways. The tragic hero, as hell opens up, cries, with Marlowe’s Faust:

O, mercy heaven! Look not so fierce on me!

Adders and serpents! Let me breathe a while!

Ugly hell, gape not! Come not, Lucifer!

I’ll burn my books! O, Mephistopholes!

Don Giovanni’s response shows little evidence of any ability to reassess the course of life he has followed. He is more startled to discover that he is capable of fear:

Da qual tremore insolito

Sento assalir gli spiriti!

Throughout Caird established (without overemphasis) the connections, the affinities and the differences, between the worlds of opera buffa and opera seria (with the country dances and folkloristic antler headgear of Zerlina and Masetto on their first appearance, there was pastoral in the mix too).

John Napier’s splendid set, flexible yet monumental, a kind of fantasy version of Rodin’s Gates of Hell, suggested how ready of access Hell was, how permeable the boundary was between seventeenth century Seville and the underworld. Throughout the production there were hooded figures who might have been living monks or might have been statues that had stepped down from the walls of the set. When Don Giovanni disappeared through the gates of hell he shortly reappeared as an agonised sculptural figure, part Rodin and part allusion to Michelangelo’s ‘Dying Captive’ and to the  other unfinished captivi, creatures in the very moment of becoming stone or trying to escape from stone to become creatures. This was a subtle, frequently inventive production, where inventiveness was never in any serious danger of running counter to words and/or music. It was a lovely touch, for example, to have the verbally platitudinous final sextet ostensibly performed from sheet music distributed amongst the characters, as if they were singing it merely because it was the ‘right’ thing to say, as the generic complexities that characterise the work are dissipated into simple morality drama at its close. There were also plenty of details which demonstrated a clear-sighted awareness of how this is (in eighteenth-century terms) as much an opera about class transgression as about sexual transgression (and how the two are related). It is fitting then, that the opera’s idiom should itself be definable as an act of generic transgression.

Musically this was a rewarding and satisfying evening, even if one couldn’t single out any one performance as absolutely exceptional. More importantly, one couldn’t single out any single performance as inadequate. Lothar Koenigs and the orchestra were very impressive, sounding almost like a period instrument orchestra at times, the colours bright (especially in the brass), the woodwind ravishing and the strings full of tonal variety. David Kempster was energy and appetite incarnate, a man almost entirely without an inner life; that marvellous line of Da Ponte’s, “Zitto! Mi pare sentire odor di femina” is surely one of the keys to his and Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Kempster made us believe in him. Once or twice one might have liked just a bit more charm in the voice, but he was a seducer who seemed to conquer more by the power of the energy and attention he focussed on his victims (not, of course that he every really does make a conquest during the course of the opera). ‘Fin cha’n dal vino’ was sung particularly well, the language of appetite(s) incarnate. David Soar was a fine Leporello, the partnership wholly plausible, Leporello’s confusions and economic needs were equally well articulated. The dialogue between Leporello and his master was, musically and dramatically, an example of what management science calls best practice. It isn’t hard to imagine Soar himself as a top class Don Giovanni in due course. Nuccia Focile began with a certain stridency, as if her voice was stretched by the demands of the music, but settled into the role very well, a woman absurdly (almost comically) disorientated by her emotions at times, but at times close to tragic in her jealousy and delusion. Claire Ormshaw was a lively and vivacious Zerlina, possessed of a plausible rural innocence behind her responses to Don Giovanni’s blandishments; some of her exchanges with Masetto were genuinely touching and the way she could manipulate Masetto made an amusing mirror image of the masculine manipulation of the female eslewhere. Particularly pleasing was the way singers (and director) made sense of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, respecting their dignity, hinting at the sexual fears of Donna Anna and finding real respect for the upright (in several senses) Ottavio, whose honesty and morality were painfully out of their depth in dealing with Giovanni and, indeed, with Leporello. Camilla Roberts sang increasingly well and commandingly as the evening went on; her ‘Or sai chi l’onore’ had a memorable, almost possessed, power to it. Robin Tritschler continues to develop, as both actor and singer (one or two slight uncertainties of pitch excepted) and in both aria and duet he was utterly convincing, in a role that can sometimes seem rather dull. Gary Griffiths, as Masetto, did all that was required of him; it isn’t a part in which one is likely to make a very great impression, but coupled with memories of his recent Guglielmo in WNO’s Così, this was continuing confirmation of what a promising young singer he is.

All in all, this was a production well able to remind (or reveal) to its audience why Gounod should have said of the opera that it was the “apogee of the lyrical drama” and “a kind of incarnation of dramatic and musical infallibility”. If one shares something of that degree of admiration for the work, one is unlikely ever to encounter the ‘perfect’ production or performance; but one is certain to encounter a great many productions and performances which articulate the work’s greatness with far less success than Welsh National Opera did in this premiere.

Glyn Pursglove

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