A Gritty Don Giovanni for the 21st Century

05/10/2012

 Mozart, Don Giovanni (sung in English): Soloists and Chamber Orchestra of Mid Wales Opera / Nicholas Cleobury (conductor), Roses Theatre, Tewkesbury, 2.10.2012. (RJ)

Cast:

Don Giovanni: Njabulo Madlala
Leporello: Wyn Pencarreg
Donna Elvira: Helen Sherman
Donna Anna: Catrin Aur
Don Ottavio: John-Colyn Gyeantey
Commendatore: Keel Watson
Masetto: William Robert Allenby
Zerlina: Anna Patalong

Production:

Director: Martin Lloyd-Evans
Assistant Director: Dafydd Hall Williams
Designer: Bridget Kimak
Lighting Designer: Declan Randall
Repetiteur: Elizabeth Rowe

Anna Patalong (Zerlina) Keel Watson (Commendatore) William Robert Allenby (Masetto) Photo Credit: John Reading/MWO

Wales’ other opera company is currently doing the rounds with its 21st century version of Don Giovanni complete with all the paraphernalia of modern life – such as miniskirts, leather jackets, neon signs, mobile phones (cell phones), and revolvers. It is set in the United States so Giovanni’s conquests occur not in Spain or Italy, but in Chicago, Hawaii and also Las Vegas (where he notches up one thousand and three seductions).

The set is a tryptych of changing scenes – including a church, a night club, a police station, a dress shop, a bar and a bedroom – but much of the action takes place in the street against the backdrop of a graffiti besmirched wall. The characters are modern-day types that you can see anywhere: the chauffeur who has to perform tasks well beyond the call of duty (Leporello), the prim PA who becomes infatuated by a man with movie star looks (Donna Elvira), the sweet young thing who on the eve of her marriage hankers after fun and excitement (Zerlina) – just the kind of pleasures that her sour-faced husband-to-be (Masetto) will not be able to provide. This is definitely not glamorous period drama.

Having attended some excellent song recitals given by the South African baritone Njabulo Madlala I was delighted to find him cast here in the role of Don Giovanni. Madlala won the 2010 Kathleen Ferrier Competition and, in addition to having a great voice, he possesses a quality that is so vital to the part: charm. Giovanni may be a notorious philanderer, but he is a charmer too, and when he sings so gently and seductively such arias as “Zerlina, my arms enfold you”, it is not hard to see why women fall at his feet. Of course, nobody can condone a killing, even if it was in self-defence, but this Giovanni realises he has overstepped the mark every time the spectre of the blood-stained Commendatore returns to haunt him – though, alas, he quickly forgets these incidents and returns to his bad old ways.

Wyn Pencarreg as Leporello comes over as a decent, though not particularly bright, chap smartly turned out in his chauffeur’s uniform and is endowed with a good clear voice. While initially showing pride in his job, as when he recounts his master’s amorous exploits to Donna Elvira, his final nefarious assignment for Giovanni almost costs him his life. You just can’t help feeling sorry for him. I felt less sorry for Donna Anna whose outpourings of grief and vows of vengeance after the death of her father seem a trifle overdone. She displays a total disregard for the feelings (and the presence) of her loyal, but wimpish, boyfriend Don Ottavio, yet I suspect this portrayal was deliberate. I must admit both Catrin Aur and John-Colyn Gyeanty have impressive voices, and I can envisage the former playing the role of tragic heroine to perfection in the grandest of grand operas in the future.

Of the other love-birds Wiiliam Robert Allenby as Masetto is a particularly surly and mean-spirited bridegroom who is unmoved by Zerlina’s pleadings for forgiveness after her indiscretions with Giovanni; he takes her invitation “Beat me, beat me, dear Masetto” literally and gives her a slap across the face. Anna Patalong is a convincing Zerlina – a little bit common, you might say – but her singing is bright and lively even when massaging her husband’s bruises. There is only one man in Elvira’s life – Giovanni himself – and Helen Sherman tears herself apart as she depicts the conflicting emotions – rage, frustration, loyalty, devotion, vengefulness – which reach boiling point in this most complex of Mozartian characters.

Commendatore: Keel Watson
Photo credit: John Reading/MWO.

But the pièce de résistance of the production is Keel Watson’s Commendatore who becomes, not a statue, but a monster – one of the living dead – and whose shadow hangs over the action. No wonder Leporello is scared out of his wits when this ghoulish figure comes to dine with his master. Anyone of a nervous disposition should steer clear of this house of horror!

Technically the opera works well. Normally touring productions opt for simple or minimalist sets, and this was anything but; yet it all worked smoothly and there were some dramatic lighting effects. Amanda Holden’s English translation had obviously been adapted to give a more gritty flavour to the dialogue; admittedly the words do not trip so easily off the tongue as the Italian libretto does, but in most cases the diction was clear.

Ian Davidson’s orchestral reduction of Mozart’s score worked well with the 10-piece orchestra under Nicholas Cleobury’s well-crafted direction. Indeed, having the musicians in full view of the audience in this relatively small auditorium helped to focus attention on the subtleties of the orchestral contribution.

Martin Lloyd-Evans has created a bold, imaginative, ironic and thought-provoking take on a much loved opera. Even if you don’t find any of the characters particularly lovable or the décor attractive, you at least have the satisfaction of listening to Mozart’s wonderful music superbly sung and played.

Roger Jones

Mid Wales Opera will be taking this production to: Carmarthen, Brecon, Neath, Aberystwyth, New Brighton, Mansfield, Harlech, Margate, Isle of Wight, Bracknell, Shrewsbury (October) 2012; Ludlow, Milford Haven, Hereford, Aberdare (November 2012). www.midwalesopera.co.uk

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