Opera Holland Park’s Highly Imaginative Production of Don Giovanni

07/06/2017

Mozart – Don Giovanni:  Soloists, Chorus of Opera Holland Park, City of London Sinfonia / Dane Lam (Conductor), Opera Holland Park, London, 3.6.2017. (RB)

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Ashley Riches (Don Giovanni) with members of the cast © Robert Workman

Cast:

Don Giovanni – Ashley Riches
Leporello – John Savournin
Donna Anna – Lauren Fagan
Don Ottavio – Ben Johnson
Donna Elvira – Victoria Simmonds
Commendatore – Graeme Broadbent
Zerlina – Ellie Laugharne
Masetto – Ian Beadle

Production:

Director – Oliver Platt
Designer – Neil Irish
Lighting Designer – Mark Howland
Choreographer – Caitlin Fretwell Walsh

Oliver Platt’s new production of Don Giovanni sets the action on board a large 1930’s ocean liner.  When the curtain opened we were faced with a number of cabins and a stream of passengers then boarded the ship during the playing of the Overture.  The costumes were varied and appropriate for the period and there were some distinctions to reflect the different social classes on board.  Ashley Riches’ silky Don entered Donna Anna’s cabin as John Savournin’s Leporello kept watch.  The murder of the Commendatore and the ensuing attempt to identify the culprit reminded me a little of the film of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.

The various elements in the story (murder mystery, comedy of disguises, moral fable) were all fused together nicely in this production and the cast made excellent use of the set.  During Leporello’s catalogue aria a blonde and a brunette sauntered past at the point when he was singing about his master’s preferences.  Later, as he was trying to evade his pursuers there were some nice comic touches when he was unable to fit through a door because of a life belt.  During her performance of ‘Mi tradi’ Victoria Simmonds’ Donna Elvira straddled the rail and threatened to jump overboard before changing her mind.  Don Giovanni invited Graeme Boadbent’s Commendatore to dinner not in a graveyard but in a makeshift morgue aboard the ship where the body was being preserved.  The Commendatore’s resurrected corpse came to ask Don Giovanni to repent in the climactic final scene.  When the Don was finally carried down to hell, he followed Elvira’s example by jumping overboard and bright lights blinded the audience as he plunged into the murky depths.  Overall, I thought this production enlivened the action in interesting and imaginative ways and there was much to admire here.

The cast performances were a little uneven although there was some very fine acting and singing.  Ashley Riches is clearly an accomplished actor and he portrayed Don Giovanni as a self-absorbed aristocrat and narcissist, seemingly able to switch on sensual allure in order to gratify his sexual desires and moving to vindictive rages when events conspired against him.  During the seduction of Zerlina he was leaning the whole time against a door radiating threat and seductive charm in equal measure.  Riches’ singing was assured throughout and he was particularly good in the Act II serenade, conjuring up a rich, sensual sound.  I would have liked a little more vocal projection at the beginning of the champagne aria although Riches got into his stride as the aria progressed.  John Savournin was equally good as Leporello, delivering the character’s trademark patter with brisk efficiency.  His comic timing was impeccable throughout and he displayed an ability to think on his feet as he moved from one crisis to another.  The catalogue aria was exceptionally fine and I very much enjoyed the rapport with the City of London Sinfonia’s woodwind although I would have preferred a slightly brisker tempo in the middle section of the aria.

Lauren Fagan offered some of the best singing of the evening in the role of Donna Anna although there were some minor intonation problems at the start.  She has a strong, richly coloured soprano voice and she brought dramatic power to the role.  She was at her best in ‘Or sai chi l’onore’ which she sang with burnished beauty of tone.  ‘Non mi dir’ was delivered with enormous poignancy although the coloratura were a little untidy and could have been cleaner.  Victoria Simmonds characterised Donna Elvira as a spirited but highly strung individual.  At various points we saw her scampering across the stage trying to thwart Don Giovanni’s latest conquest or to expose one of his lies.  The vocal part is very demanding with its wide leaps and tricky coloratura and Mozart’s vocal writing is of course very exposed.  There were intonation problems and inaccuracies at various points and there seemed to be some strain at the top of the vocal register.  Simmonds was at her best in ‘Ah fuggi il traditor’ and in the subsequent quartet where the decorative vocal line was delivered with alacrity.

Ellie Laugharne gave a convincing and rounded portrayal of Zerlina and she seemed to get better and better as the production progressed.  Some of the vocal entries in ‘La ci darem’ were a little tentative but her rendition of her two arias was superb.  I loved the rapport with the orchestra’s inner strings at the end of ‘Batti, batti o bel Masetto’ while in ‘Vendrai carino’ she offered some of the best singing of the evening.  Ben Johnson brought a lyrical bloom to Don Ottavio’s arias although the tone sounded a little thin on occasion.  The role also seemed a little under-characterised in some of the charged dramatic scenes with Donna Anna.  The stand-out performance of the evening was Graeme Broadbent in the role of the Commendatore.  His zombie-like resurrection in the climactic final scene created a real chill in the air and the singing was powerful and thrilling in exactly the way it should be.

Dane Lam and the City of London Sinfonia were firing on all cylinders throughout the performance.  I was struck by the cleanness of the entries in the Overture and the tempi seemed spot on.  Lam was highly attentive to texture and balance throughout and he was highly flexible and responsive to the needs of the singers.  The instrumental entries sounded fresh and the timbres were constantly shifting to reflect the wide panoply of emotions in this opera.

Overall, This was an excellent and highly imaginative production of Don Giovanni.  There was a lot of very fine singing and acting but also some performance issues to iron out for the remaining performances.

Robert Beattie

For more about Opera Holland Park click here.

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