Opera North’s Revived Don Giovanni Misfires in the Age of #MeToo

24/02/2018

Mozart, Don Giovanni: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North / Christoph Altstaedt (conductor), Leeds Grand Theatre, 21.2.18. (CF)

DG

Elizabeth Atherton (Donna Elvira) & John Savournin (Leporello) © Bill Cooper

Cast:

Don Giovanni – William Dazeley
Leporello – John Savournin
Donna Anna – Jennifer Davis
Don Ottavio – Nicholas Watts
Donna Elvira – Elizabeth Atherton
Zerlina – Kathryn Rudge
Masetto – Ross McInroy
Commendatore – James Platt

Production:

Director – Alessandro Talevi
Set and Costume Designer – Madeleine Boyd
Lighting Designer – Matthew Haskins
Choreographer – Victoria Newlyn

When asked by a journalist what is most likely to blow a government off course, the British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan is supposed to have said, ‘Events, dear boy, events.’ Perhaps the same could be true of operas. 2012 now feels like a long time ago, when Opera North’s production of Don Giovanni was first performed.

Recent months have seen seismic shifts taking place within feminist movements countering the abuse of male power towards women, especially sexual abuse, within notable patriarchal power structures like Hollywood. Thus, the revival of this production cannot escape the obscene shadow now cast by Harvey Weinstein et al; even the very name of the Fatal Passion season it belongs to feels misplaced in this new light. Opera North are only too aware of this: the programme notes contain a short essay by the American academic Bonnie Gordon on the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements and its relationship to the opera. She boldly proclaims that 2018 is ‘the ideal year’ to stage it, but the bizarre correlation of the Don being ‘the archetypal rogue’ and ‘Harvey Weinstein, James Levine, and Michael Fallon … rolled into one’ feels ludicrously inappropriate, despite coming from a female perspective.

The pantomime feel to proceedings begins from the off, with a vaudevillian-esque Leporello (John Savournin) in boater and striped jacket mugging for the audience. Savournin is superb in the role, all arched-eyebrow suggestiveness, his bosky baritone easily heard over the orchestra. Supremely confident in the role, his suaveness and vocal malleability makes one wonder throughout why he wasn’t picked for the lead. In comparison, William Dazeley’s reprisal of the lead role was, vocally, underpowered. Dazeley has great presence on stage –especially his synchronisation with Leporello in cane-twirling set-pieces of braggadocio – but I felt he lacked the requisite charm; indeed, was often out-charmed by Leporello. Jennfier Davis’s fluttery soprano brought out Donna Anna’s despair beautifully and was matched with a solid Don Ottavio in Nicholas Watts. Another underperformer was Donna Elvira (Elizabeth Atherton), who was played a poor hand in being asked to make her entrance in a Biggles-style aviator uniform complete with helmet and goggles. Her voice often felt strained and an unfortunate wobble made arias such as ‘Ah, chi mi dice mai’ (Who will ever tell me) rather a trial, though she was certainly impassioned.

Director Alessandro Talevi’s production contains jarring notes and nonsensical dramaturgy throughout. The miniature Punch-and-Judy-style puppet show is a cheap laugh and symbol of string-pulling, but it’s a laugh that wears increasingly thin with its frequent re-appearances. The puppet-on-a-string theme returns in the finale, when the Don is spectacularly pulled into the air, lifted to hell, this ascent a weird inversion of the typical descent into hell. Inexplicably, for the final sextet, Donna Elvira, Donna Anna and Masetto appear to free themselves from of a catatonic state – are they supposed to have been released from Don Giovanni’s spell? The time machine counter, ranging from the 1890s to the 1950s and back to the present day, only serves to show how tone-deaf the production is to contemporary issues. And when Masetto’s Teddy Boy gang turn into a pack of rats (rat pack?) sniffing and gnawing around the Don, the effect was one of utter inanity.

Most jarring of all, though, is the overtly-sexualised content: Zerlina’s prolonged simulated sex scene with Masetto, and his gesture of doing his flies up afterwards, are needlessly de trop; phallic jokes made with the canes of the Don and his servant are puerile, as is Leporello’s puppet’s mimed masturbation; along with an assortment of crudely-affected gropes and suggestiveness. All of which drew guffaws from the audience as if this were a pantomime and none of the news headlines had had any impact on them.

In the dramatic finale, a mute procession of ghostly conquests dressed in white surround the Don, as a chillingly-disembodied arm juts out of the stage floor pinpointing judgement. James Platt’s Commendatore provides one of the best thrills of the night, his statuesque head coming alive, and that voice!  A thunderous bass with real menace that easily overpowers the orchestra at full pelt. Surely there is a Wotan in him yet?

The saving grace was Mozart’s ever delightful music, which tonight was conducted by Christoph Altstaedt, whose stewardship recalled Teodor Currentzis recording with its heightened dynamics and crystalline clarity. The fortepiano continuo (Annette Saunders) and mandolin accompaniment were beautifully realised, too.

Perhaps it’s simply a case of ‘time’s up’ on such blithe performances of what is becoming an increasingly problematic opera to perform.

Cornelius Fitz

After Leeds the production tours to Salford Quays, Nottingham and Newcastle for more information click here.

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