United Kingdom Mozart, Don Giovanni: Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North / Tobias Ringborg (conductor), Grand Theatre, Leeds, 5.10.2012. (JL)
Don Giovanni: William Dazeley
Leporello: Alastair Miles
Donna Anna: Meeta Raval
Donna Elvira: Elizabeth Atherton
Donna Elvira: Maribeth Diggle
Don Ottavio: Christopher Turner
Zerlina: Claire Wild
Masetto: Oliver Dunn
Il Commendatore: Michael Druiett
Conductor: Tobias Ringborg
Director: Alessandro Talevi
Set and Costume Designer: Madeleine Boyd
Lighting Designer: Matthew Haskins
Choreographer: Victoria Newlyn
The conductor must have sneaked to his place unobserved for the overture started with its thumping, dramatic opening quite unexpectedly – no preliminary clapping, no chance to clear that threatening frog in the throat. Straightaway it was clear the orchestra was playing with high charged commitment – not the sawing-through-the-motions style that I’ve so often heard from the pit at the start of old repertory favourites. The tone was set for the evening. A major characteristic of this all-round strong production was unrelenting pace and vigour, something that carried through to the acting, singing and choreography and was evidenced in the seamlessly swift scene changes. Yet there was never a sense of anything being over hectic, so sure was the pacing of Swedish conductor Tobias Ringborg.
Director Alessandro Talevi has not been on the scene very long but has already built a reputation for imaginative, often radical productions. By all accounts he likes working at Opera North where he is given his head more than in some other houses. His productions have tended to divide opinion and I dare say this one will be no exception.
Costumes (Madeleine Boyd) are a major feature linking the setting to two periods – Don Giovanni and Leporello are a musical hall double act from around a century ago, while the peasants are 1950s/60s rockers. Yet individuals sometimes change periods. For example, Don Giovanni dines at the end in a 1960s style suit judging by the thin tie and narrow trousers. In addition, there are visual references to the old Italian Commedia dell’Arte tradition and its English off-shoot, Punch and Judy. This can give an impression of lurching around theme and period, sometimes with no perceived rhyme or reason. Yet if there is an overall theme it is one of a fun loving, bawdy stage romp. This may sometimes seem at odds with the more serious events and the suffering of some the characters in the opera. There is no harm in that since the work has built-in contradictions. For example, during the 225 years since the opera’s premiere in Prague many people have been unsettled by the fact that this sordid tale of lust, exploitation and revenge is set to so much heavenly music. Why should that be a paradox when confusion over lust and love is so close to the centre of the human condition?
The romping stage business was expertly executed and much of it was witty. Some will find that a distraction. I did not, thanks mainly to the quality of the performances. Unlike most Don Giovannis I have seen, there was not a weak link. My experience has been that the weak link has usually been a vocally thin tenor playing Don Ottavio which makes him seem much more of a wet than he actually is. It is not a very grateful part to play but Christopher Turner had an excellent shot at it, and although in the dueting with his beloved fiancée Donna Anna he was outgunned, it was not his fault since soprano Meeta Ravel is a bit of a belter. However, later, especially in the second act (this is a two act opera) she stopped sounding as if she were trying to hit the Gods in a vast house such as the Met and produced some beautiful singing more appropriate to what is a relatively small theatre. Similarly, Elizabeth Atherton as Donna Elvira started with a vibrato that was not to my taste but later provided singing that was some of the most distinguished of the evening.
The flighty Zerlina was played by Claire Wild who has an extraordinary comedic talent reminiscent of the great Natalie Dessay. Her aria, Batti, batti, in which she tries to placate her man Masetto was sung horizontally on top of him in a reasonably tasteful yet energetic copulation. Prudes might have objected, but it was brilliantly done, climaxing with a suitably satisfying orgasm.
At the core of the opera is the relationship between Don Giovanni and his servant/ sidekick, Leporello. Whoever plays the Don has to convince the audience that he has the qualities to have been able to seduce many hundreds of women. William Dazeley may not look the part for some but he had a certain charismatic swagger and sang with both flexibility and command. The part of Leporello is often played by a youngish man as a traditional fool/foil to his master. Alastair Miles is older than the norm and played the role in such a way that suggested a thoughtful and often hurt character that I found very convincing.
Having been killed off right at the start of the opera the role of the Commendatore only comes into its own at the very end and Michael Druiett suitably dominated the supernatural scene of Don Giovanni’s demise. It was here that director Talevi took the workings of his original imagination to extremes, the scene being realised in a way that I am sure no one else could ever have thought up. I will not give the game away in case any readers might wish to see the production. After Leeds, this season opener will be playing next month in Nottingham, Manchester and Newcastle.