Musically Strong and Intelligently Staged Don Giovanni at ENO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Don Giovanni: Soloists, Chorus (chorus master: James Henshaw) and Orchestra of the English National Opera, Mark Wigglesworth (conductor). Coliseum, London, 30.9.2016. (MB)

ENO Don Giovanni Clive Bayley and Christopher Purves. Photo credit: Robert Workman.
ENO’s Don Giovanni – Clive Bayley (Leporello) and Christopher Purves (Don Giovanni)
Photo credit: Robert Workman

(sung in English)

Don Giovanni – Christopher Purves
Commendatore – James Creswell
Donna Anna – Caitlin Lynch
Don Ottavio – Allan Clayton
Donna Elvira – Christine Rice
Leporello – Clive Bayley
Masetto – Nicholas Crawley
Zerlina – Mary Bevan

Richard Jones (director)
Paul Steinberg (set designs)
Nicky Gillibrand (costumes)
Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting)
Sarah Fahie (movement)

A perfect staging of Don Giovanni is too much to hope for, especially when the ‘traditional’ conflation of Prague and Vienna versions is employed. Perfection is reserved for Mozart, of course, although Da Ponte does not do badly at all here. But the opera in any case does not have the absolute dramatic perfection of the other two Mozart Da Ponte operas; its greatness, like that of Wagner’s operas, lies partly in the impossibility of the challenge it sets. Even Don Giovanni himself, after all, fails to live up to the expectations voiced in the Catalogue Aria; or at least he usually does.

That said, so many stagings fail so dismally, that it is a great pleasure to welcome one that (mostly) convinces as a piece of intelligent theatre, even if one that might well have been seen twenty years or so ago. Like most productions – not, I hasten to add, the still eminently watchable Salzburg Herbert Graf production, for Furtwängler – it fails to reckon with the work’s religion and theology. Sin goes unconsidered. Nevertheless, Richard Jones shows a commendable willingness to consider many of the ideas and (potential) problems, and to weld them into a far from inconsiderable narrative – and challenge, both to us and to the work (‘itself’ and reception). What Jones’s staging and the designs of Paul Steinberg and Nicky Gillibrand lack in apocalyptic grandeur and high stakes, they gain in connection to the tawdry here and now (or perhaps ‘here and then’: we are a few decades in the past). If Giovanni cannot be an aspirant Faust – the nineteenth-century and indeed Straussian hero – perhaps he can be, if not quite Everyman, then a familiar manipulator and exploiter. The visual æsthetic is familiar House of Jones, although less clichéd than some of its wares, but the Personenregie is tight.

I worried to begin with about the lack of specificity, even coherence. During the Overture, a series of women – and one Leporello look-alike, or at least dress-alike – pass by, cannot refuse the seedy veteran (a nice touch!) seducer, and gain their ten seconds of fame with him behind a hotel/brothel door. For the first scene, a sado-masochistic (lightly so: this is certainly not Calixto Bieito, or, less successfully, for the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, Roland Schwab) scene announces itself, the Commendatore a hypocrite, Donna Anna, playing on ETA Hoffmann’s ghost, opening up her own deceptive narrative; how much she is deceiving herself, her father, Don Giovanni, her fiancé, us, is unclear, and productively so. So far, so good, but is it not a bit odd for so much of the rest of the action to take place in the same setting? It seems too specific, too limiting, or, on the other hand, not nearly liminal enough. (The brilliant Munich staging by Stephan Kimmig, perhaps the best I have seen, certainly the equal of Bieito, is the place to go for the latter.) Such a concern, however, was largely banished by the strength of character and narrative drive drawn out – an old-fashioned virtue this, and as necessary a virtue as ever – by Jones.

What saves – and I suppose that is, irredeemably, as it were, a theological concept – the production from mere modern-ish conventionality, is the long game that Jones plays, revealing his hand only at the end of the Stone Guest scene, and only granting us full understanding in the final, endlessly alienating scene itself. (If you do not want to know his surprise, please look away now, and move on to the next paragraph.) Eschewing atheistic heroism of the old school, and avoiding Hell, or perhaps perpetuating it – insert Sartre quotation here, if so inclined – the old rake, at the last, accepts his servant’s offer to take his place with the Commendatore. That has been cunningly prepared by what at first seems an irrelevant Jones cliché: Leporello’s creepy, verging-upon-yet-not-quite-attaining-outlandish orange wig. The aforementioned Leporello look/dress-alike, part of the chorus, as the work progresses, helps keep it in mind, or at least in visual memory. In lieu of a change of clothes in the second act – yes, we lose the distinction of social order here, which is something, but not necessarily everything – a change of wig does the trick. And it will again, and again. Not only does Giovanni, his grim work far from done, take Leporello’s place in the final sextet, he picks out the Leporello-alike from the chorus as his new servant, and the events witnessed in the Overture start up once again.

Musically, we were on strong ground. Mark Wigglesworth, following an Overture that came a little too close to Rossini – however fast, or not, Mozart should never sound inflexible – offered a reading which, whilst rarely close to the Romantic grandeur of Furtwängler or Barenboim, impressed on its lighter terms. Tempi were varied, and that is the important thing, and there was always life to be heard, to be felt, in the music. The playing of the ENO Orchestra – and the singing of the cruelly victimised Chorus – was always excellent. If there were more light than shade, the scales were not tipped unduly, and the production offered a goodly amount of the latter. Wigglesworth, who really should be reinstated as Music Director yesterday, paced the work with a mastery born not only of lengthy acquaintance, but of intimate understanding. Kate Golla’s harpsichord continuo – no modish, and historically ‘incorrect’, fortepiano here – proved just as alert to the needs of the drama and, more generally, of the words (even when less than happily and/or accurately translated).

Christopher Purves’s assumption of the title role was, crucially, very much in line with what seemed to be Jones’s view of work and character alike. He had seen it all, and would see it all again. Initially, he might seem like an ordinary bloke, but when it mattered, not least in the serenading of ‘Deh, vieni alla finestra’, he was transformed – and transformed the situation. There were a few passages when Purves sounded a little tired, but even those could, with a little good will, be readily assimilated into the concept. Clive Bayley’s Leporello was, likewise, quite different from what has become the norm, but was equally convincing on its own terms. Allan Clayton offered an object lesson in the art of the lyric tenor, his Don Ottavio blessed with as honeyed a tone as one could wish for. Caitlin Lynch’s Donna Anna was more variable, not always on top of her coloratura, and less than convincing dramatically. Christine Rice’s Donna Elvira, on the other hand, proved brilliantly unstable – in a dramatic rather than a vocal sense. The production seemed curiously uninterested in Mary Bevan’s Zerlina, but there was some fine singing to be heard, in tandem with Nicholas Crawley’s truly excellent, darkly attractive Masetto, so much more than a stock buffo character. James Creswell’s still darker Commendatore was as finely sung as we have come to expect from this artist.

I only have one real complaint. As with the Royal Opera’s recent new Così fan tutte, the greatest impediment to a successful evening proved to be bad behaviour from a selfish section of the audience. Where do these people come from, laughing hysterically at someone walking onstage, applauding all over the place, chattering, consulting their telephones throughout? (They seemed to find the use of a telephone onstage too hilarious for words: a double whammy, I suppose, which needless to say necessitated use of their own.) I am not sure that a single number went uninterrupted, in one way or another, by the man seated next to me, who remained quite impervious to even the hardest of stares. Such disrespect shown to the performers, to the rest of the audience, to the work itself, is unforgivable. A performance of Don Giovanni is a privilege for all concerned; one is, or should be, a participant, not a sociopathic ‘customer’. Nevertheless, the evening for the most part rose above such distractions: no mean achievement at all.

Mark Berry

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