United Kingdom Garsington Opera 2019  – Mozart, Don Giovanni: Soloists, Garsington Opera Orchestra & Chorus / Douglas Boyd (conductor). Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 18.7.2018. (CR)
Director – Michael Boyd
Designer – Tom Piper
Lighting designer – Malcolm Rippeth
Choreographer – Liz Ranken
Don Giovanni – Jonathan McGovern
Leporello – David Ireland
Donna Anna – Camila Titinger
Donna Elvira – Sky Ingram
Don Ottavio – Trystan Llŷr Griffiths
The Commendatore – Paul Whelan
Zerlina – Mireille Asselin
Masetto – Thomas Faulkner
Michael Boyd’s striking updating of Mozart’s perennial masterpiece makes Don Giovanni a louche, hipster artist, which makes for a provocative interplay between creativity and destruction, discipline and chaos. The only works we ever see him produce are done, Jackson Pollock-fashion, by chucking or spraying paint at a canvas or daubing the colour on. More potently, the sculptures and mannequins later seen in his studio also suggest that art for him, like the women he seduces, is a mere self-indulgent plaything. Indeed, during the Overture, art becomes life itself as he creates a viscerally suggestive (albeit abstract) picture with smears of mainly red paint sprayed onto it, whilst Donna Anna stands astride the top frame of the huge canvas, which seemingly becomes an extension of her. In an act of implied sexual violence, Don Giovanni cuts a slit into the picture, through which he passes to make raucous love to her behind the scene.
His outlook and milieu contrast with the apparent dignity and order of the Old Master paintings in his studio, as their presence at certain points is also telling. A couple of Claude Lorraine rural landscapes form the backdrop for the first scene in which the country peasant girl, Zerlina, appears, with Masetto. A beautiful but vulnerable half-naked woman – presumably a depiction of Lucretia – is carried around as the Don attempts to ravish Zerlina. Just as he desecrates women so, needless to say, his cohort deface these paintings in turn.
Jonathan McGovern carries off the part of Don Giovanni with an unruffled, even indifferent sense of calm – presumably meaning to create an air of sprezzatura, which would seem to be the reason for what is otherwise a musically indistinct, anonymous account. He sounds most notably effusive when he sings as himself, but incognito, speaking through the disguised figure of Leporello as he tries to woo Donna Elvira. The final banquet scene ultimately demonstrates the crass, super-vulgarian that he is, when Leporello brings him a feast of KFC, evidently echoing Donald Trump’s buffet of hamburgers and fries whilst in a similarly embattled position in the White Horse, during the American government’s shutdown earlier this year. The focus remains on Giovanni to the end, as the production concludes at the same point as Mozart’s 1788 Vienna version, i.e. without the final ensemble for the other characters. Instead, his female victims Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Zerlina simply stand in condemnation as they watch him be dragged away. If the appearance of the dead Commendatore is more melodramatic than terrifying as he is wheeled in on a mobile staircase, and Paul Whelan’s singing a touch hollow, that gesture by the three woman is at least as eloquent as the unnecessary triumphalism of the cut final section.
David Ireland’s Leporello cultivates a wit and humour which Don Giovanni tends to avoid here, making him less the put-upon servant, as a wise jester who is well able to fend for himself. Both the leading ladies, Sky Ingram and Camila Titinger, are strong and steely, as Donna Anna and Donna Elvira respectively, though the latter exudes somewhat more charm and preciousness. She is winningly complemented by the warm and tender performance of Don Ottavio by Trystan Llŷr Griffiths, especially in ‘Dalla sua pace’ which he projects out from the stage towards Donna Anna as she makes her stately exit through the audience. Although that aria is included from the later Vienna version, his aria ‘Il mio tesoro’ from Mozart’s original Prague score is also retained, providing Griffiths a second opportunity to display his honeyed tones, standing in contrast with the cold calculations of Don Giovanni and revealing what a selfless, constructive loving relationship ought to be. Mireille Asselin could be more seductive and alluring as Zerlina, for the sake of standing out from Anna and Elvira, whilst Thomas Faulkner’s is an effectively menacing Masetto.
The stage direction throughout is first rate insofar as it consistently draws and holds the eye – each twist and turn of the original scenario is observed one way or another, but cogently integrated into Boyd’s conception and the ever-fluctuating choreography, all of which rewards close attention. Given the comparatively limited resources of the open stage at Wormsley the production achieves wonders, and it deserves to be mounted in a fully-fledged house so as to attain some greater longevity than the usual, brief shelf-life of a single summer festival season.
The production is underpinned by a performance from the Garsington Opera Orchestra, under Douglas Boyd’s conducting, which is energetic and excitable. Sometimes it could do with more light and shade to delineate the symphonic structure of the score better. The woodwind are also somewhat raw in the Overture, for instance, but after that they integrate better with the orchestra at large. Boyd’s generally brisk and crisp way with the music is informed by period performance practice, but is not overruled by it, and so ensures that the orchestra’s role is not mere accompanist. Rather it engages with the dramatic impetus of the action on stage, resulting in an alert and intriguing production overall.