Another sign that autumn is nigh is that the opera season has started again, which at least gives me the opportunity to resume my series of occasional opera reviews.
I was planning to go to see the new Welsh National Opera production of Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart last week but was stymied it clashed with the cricket, which turned out to be a day-night game finishing too late to allow me to go to both. Anyway, I was able to get tickets for last night’s performance as well as dispose of last week’s so it all worked out for me in the end.
First night reviews of this production weren’t particularly good – the reviews in the Telegraph and the Guardian are fairly typical – which probably accounted for the fact that the Wales Millennium Centre wasn’t particularly full even for such an extremely popular opera. I don’t usually pay much attention to reviews myself and I thought the critics were excessively harsh, although some of the points they make are valid.
I won’t repeat the synopsis in detail here because it’s probably familiar to most people likely to read this, even those who aren’t opera buffs. In fact it’s all explained by the subtitle il dissolute punito. We meet the villainous “nobleman” Don Giovanni attempting to molest Donna Anna after sneaking into the house of the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s father. Don Giovanni is rumbled and confronted by the Commendatore; a duel ensues which appears to be ending without bloodshed until the Don draws a dagger and murders the Commendatore.
There then follows a series of escapades: attempted seductions, disguises, mistaken identities, narrow escapes, and so on. Typical comic opera stuff in fact, except that it’s not really typical comic opera because it’s comic opera with music by Mozart and libretto by da Ponte. In other words, it’s genius.
Finally, Don Giovanni’s past catches up to him. He taunts a statue of the dead Commendatore while seeking refuge in a graveyard. Later, back at Don Giovanni’s house the statue arrives and sends Don Giovanni to Hell.
The first impression you get of this production on entering the theatre is the monumental set, which is based (not inappropriately) on the Gates of Hell by Auguste Rodin (shown left), a huge bronze sculpture that depicts a scene from Dante’s Inferno. What you see on stage, however, is not a simple replica of the Rodin piece, but a series of variations on and extensions of the original artwork. Extra pieces are added to form a walled courtyard, it opens out to form a series of rooms and chambers, and in the end the gates themselves open to take the eponymous villain down to Hell (along with a smoke and fire effect which unfortunately didn’t work very well last night; there wasn’t enough smoke to engulf him as was clearly intended).
The idea of basing the set around this work of art was potentially brilliant but I didn’t think it really worked as well as it might. The reason is that the magic of Mozart’s operas emanates, at least in part, from the huge dramatic contrasts. Don Giovanni certainly has a very dark edge, but it also has a great many lighter comic episodes, some of them bordering on the slapstick. Having this heavy sombre backdrop to everything tended to dampen the swings between light and shade. It’s as if the production was so obsessed with this one idea, that everything else became subservient to it. What could have been brilliant was just too clumsy. You don’t have to force things so much, especially not with Mozart, especially not with Don Giovanni.
Another criticism I would make concerns David Kempster as Don Giovanni. He certainly sang extremely well, his smoky baritone voice sounding very rakish. However I thought he acted the part too broadly, at times like a pantomime villain, to the extent that he seemed delighted by the theatrical boos he got on his curtain call. He was at times very funny indeed, but again I thought he was a bit forced.
However, if it sounds like I’m being very negative about the performance then I don’t mean to be. Apart from the unnecessarily imposing set, the look of the production is wonderful: the costumes and lighting were beautifully done, and the crypto-Gothic look was appropriately spooky when “spooky” was called for.
David Soar was a really oustanding Leporello; I think the audience agreed with me as he got a huge cheer at the end. Camilla Roberts was excellent as Donna Anna as was Nuccia Focile as Donna Elvira. On the other hand I found Carlo Malinverno a disappointment as the Commendatore. He looked scary enough but his undistinguished and occasionally wobbly bass voice didn’t have the necessary menace for climactic scene with Don Giovanni near the end. For me it has to be a voice that really reverberates with doom. Few can really pull it off, and Carlo Malinverno isn’t one of them.
A special mention, however, must be made of Samantha Hay, who stepped in at short notice to sing the part of Zerlina owing to the indisposition of Claire Ormshaw. She was absolutely wonderful, with a beautifully crystal-clear voice and engaging stage presence. Well done to her for a performance that was very warmly received by the audience.
Watching the opera last night it struck me again, as it always does listening to Don Giovanni, just how many great pieces of music there are in it. Whereas most operas can offer at most a few set-pieces, in Don Giovanni they keep coming one after the other for well over three hours. This is Mozart at the very peak of his powers, and a few blemishes don’t even come close to taking the magic away.