Mozart:: Don Giovanni

English National Opera

Coliseum, London, 2 November 2012 2 stars

Don GiovanniAfter so many productions of Mozart's Don Giovanni last season, this space has played host to my annoyance at the lack of productions of the opera unconcerned with morality. Is it really so much to ask that after 200 years we begin defamiliarizing the familiar? Imagine my surprise, then, when all along there was Rufus Norris's production at ENO flamboyantly pushing amoral grunge in operatic London's face. It is a markedly progressive production yet suffers from the same issue that plagues so many other modern re-workings of operatic classics: the trap of trivialization.

I'll return to this in a moment. Ben Johnson played an expectedly lame Ottavio; luckily his vocal weight made the role much easier to stomach, and he sang both arias with admirable flair. Sarah Redgwick made Donna Elvira her own in several respects - certainly no easy task considering the difficulty of the role - by ornamenting her first aria (by the way, the only singer in this production to keep that historical practice alive) and singing 'Mi tradi' as easily as though it was 'Batti Batti.' We absolutely must see more of her.

Moving on to the squarely buffa group of characters, Darren Jeffery was a plastic Leporello: the colorful dynamics of his voice and his sure sense of style were both quite pleasurable. The choice to stick with subtle humor instead of slapstick was also much appreciated. John Molloy was an appropriately immature Masetto, while Sarah Tynan played a coy and manipulative Zerlina; indeed, Tynan was the other female standout of the evening for the fantastic control of her pingy and full voice: her career will be watched with great interest.

Iain Paterson sings beautifully and handles Don Giovanni's lyricism and occasionally patter-like declamation very well. Dramatically, Paterson's Don is multifaceted and well developed: he is not simply a flippant Don Jaun. To risk sounding shallow, however, the silver fox look coupled with a shabby outfit doesn't really fit the role. The costumes in general were somewhat lackluster, however, as they didn't seem to fit with the grunge permeating the production.

The modernized (mis-)translation (by Jeremy Sams) was admirable and appreciated (as were little touches such as turning the Catalogue Aria into a semi-corporate presentation complete with projector and charts). That's not to say that all attempts at modernization were successful, however. Turning 'Deh vieni alla finestra' into a reflective moment charged with Don Giovanni's nostalgia and sense of loss over what could only have been his first love (it is supposed to be a serenade) certainly made his character more realistic on the one hand, but, on the other injected the whole production with a misplaced urge towards redemption that simply doesn't suit Don Giovanni because of his fate.

To be clear, I am supportive of liberal attempts to update the text and context of traditional arias, or, indeed, even the plot; but if a director is going to follow this path, it should be with a certain amount of respect for theatrical consistency in terms of the characters' emotional or behavioral states as they stand in the rest of the production, not with flagrant disregard for your own attempts at humanization. Ironically, this was the same problem with Heaven's Don Giovanni: The Opera last year.

The lighting added much-needed atmosphere to the overall presentation: one could have easily mistaken the sets for a half-baked attempt at recreating a 70s version of Dale Farm without the expert control of Paul Andersen.

One wished for better choreography throughout, especially in the fight scenes. Slightly related is Norris's direction: often the singers made unmotivated choices (I'm thinking particularly of Don Ottavio's removal of his shoes before 'Non mi dir'), an issue that has plagued the production even before its revival. Edward Gardner vivified the score very well, though at times he could have chosen to be slightly more expansive with his tempi, especially at moments when the text demands more enunciation; the penultimate scene especially.

One of the primary aspects of what makes the penultimate scene so poignant and effective is its juxtaposition with the music from the rest of the opera: it is a totally unrestrained release of complex emotion yet simple in its sheer directness and clarity; the music during this scene is texturally and stylistically unlike anything the audience has heard previously during the performance, and it is truly remarkable because Mozart wrote nothing else quite like it. There must be three things present in order to successfully perform this scene: a solid and overbearing Commendatore, a desperate and angry Don Giovanni, and an orchestra that not only plays a dramatic role but ebbs and flows with the vocal declamation on-stage.

Matthew Best succeeded in bringing an outstanding presence both vocally and dramatically to his Commendatore: every word was sung with a deeply chilling color and expert inflection, which arguably makes Best unrivaled in London for the excellence of his performance. Unfortunately, Paterson and Jeffery didn't quite have enough bite vocally: Giovanni's disgust-and fear-can emerge simply through well enunciated consonants, the slightest bit of vocal color, and a more, shall we say, nineteenth-century approach to declamation. Furthermore, both fell flat dramatically. Of course a contributing factor in this terrific failure of effectiveness could be that the low budget approach to recreating hell on-stage did not work.

Overall then, audiences are left with a well-sung production that has the ingredients to be great yet fails because all too often the characters' lack of motivation and, in general, the lack of theatrical consistency obstructs and trivializes its attempt at subversion. Alas, the search for a production concerned with serious amorality continues.

By Michael Migliore

Photos: Alastair Muir