English National Opera's admirable willingness to give theatre directors a break in the operatic world—a world still too often shrouded behind accusations of snobbery and an ivory-tower feeling of smug superiority—has brought both failure and success. If nothing else, however, it has brought to the Coliseum a feeling of experimentation and risk that is too often missing from the operatic establishment.
The stakes for this new Don Giovanni, directed by Rufus Norris, were high: Mozart's ambiguous masterpiece has stumped even the most experienced opera hands; while in the current economic climate ENO could probably do with an effective, box-office friendly production of such a favourite.
In the event, Norris's production is desperately disappointing, and he seems to have sorely misunderstood or underestimated the challenge. There are hints of a refreshing iconoclastic attitude to Mozart's 'Classic'—rather too obviously in the crucified Christ T-shirts and Halloween masks worn by the Don's minions—but no coherent sense of what Norris is trying to say with the work, let alone why. An interview with him and his designer, Ian MacNeil, in the programme is revealing. Norris exclaims, referring to the Coliseum 'I think it's a good idea to David and Goliath yourself against the big classics in one of the huge spaces', while we are told that he and his colleague 'have been immersing themselves in various DVDs and recordings of the opera'. MacNeil notes that the opera, 'follows classic Aristotelian lines'; it's an assertion that, somewhat paradoxically, is used to justify the slight re-ordering of numbers in the second act.
These three statements can perhaps be used to offer an explanation of how Mozart's opera could come across as so diffuse, dramatically inert and, in terms of design, unremittingly unattractive. The challenge of the Coliseum's large stage was occasionally met with the superfluous introduction of extras to underline the dramatic point of this or that aria, while the set was made up from several pieces of scenery on wheels, pushed around to produce a variety of configurations. Yet while the constantly shifting set seemed to betray a desire to cast each new number in a different space, there was litlte sense of time or location, a moment of scenic cohesion for the final scene of Act One notwithstanding. There were touches of dystopian future, seventies retro and everything in between. Maybe it was an attempt at creating a sense of Aristotelian universality, but the effect was more one of unrelated specificity. A series of ideas culled from those DVD recordings, it seemed, had been brought together in a brain-storming session and made their way into the production without the necessary, intermediate stage of melding them into a coherent vision of the work.
The greatest miscalculation, perhaps, was to overplay the comedy in such broad, crude terms. For this, Jeremy Sams's knockabout translation is equally culpable. Eyebrows will surely be raised at his total rewriting of Leporello's catalogue aria to allow the accompanying slideshow of spreadsheets summarizing the Don's performance from month to month. But this is not the main issue, although any link between this dig at management speak and the rest of the production is obscure. For, while the translation provides cheap laughs throughout the evening, it is also charged with suddenly and unexpectedly imbuing the Don with emotional depth for his Serenade. Here it is re-cast to portray longing for a lost loved one—'the one I miss the most, the ghost who's haunting me'—as the Don slumps against kitschy projections of idealized female beauty. (Claus Guth had recast the Serenade similarly, but with greater economy and intensity, in his recent Salzburg Festival production). Here the attempt to persuade us to care is too calculated; it's too little, too late. The translation, moreover, reverts to type in the dinner scene, undercutting Mozart's drama with its trite couplets.
Amidst such confusion, Norris's major idea seems to be that of the Don generating a sense of electricity through the force of his personality. A suspended metal structure dangles above the action throughout the evening, occasionally sparking into life, and is lowered during the dinner scene to for the Don to be electrocuted. This artificial device, however, served only to underline the lack of electricity on stage and in the pit. Kirill Karabits conducted a tidy and efficient account of the score, with a tendency towards fast tempos. There was some excellent playing from the woodwind, but the string sound was simply too small, and an amplified harpsichord overpowered the texture in Elvira's 'Ah, fuggi', while all I could hear at the Commendatore's final entrance was the timpani. The recitatives, meanwhile, aimed at a conversational naturalness but were laboured.
Fresh from his turn as Gounod's devil, Iain Paterson turns in a Don that is sung very pleasantly. That, of course, is not enough; dramatically he tries hard, but he is fatally short on charisma, lacking both in voice and stage presence the dangerous edge that is central to the character, most of all if, as in Norris's vision, he is to be the performance's dramatic dynamo. Brindley Sherratt can call upon his fluidly produced bass to make a favourably impression vocally, but his lank-haired Leporello is not a terribly sympathetic creation. There's a fair amount of excitement from the ladies, not least in Katherine Broderick's Donna Anna: the voice is capable of some thrilling sounds, but can turn shrill and sharp above the stage. Sarah Redgwick stepped in for an indisposed Rebecca Evans as Donna Elvira and was immediately impressive, even if she tired towards the end of the evening. Sarah Tynan turned in attractively sung and acted Zerlina, but her Masetto, John Molloy, was unfairly burdened with a non-descript regional accent—ENO should really try and move beyond accents functioning as a facile shorthand for class. Robert Murray, given 'Dalla sua pace' but denied 'Il mio tesoro', sang fluidly, while Matthew Best was suitably implacable as the Commendatore.
By Hugo Shirley
Photos © Donald Cooper