Mozart: Don Giovanni

Glyndebourne Festival

Glyndebourne, 2 June 2011 3.5  stars

Lucas Meacham as Don Giovanni and In-Sung Sim as the Commandatore (Photo © Robbie Jack)Jonathan Kent's 2010 production of Don Giovanni has been very swiftly revived this season. Its original Don and conductor – Gerald Finley and Vladimir Jurowski – are presently engaged in matters Wagnerian, so American baritone Lucas Meachem heads the fine cast, while Robin Ticciati takes over in the pit.

Indeed, musically there's a great deal that's beyond reproach: water-tight ensemble, vividly exciting playing from the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, and each member of the cast very much in control of their role. The benefits of a performance generously rehearsed cannot be underestimated.

However, the whole show still falls a little way short of the overwhelming theatrical experience this opera should provide. And much of the responsibility for this lies with Kent's production, here revived by Lloyd Wood. In Paul Brown's designs, there's often some virtuosic stage craft to be seen. Mark Henderson's lighting is undoubtedly atmospheric, but veers consistently towards the gloomy.

A large grey cube forms the centrepiece, revolving and opening up to reveal a variety of interiors, exteriors, and large panels reproducing scenes of baroque sensuality, or closing its walls to leave the characters outside in the street. The 1950s costume, however, seems by the by, and the contemporary touches – the music in the dinner scene comes through a Bakerlite radio, Leporello has assembled his catalogue through the lens of a camera, there's some cycling about when the mob looks for the Don in Act Two – are hardly essential to the conception: one could put everyone back in seventeenth-century garb, I suspect, without too many clashes.

Don Giovanni (Photo © Robbie Jack)The set is used imaginatively in Act One, where it conjures up the Commandatore's house, the oppressive baroque interior of a church and a versatile space for the party. That party culminates with the sort of conflagration one might normally expect at the end of the second act.

Rather than raising the stakes after the interval, however, the production loses focus somewhat. The sense of place achieved in the first act is here sacrificed to more practical concerns, it seems, while any suspense at the Commandatore's arrival is lost when the dinner table is so obviously placed over what, a couple of scenes earlier, was his grave. Furthermore, his return as a sort of half-decomposed corpse is rather too reminiscent of Hollywood B movies (or was this, I wondered, a clever reference to the deficiencies of the 1950s movie monsters that provided a vernacular of horror at the time?). It's a shame that this production, like so many, fails to recognise the specifically baroque resonances of having a statue – a person's spirit supposedly embalmed and neutralized in cool marble – return to life; but I suppose it's one of the first things that has to be excised from any updating.

Nevertheless, Ticciati whipped up a dramatic storm at this moment, and Meachem's Don, displaying a remarkably vibrant top to the voice, captured the sudden shift to horror all too clearly. Throughout the rest of the evening, however, Meachem's performance was a little anonymous: cleanly and clearly sung though he is, this Don hardly oozes danger and sexual charisma. There are few complaints to be made about Matthew Rose's lightly comic Leporello, however, whose performance finds space for a great deal of subtlety amidst the buffo bluster.

Matthew Rose as Leporello and Miah Perrson as Donna Elvira (Photo © Robbie Jack)The Don's conquests are uniformly excellent, too. Albina Shagimuratova has a welcome, vibrant edge to her voice fierce vocal commitment – the remarkable extended introduction to 'Or sai chi l'onora', for example, was compellingly done. Miah Persson was no less fine as Donna Elvira. For her, the role's technical challenges hardly seemed to exist.

However, the blonde Persson – replacing last year's brunette Kate Royal in the role – clashes inadvertantly with the very deliberate 'blondeness' that defines Marita Solberg's Zerlina. There's not much innocence here, clearly, and the important delineation of class is deemed, as so often, unnecessary (or too inconvenient to evoke). It's a characterisation, however, that gives piquancy to her exchanges with David Soar's excellent, put-upon Masetto, as well as the 'Shaving Duet' with Leporello (one of the extras that comes with choosing the Vienna version of the score). Toby Spence, meanwhile, does what he can with Don Ottavio, turning in an excellent 'Dalla sua pace'. In-Sung Sim is a noble Commendatore, despite the make-up, and delivers the goods in the pivotal confrontation.

Ticciati's conducting is beautifully paced and dramatically intense, spritely but never rushed. No-one's going to leave feeling disappointed with the overall effect of this Don, I suspect, but with so musically strong a performance, it's a shame the production, while never really getting in the way, can't add more.   

By Hugo Shirley

A recording of the original 2010 production of Don Giovanni will be screened on 31 July at London's Science Museum and at Picturehouse cinemas across the country

Photos © Robbie Jack